This is a coming out story, but maybe not the kind you’d expect. This is a story of a dog trainer who couldn’t fix her own dog. There, I said it.
I know hair stylists don’t do their own hair, and teachers don’t instruct their own children in every subject, and certainly dentists don’t fill their own cavities (although Matt Damon will surely do this in an upcoming movie), but when you’re a dog trainer it’s different. It’s a point of pride that your dogs sit politely when guests come over, perform a few gravity-defying tricks, never eat their own poop, and certainly don’t have to be hauled around in the back of your car for months or years because they’re petrified of being alone.
It kind of speaks to your street cred. If you can’t help your own dog, maybe you don’t really know how to train, after all. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why it took me so long to hire another trainer. After two years of trying to help Bruce with his separation anxiety, my partner and I realized we needed help.
The Sad Back Story
We adopted Bruce knowing he had separation anxiety. When he was pulled out of a rural pound, he had worn grooves in his front teeth and bloodied his gums trying to escape from his chain-link kennel. A big-boned lab mix, he weighed just 45 pounds because with all his anxiety, he couldn’t keep food down.
After being pulled into rescue, Bruce failed in several foster families and two potential adoptive homes for destruction of curtains and couches, flaming diarrhea, commando-style counter-surfing, and repeated kennel breaks whenever he was left alone. A familiar, sad tale. Bless the heart of his last courageous, dedicated foster mom who saw him through the worst of it and creatively arranged her work and his life so he survived rescue.
Home At Last
We adopted Bruce with our eyes wide open. I was an aspiring dog trainer at the time, recognized separation anxiety as the panic disorder that it is, and had read everything I could put my hands on, for better or worse. Luckily I worked from home, so Bruce wouldn’t have to be alone while we trained him, and we felt confident that in very short order he would get better.
Our vet prescribed him fluoxetine and we were off to the races.
Unlike many other dogs with separation anxiety, Bruce will happily eat when he’s alone. In fact, he binge eats with the creativity of a raccoon. He will escape kennels, squeeze through the tiniest cat door, and break into locked cabinets to get at food. We started out using a confinement area well away from the kitchen. And that worked… until it didn’t. Carefully, over a couple of months, we desensitized him to our departure cues and got up to 45 minutes of happy sleeping in our absence. Imagine our delight. Then we watched the video camera in horror one day as Bruce woke up, pulled open the door (Whoops! Our old farmhouse door wasn’t latched properly), and partied on the contents of the dog treat cabinet.
After that, he was unwilling to stay in the confinement area for any length of time. Naturally.
Life After Regression
We rallied and started over, this time leaving him loose in the house with the kitchen door closed. But our morale had taken a serious blow.
Too many months and not enough practice later, we again watched the video camera in horror as Bruce scaled our built-in buffet, scratched open the panel that leads to the kitchen, and opened up an industrial-size pack of bully sticks. Maybe not the end of the world, but with raisins and other contraband stored nearby, it could have been much worse.
So we called up Malena for help and she, in turn, connected us with Lisa from Cold Nose College. We needed support. We needed a morale boost. We needed to do the protocol every day. We needed another set of eyes—objective ones—who could set a training strategy without an emotional filter. After all, years of living with a dog with a serious anxiety disorder changes you in subtle ways. You tune into their body language, take nothing for granted, monitor their diet religiously, and worry about every new behavior and whether it predicts a setback.
That’s what happens when the stakes are high. You sensitize to signals that may be meaningless to others. It’s exactly what our dogs are doing when they notice we’re wearing our work pants rather than our sweatpants, and start to fret.
Lisa is one of the loveliest, most graceful dog trainers I’ve ever met. It turns out with our help, Bruce already had strong foundational skills. And our hard work in the end paid off, big time. A few months later, we’re now in the reality phase of the training protocol. Bruce stays alone comfortably for up to 4 hours at a time, and I have to admit we don’t even check the remote camera anymore.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think I’m a remedial separation anxiety trainer. I’m blessed to have been trained by the best: Malena DeMartini and Jean Donaldson. I know what reasonless anxiety feels like. I can do detail. It’s that when things get complicated, emotional, wearisome, frustrating, and then go on forever, there’s nothing like an outside eye to help you navigate, sort the wheat from the chaff, stay focused and motivated.
Now I tell clients who are thinking about doing a DIY training process on separation anxiety that it takes three things: an understanding of incremental desensitization, a willingness to proceed at the dog’s pace (which always feels impossibly Stone Age), and a diligence that will carry you through the daily tedium. People with this last quality are the kind of people who show up at the gym every day, rain or shine—without a personal trainer—forego after-work drinks, and never eat granola bars with GMO ingredients. That’s just not me.
I like to think Bruce is like that Olympic-class athlete who got his very own coach.