By Dr Kang Nee, cheerfuldogs.com
CPDT-KA, CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer), CPACP (Certified Professional Animal Care Provider), Low Stress Handling Certified Silver.
This is the story of a brave woman, Yvonne, and her equally brave Singapore Special, Princess. Yvonne had adopted two-year-old Princess from the SPCA Singapore in April 2014. Aware that Princess was noise-sensitive and dog-dog reactive, Yvonne embarked on the behaviour modification programme with me, to address these challenges. Little did she expect that she would have to rise to extraordinary heights to help Princess overcome an even greater and more distressing challenge.
“It is odd to recall life before separation anxiety. The training programme was straightforward on paper, but consumed life so swiftly and in such unexpected ways, it felt like I was suddenly plunged into a different life.
The first year was filled with a sense of entrapment in my own home, cancelled appointments, shirked obligations and perpetual juggling of dog-sitting schedules. Without exaggeration, the one thing that made it possible was the humbling extent of generosity, support and encouragement I received, for which I am truly thankful.
On occasion I was asked if all this was worth it, and it was a surprisingly easy answer when I imagined the life of a dog with separation anxiety: imagine your worst phobia, your absolute worst, one you would jump through a glass window or tear down a door to escape from, one that could make you scream for hours or throw up in fear, and then imagine facing it for ten hours daily. It is hard to compare any of my inconveniences to that.
It has been a rough road, but I got a chance to return a fraction of the love and loyalty that Princess shows me all day, every single day.”
what separation anxiety is not
To understand what separation anxiety is, one has to know what it is not. A dog who is suffering from separation anxiety, is not being angry, spiteful or disobedient to get back at its guardians for leaving it alone. It is not acting out to seek attention, or for want of “pack leadership”. And separation anxiety is not a condition that a dog can “get over” on its own.
what is separation anxiety?
The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that 15% of the 72 million dogs in the United States suffer from some level of separation anxiety. Dogs with “milder” symptoms, such as whining, pacing and intermittent barking are often untreated, and continue to go through a daily ordeal of heightened anxiety. Those with severe symptoms, such as prolonged barking and howling, escapism, significant destructive chewing of property and self-mutilation, are not always so lucky as to remain in their current homes. They face a fate where they may be relinquished to a shelter to wait an uncertain future. For others, euthanasia is a potential and sadly common outcome.
Separation anxiety is a behaviour disorder, where a dog is terrified of being left alone, and it is not something that the dog is able to control. The exact cause(s) of separation anxiety are not defined, but like many behaviour disorders, genetic, physiological and environmental factors may play a role. The onset of separation anxiety may be triggered by, for example, a frightening experience when the dog had been left alone, relocation, changes in the family, a traumatic incident, or because the dog had been regularly left alone for excessively long periods of time. Dogs who are particularly anxious, noise-sensitive or have been rehomed multiple times, may be predisposed to developing separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety (SA) dogs display a range of external behaviours, and the specific behaviours shown vary from individual to individual. They are hyper-vigilant and watch their guardians carefully for signs of their leaving. When left alone, they may bark, whine or howl incessantly, drool and pant excessively, and eliminate when they are usually reliable in their house-training. They may damage doors and windows as they scrabble or gnaw at the structures to escape, or injure themselves in the attempt, ripping out nails or breaking teeth.
Internally, an SA dog is in a constant state of panic – its body is flooded with stress-inducing chemicals, it becomes incapable of coping with being home alone.
Imagine if you were mortally afraid of water and you were thrown into the deep end of a pool. That utter terror of drowning is analogous to the panic that an SA dog experiences, every day that it is left alone at home.
what about the human?
Resentment, anger, frustration, incomprehension, distress, heartbreak – these are the emotions that swirl endlessly in the minds and hearts of guardians of SA dogs. Incomprehension – after all, we always come back, so why is Fido anxious? Anger and frustration – when they return to a scene of costly destruction and angry complaints from neighbours. Heartbreak – when they finally understand what their dog is going through daily, and tough decisions have to be made.
In the case of Yvonne, she was initially unaware of Princess’ separation anxiety – there were no complaints from the neighbours, Princess appeared to be happy when Yvonne returned from work, and all seemed normal. One day, she noticed raw patches of skin on Princess’ front paws, and found bloodstains on the floor by the front door. A videocam captured the full extent of Princess’ panic in the 8-10 hours she was home alone each day. Within one minute of Yvonne’s departure, Princess whined and paced between the front door and a bedroom. She stood or laid by the front door and scrabbled frantically at the door for minutes at a time. Panting heavily, she paced again, rarely settling for more than a few seconds before the entire scene repeated itself until Yvonne returned, like a video caught in an infinite loop. When Yvonne returned, Princess greeted her with wild delirium. Her body language indicated that she was not just excited, she was highly stressed.
empathy, commitment, resilience.
The path to resolving separation anxiety is a journey that seldom marches along in a straight line to success. It dips, climbs, twists and turns like a roller-coaster track. This is a natural part of the learning process for any dog, and even more so for an SA dog. It calls for Herculean levels of empathy, commitment and resilience from an SA dog guardian.
Evaluating a dog for separation anxiety begins with ruling out other possible causes for the behaviours shown, e.g. are the potty accidents due to incomplete house training? Is the dog barking in a crate because of confinement distress or because it has not been crate trained appropriately (see Nee Kang, “Slaying the Crate Monster”, SPCA Bulletin, Oct – Dec 2013 Issue)? Does the dog receive sufficient and appropriate physical exercise and mental enrichment to rule out boredom-related behaviours? For senior dogs, is canine cognitive dysfunction a contributing factor?
Once separation anxiety is identified, each training session is crafted to set the dog up to succeed as its guardian(s) execute their planned departures and absences. This is done through a process of systematic desensitisation designed to keep the dog below its anxiety threshold when the guardian(s) leaves the house. If the dog is kept below its anxiety threshold, it will not panic and therefore, it will not exhibit the undesired behaviours. Over time, it begins to relax during the guardian’s absence.
In Princess’ case, her initial anxiety threshold was below one minute, thus we started with Yvonne making extremely short absences of a few seconds. We also identified those actions made by Yvonne (known as pre-departure cues) which provided salient signs to Princess that Yvonne was about to leave, e.g. picking up her bag and keys, opening and closing the front door, locking it, the sound of her putting on her shoes, the sound of her departing footsteps, the sound of the elevator, etc, and weaved these salient pre-departure cues into the training sessions.
Based on Princess’ responses in a training session, the next session is designed to increase, decrease or maintain the duration of Yvonne’s next absence. The entire process is extremely dynamic, with Yvonne, Princess and I working closely as a team, almost on a daily basis. Our barometer of progress is Princess – her body language tells us if we are setting goals at an achievable level and pace for her.
Progress and success hinge on one extremely critical commitment from an SA dog guardian – an unbreakable “promise” that the guardian must not and will never leave her dog alone for a longer duration than it can handle.
Thus if today, an SA dog can only manage one minute being left alone at home without panicking, its guardian must not leave it alone for more than one minute. Over time, as the dog is able to consistently relax, the duration of the guardian’s absences is systematically increased in a way that ensures these increases do not trigger an anxious reaction from the dog. A guardian must also never take a huge leap in the training process, i.e. assuming that if their dog is able to cope with being alone for 30 minutes, that it will be “fine” if they leave it for one hour. When guardians take leaps in the training that are beyond what their SA dog can handle, they risk causing their dog to regress and panic again.
This requirement to suspend absences understandably causes consternation for any guardian – what about those times when they do have to leave the home to work, run errands, go to the gym, collect mail, meet friends for dinner, etc? How would they live their life, if they were never to leave their dog alone at home?
We come full circle to Yvonne’s heartfelt sense of “entrapment in her own home”, an emotional and financial toll which would have driven many dog guardians to abandon the training altogether. But despite ups and downs, Yvonne, and other SA dog guardians from around the world, have found it in themselves to dig deeper into their compassion, empathy and love for their dog to rise above and beyond the usual level of duty of care. They find ways to galvanise a support network that is akin to the best crowd-sourcing effort – a village of empathetic friends, family members, pet care professionals and volunteers to keep their SA dog company for those hours when they are absent from home. As a CSAT, I am part of this village for Yvonne and Princess – as trainer, strategist, personal coach and cheerleader. Together we ride out the rough bits and cheer when we cruise along.
For an SA dog like Princess, we do not yet know where the journey to resolving her separation anxiety would end. Princess has been making progress, and at the time of writing this story, she showed that she could be comfortable being left alone for 35 minutes. Some dogs overcome it faster than others and never look back. Other dogs need the help of medication to kick-start the learning process. Some dogs may need someone to be there to break up a long day. But as long as we work within the anxiety thresholds of each SA dog, we will see accumulative progress, resilience and improvement in the quality of life for both dog and guardian. Every success is celebrated because every tiny second or minute that becomes anxiety-free for an SA dog, means that the guardian is no longer completely house-bound. A 30-minute anxiety-free absence means that the guardian can grab a quick meal at the coffee shop downstairs, or take a short walk. A one-hour anxiety-free absence – a small world of possibilities begins to beckon.
For Yvonne, “The positive emotions that came with working with Princess’ separation anxiety were less conspicuous, so I was often taken by surprise by their depth and intensity. I felt pride and a sense of achievement at seeing this little dog conquer her fear in a way few of us would ever even attempt to do. I learned to treasure her every happy moment, and in turn I was happy too. Most of all, helping Princess taught me love and true acceptance – even if she struggles with what other dogs find easy, even if she is imperfect by that definition, Princess has always been the best dog in the world to me. Never had I expected to get as much as I gave to our separation anxiety training programme. To my surprise, it made my world a brighter place.”
For more information about separation anxiety – visit http://malenademartini.com
An extract of this story was published in The Pet Professional Guild’s “BARKS from the Guild, Issue No. 23, March 2017, pages 38-40” at https://issuu.com/petprofessionalguild/docs/bftg_mar_2017_online_opt
Dr Kang Nee, certified professional dog trainer (CPDT-KA), and certified separation anxiety trainer (CSAT), specializes in the treatment of canine separation anxiety. Together with separation anxiety expert, Malena DeMartini and a team of 36 CSAT colleagues around the world, Dr Kang hopes to alleviate the stress and frustration of SA dogs and their guardians.