Emma’s Separation Anxiety Story: Epilogue

“Tracy Krulik — You cured your dog’s separation anxiety. What are you going to do next?”

“I’m going to Disney World!!!!!”

It’s true! I really did cure Emma’s separation anxiety, and in a couple of weeks I will be heading to Orlando. I’m actually going down for the Pet Professional Guild’s annual summit, where I plan to learn, laugh, and play and spend a little time with my boy Mickey the Mouse.

But I’ve been reflecting a lot about the fact that it took us more than two years to cure poor Ems of this phobia, and so I wanted to share my takeaways to help other dogs recover more quickly.

Ems is not your normal sep anx dog. She wasn’t just afraid of being left alone, she was also afraid of leaving the house, car rides, other dogs, various floor surfaces, kids, etc. And she had some pretty serious physical issues, which exacerbated the problem. Because of all this, I realize now, Emma gave me no room for error. I had do the training absolutely perfectly, or things fell apart.

Let’s go issue by issue:

Desensitization for the win

Before I turned to Malena DeMartini for her expertise on separation anxiety, I tried Thundershirts, food toys, relaxation down-stay protocols, soft music, therapeutic massage, etc., but none of that worked. Not only did it not help Emma, but her behavior actually got worse. She progressed from barking, howling, and pacing to peeing on the carpet, to peeing on the couch, and eventually to chewing the doorframe.

The formula that finally worked was this: gradually leave her alone for longer and longer periods of time and suspend all other absences.

It might sound crazy to you to hear that we never left Emma alone except during training missions, but we really had no other choice. Our options were:

  1. Do it right and keep Emma and our home safe.
  2. Say “Ah screw it, let’s just put a cover on the couch. She’ll still be suffering, but at least we can save our couch.”
  3. Send Emma back to the shelter or find her another home.

Well, if you know Hubz and me, you know that our only true option was no. 1. We used the same method psychologists use to help people overcome their fears of spiders, needles, heights, etc., to help Emma overcome her fear of being alone.

Mix up absence durations

Emma, like most dogs, is a smart cookie. She can figure out patterns, and she did. It wasn’t enough for us to say, “Wow! Emma nailed that five-minute absence yesterday. Let’s push to seven-minutes tomorrow!” After a few days of thinking like that, Emma started to figure out what we were doing and rather than continue to succeed, she actually became more anxious.

So, instead of thinking day-to-day on Emma’s training plans, we looked at it as week-to-week.

Once a week we assessed how long Emma could handle, and then we varied up absence times each day to keep her from discovering a pattern. Here’s an example:

  • Assessment: Emma nailed a 30-minute absence.
  • Day 1: 15-minute absence (give her a nice win after such a big push the day before)
  • Day 2: 30 minutes
  • Day 3: 20 minutes
  • Day 4: day off
  • Day 5: 35 minutes
  • Day 6: 18 minutes
  • Day 7: day off

And then do a new assessment the next day.

This formula worked like magic. Ems never figured out a pattern, and so we were able to go to 40 minutes the next week, then 55, then more than an hour, then an hour and a half and up and up to where we are today: 4.5 HOURS!!!!! (When we started Emma’s training, she fell apart at 10 seconds, so MORE THAN FOUR HOURS? ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?!)

Embrace behavioral supplements and medications

I was totally against using anxiety and antidepressant medications, and boy was I wrong. I thought they would turn Ems into a zombie, or that she would just sleep all day. Nope. When we eventually worked with our vet to find the right combination of supplements and meds, Ems started feeling better emotionally, which meant her shroud of panic was lifted, and she could finally learn what I was working so hard to teach her.

It’s true, though, that her personality did change. But it changed for the better. Emma was happier, goofier, more confident, and more fun after we started her new medications. And when she did sleep, she looked far more relaxed.

If you also have concerns about using meds, check out this wonderful blogpost Malena wrote. I wish I had read it two years ago.

Track data

You think dog training is all belly rubs and kisses? Well, sure, there’s a lot of that too (yay!), but when done correctly, dog training runs like a laboratory experiment.

We logged every detail of Emma’s life in a spreadsheet so that we could look for patterns when Emma had bad or good days. Do you know what we figured out? That’s right: The Number One Rule of Emma. When Emma doesn’t feel well, she gets scared.

One of our separation anxiety trainers, Casey McGee, figured out how to “operationalize” Emma’s pain. Ems had two ailments that seemed to factor into her emotional health: allergies and arthritis (two of the Three A’s of Emma — with the third being “anxiety,” of course). We started counting days between treatments for both issues and found the sweet spot: If Ems got a cold-laser treatment for her arthritis twice a week and an anal gland expression twice a month, she didn’t get scared being alone.

This is probably the most important piece of the puzzle we call Emma the Beagle. Without tracking the data and finding the “physical health” component, I’d still be hiring baby sitters for Ems any time I wanted to go to Whole Foods.

Success does not follow a straight line

Regressions and plateaus happen. With every dog.

If Hubz and I knew that up front, we might have been better able to handle these dips and valleys when they came. Sometimes the dog just has an off day.

It’s like working out at the gym. Sometimes I feel superhuman and can lift anything my trainer throws at me; other times I feel like a slug and start chatting about last night’s singers on The Voice to distract my trainer from his mission of torturing me.

I am a thinking and feeling being who has good days, bad days, amazing days, and meh days. So is Emma.

It’s all information. Give me some bad training days, Pupz, so that I can figure out what factors might contribute to them. That will help me raise the odds that you’ll have more and more fantastic days. (See “track data” above.)

Take care of yourself too

So here we are, more than two years since we started using the desensitization protocol and more than three years since we figured out that Emma was scared, and we tried all those other methods that didn’t work. In some ways I feel like I have PTSD. I still feel anxious, myself, leaving Ems alone in the house, and I quickly check the video on my phone to make sure she hasn’t forgotten everything she has learned.

But do you see the picture on top of this post? That’s what Ems looks like after we leave the house. She finds a comfy spot, and she goes to sleep. She’s been doing this for months.

One day I hope to feel the same peace that Emma does when I leave her home alone. For now, I’m gradually increasing how much time I can go without checking the video feed to make sure she’s ok. And like Ems did, I’ll get there too.

Thank you Ems, for teaching me compassion, empathy, and patience. I’m so excited that I am now helping other dogs overcome their separation anxiety too. We all owe it to you, ETB. You’re one amazing (and, no longer, anxious) Beagle.


6 comments on “Emma’s Separation Anxiety Story: Epilogue

  1. My dog too has seperation anxiety I can’t leave a room without him following me I have been shuting doors but hard in a one bed flat. My lhasa will bark, howels, circles ,pants and will poop if I go in parents car with the dog and I get out for 2 min the dog goes mad without me he’s scared of fireworks and now associates the dark with them so won’t go for a walk it’s so hard I have to take buddy to my parents one night a week so I can go shopping there was a funeral last week and my son had to stay with the dog I’ve tried thundershirt zyclaine tabs and pet remedy I’ve ordered a adaptil collar I’m as stressed as the dog at the moment need help

    • Hi Alison,

      I’m so sorry to hear that you are going through this. I have been EXACTLY where you are. Separation anxiety is incredibly stressful for both the pups and the people they live with.

      I do all of my separation anxiety training remotely — even for people who live near me. It’s best to see the dog without a trainer in the house so that we can see how he looks on a normal day. So, I could work with you if you are interested in hiring a trainer. I have more information about the program on my website: http://www.tracykrulik.com/separation-anxiety.html

      If you’re interested in learning more, just fill out the information form on that page, and I’ll set up a complementary 30-minute consultation.

      You’re already ahead in the game by the mere fact that you understand that your pup is suffering and you are finding ways to give him company so that he doesn’t have to be alone and afraid. Trust me when I say there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We have helped so many dogs using this desensitization protocol. There is hope!

      All my best,

    • We have had Jake seven years (from As Good As Gold Golden Retriever Rescue in Illinois).
      We have worked on all of his problems related to separation anxiety, and he is good most of the time. However, if we both leave the house, he will bark and then howl.
      He came to us medicated with 8 and 1/2 pills per day. He is now down to one pill per day.

      Finding triggers is important, and can’t be done in the beginning, because the dog is in a constant state of distress, even though there is no separation. There might be separation, so the dog is anxious all of the time.

      We determined that Jake was being fed too much of a low-protein prescription food. So he would have to go outside frequently. He also had diarrhea, which our vets treated, and gave him some heavy duty probiotics, which we continued for a while, and then restarted when symptoms returned.

      The surprise was that the main trigger was missing dinner when it started to get dark outside. Apparently that would get the anxiety kicked up to a high level.

      While this may seem easy in hindsight, it took years to accomplish being able to leave him at home in the evening. (He gets dinner at 4 p.m.)

      Going back to the very beginning, we could only leave him alone for less than a minute at a time, and that was being left alone with one person. We would pick up our keys, go to the door, say “I’ll be back soon.” , throw something in the trash can, and come right back in. We gradually lengthened the intervals, and included going out to the garage, or the mailbox, or even getting in the car. Eventually we could leave him home alone (with his 2 canine housemates) in the day time.

      There is always hope, and working on a little something at a time will help.

      (By the way,, we found out that listening to classical music would send him into a frenzy. Apparently his previous family had tried this when they left him home alone and it did not work at all.)

  2. I’m just tickled that I have ” normal” mutts! I do have a cat, 5, who still doesn’t like people. We recently had company inc little people. For 2 days, he was wary of coming in the house, hung out side a good part of the day. When finally did come in, he’d eat & head back outside. We live in the country on a large property so no problems with other animals. All my pets spend a big part of the day inside & of course, sleep indoors, in our bed. Lol He’s getting to be a real Mama’s boy!

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