There’s something symbolic about the remarkable rainstorm that is the backdrop of Ron and Dina as we talk on Skype; the two of them in Florida, me in California. I watch the exasperated faces of Hannah the Beagle’s guardians as they tell me how cruelly their beloved dog suffers when she’s left alone.
It’s a sadly familiar story to any dog trainer. Initially, Ron and Dina left Hannah in a crate as the rescue organization they got her from had suggested. For a few weeks they had no idea there was a problem. They live in a fairly rural area of Florida and no one was close enough to hear Hannah bark. One day, a crew that was working on nearby street maintenance left a note saying they had heard her barking nonstop. So Ron and Dina videotaped Hannah and were shocked to see that she barked and howled and clawed desperately the entire time they were gone.
Thinking she didn’t like her crate, they left her free in the house and began by leaving for short intervals of 20 or 30 minutes. Because she seemed OK with this they went back to their routine of errands and events away from home. But, even though they left her for only a few hours at a time, it soon became apparent that Hannah was not handling these absences well. She was back to scratching and chewing the doorframe and tearing at the carpeting. They were fed up and didn’t understand her behavior at all.
“Why,” Ron asks me, “does Hannah not understand by this point that we are coming back? Shouldn’t she just get it?”
This is my cue for a discussion that lays the foundation for Hannah’s treatment and chances for an anxiety-free life. I explain that when dealing with a panic disorder, logic doesn’t apply. If you have sat on a plane next to a person with a serious fear of flying, you might catch a glimpse of what a panic disorder looks like. No logical argument will assuage such overwhelming anxiety. Explaining that the plane is mechanically safe and that statistics show we are much more likely to be injured in a car accident than in flight does nothing.
Separation anxiety is a phobia of being left alone—fear of abandonment. Children often experience separation anxiety and while more treatment options exist for children because of their advanced cognitive ability and speech capacity, the underlying disorder is virtually identical to that in dogs. Being alone is a terrifying experience that nothing rational will soothe.
Getting Ron and Dina to recognize that Hannah wasn’t acting the way she was because she’s spoiled or stubborn or dumb, but because she’s in the grasp of an overpowering panic attack was the first step. The next was to prepare them for what it would take to get her better: not leaving her alone, at least not for a good while yet.
“Imagine,” I said, “that you’re entering a contract with Hannah. You hold out your hand and shake her paw and tell her that in order to help her, you’ll promise not to leave her alone for longer than she can handle comfortably.”
Then I walk them through the ins and outs of a separation desensitization plan that starts with 5-second absences and builds from there. The repetitions, the close observation, the excruciatingly small increments we’ll have stick to in order to build Hannah’s confidence that alone time won’t kill her.
Like most people, Ron and Dina reach a crucial fork in the road at this point. It’s obvious from their faces what they are thinking: that, at this rate, they won’t be able to leave Hannah alone for any appreciable duration until the year 2027.
That’s when I give them the good news. The snail’s pace progress I have been describing is typically only necessary in the initial stages of a separation anxiety protocol. Once we get to a few minutes, the absence game usually becomes easier for the dog, and then we’re able to increase in larger increments. Three minutes becomes 8 and 8 becomes 15 and before you know it, we’re at 30 and 42 and then several hours.
So much of separation anxiety treatment is about dealing with emotions: the fear and irrationality of the dog, the hopelessness and frustration of the guardians. But logic does enter the equation in the reassuring framework of scientific training methods—and in the useful metaphor of the contract. As any advocate worth her salt would, I bring up the small print.
“Remember: You can’t break the contract.”
I give them an example in which we have built Hannah up to an hour’s absence when they get a call from a dear friend who’s in town and wants to have coffee. It’s a 50-minute round trip to get there and Ron and Dina know they’ll want at least 30 minutes or more to catch up. But Hannah has been doing so well lately that they decide to go anyway. And she is fine, for the first hour. However, at 70 minutes, she is up, wandering the house. Five minutes later she is pacing and whining, and by the time she hits the 90-minute mark, she is in a full-blown panic and regresses to scratching at the door and howling.
As awful a scenario as that is for Hannah, it’s worse for the guardians who, figuratively speaking, broke the original contract. Because tomorrow or the next day when they practice an absence with Hannah, she may not be OK with the designated hour. Her trust has been broken. Very few relationships suffer a broken promise well and dogs are no different.
Fortunately for Hannah, her parents didn’t give up on her. Ron and Dina patiently worked through a systematic and gradual training protocol, and their commitment—and fidelity to their contract with Hannah—paid off.