A couple from Ypsilanti experience the value of separation anxiety training for both them and their Goldendoodle.
Kathryn Taylor and Eric Lagergren adopted Willa in June of 2017, becoming her third—and final—home in just 18 months. Given her history of rehoming, the information included on her surrender paperwork, and the details offered by the person who was fostering her, they knew Willa would need some work. But they were confident that with positive reinforcement training and consistency, Willa would blossom into an amazing part of their family. They felt up to the task—that is until they tried to leave Willa at home the first time. Kathryn picks up the story…
As soon as we stepped outside, Willa began whining, pawing at the gate, and frantically running from room to room. She was clearly in the throes of a full-blown panic attack. Although we were pretty experienced dog people, we knew that this wasn’t something we could tackle alone, so we met with an animal behaviorist within a week of bringing Willa home. This behaviorist gave us a lot of resources, talked about desensitization and counter-conditioning, and suggested some puzzle toys to keep Willa busy and distracted during our absences. She also suggested that we explore medication for Willa since she was exhibiting signs of generalized anxiety, too (tail chasing, excessive grooming, hyper-vigilance).
So, it was off to see the veterinarian behaviorist, who officially diagnosed Willa with separation anxiety and generalized anxiety with compulsive tendencies. After a bit of experimentation with that vet, we found a mix of medications that helped Willa relax and overcome a lot of her anxious and fear-based behaviors. Sadly, it did little for her separation anxiety.
This is when the desperation set in. We tried everything. We bought every puzzle toy available and stuffed them with the most delightful high-value treats (liverwurst, anyone?). We decked out a room for containment with toys, a snuffle mat, calming music, and a comfortable bed. We worked on a relaxation protocol. We attempted graduated departures with tiny increments of time. We used a thunder shirt. We sprayed calming flower essences on everything. We covered our windows with translucent film. We even hired an animal communicator. Needless to say, none of this solved Willa’s separation anxiety. Frankly, we didn’t know how to structure our departures to set Willa up for success and we couldn’t easily assess her limits. In our fumbling around, we were always worried we were doing more harm than good.
After six months of these fraught and stressful failed attempts, we were exhausted and simply resigned ourselves to never leaving Willa home alone. Thankfully, she was thriving at daycare, so we were able to manage our work lives. And we had wonderful friends who understood that Willa had to be a part of any gathering. It was inconvenient, but Willa was worth it.
Of course, we still longed for the day that Willa could feel safe enough to be home alone. So, in June of 2018, I attended a seminar on separation anxiety at Fido Dog Training. I was so encouraged by what I learned that day and almost immediately followed up with Jane Wolff, a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer. Jane became a true partner and guide in our work to help Willa gain confidence enough to stay home alone.
When we started our work with Jane, we couldn’t even approach the door without Willa running full speed to beat us to it. If we opened it a crack, she tried to squeeze right past us. Slowly though, with Jane’s expert guidance and systematic and deliberate desensitization, Willa became less and less interested in the door. The first time we stepped outside for 30 seconds while Willa remained on the sofa felt like such a triumph. But that was soon surpassed by longer absences. Then we were able to drive away in the car. And now we can stay away for 3 hours and Willa mostly just snoozes on the sofa.
Our work with Jane is a big commitment, but one that is paying off in such amazing ways. Willa is not only able to handle being home alone for pretty long stretches but is also calmer and more confident overall. Since she doesn’t have to waste all of that energy tracking our movements and wondering if we’re headed toward the door, she can focus more on what really matters: games of tug, batting kibble out of her treat ball, pouncing on her stuffed pig, and napping.
We’d like to thank Jane Wolff for her amazing work with Willa. For more information about Jane and her separation anxiety services, please visit the following website: