One of my jobs is to serve as the initial point of contact for Malena DeMartini and the other trainers. In this job, I walk prospective clients through what a separation anxiety protocol will look like, take some history and empathize, empathize, empathize.
By and large, the people who inquire are people whose dogs have been suffering from separation anxiety for a while. They have managed their lives and their dogs, they have worked around the issue, they have tried to piece together solutions from internet advice for a long time. With approximately 17% of the dogs living in households in the US alone suffering, it’s clear none of them are alone. And yet, separation anxiety can be extremely isolating. It is also frustrating. Most of all, it’s heartbreaking. The thing I hear most often from people is, “I don’t want my dog to suffer like this anymore.” These are people who have “tried everything”. They have done their very best at trying to keep their dog secure, and still, nothing seems to work. My experience working with Malena has given me a window into why. Quite simply, it’s the Internet’s fault.
In an unexpected flash of insight a few weeks ago, I had a thought that has some relevance here. I used to be deathly afraid to fly. A few bad experiences left me panicky at the mere thought of getting on an airplane. I would force myself to fly to Florida, because it is a short trip, and would grip the hand of whichever poor soul was flying with me. For years, I went no place other than Florida and needed medication to get me through take-off and landing. If someone had said to me, “Here’s your favorite kind of ice cream, you LOVE this! Eat this during take-off and you’ll be fine!”, I’d have laughed at them. Of course eating ice cream would not get me through take-off. I was having full blown panic attacks! But, one of the most common things we hear about helping dogs with separation anxiety is to give them a stuffed Kong. Dogs love stuffed Kongs, so this must be good advice, right? Unfortunately, it’s incomplete (as most dogs with separation anxiety will not eat when alone, but will dive into that Kong as soon as their person returns home). And heartbreakingly so. It’s heartbreaking because it perpetuates the feeling in people that there is no hope. That they will have to continue living with a damaged home, angry neighbors, threats from landlords and a dog whose suffering is so great that he/she may cause bodily harm to themselves.
There are many other pieces of incomplete advice out there. To be clear, I don’t blame any one person or website for this advice. Separation anxiety is not easy. It can be hard for people to understand, especially at first. They bring a new puppy or adult dog into their lives and this is the last thing they expected. Internet advice often uses many of the right terms; “desensitization”, “graduated absences”, “threshold”, but does not go into enough detail on how to implement those things, and sometimes even what they mean. This incomplete information leaves many people spinning their wheels, sometimes for years. The terms I mention above are correct, however, they are sadly not complete.
Most people do not have a good understanding of dog body language, and we have many examples of that in memes and articles that go around the internet. Good articles about signs of fear in dogs and dog bite prevention abound, but, there are still many more that make those of us who have studied behavior cringe. In dogs with separation anxiety, the body language signs run from subtle (making it easy for the average dog owner to miss) to obvious. A good trainer (like Malena or one of her CSAT trainers) helps people understand what those signs are, so that they can avoid pushing their dog over that threshold mentioned above. The reason some of the information and images that are so widely available is cringe-worthy is because it’s clear many dogs are being pushed passed their threshold in many situations. Better information allows us to not make those same mistakes, whether we are talking about a dog with fear issues, a dog who doesn’t like to be hugged, educating children on how to properly interact with dogs and understanding anxiety issues, including separation anxiety, and how to treat them.
As a trainer, I have had the opportunity to treat dogs who were suffering from separation anxiety. Knowing what I know now, I likely could have treated cases with much more efficiency. Knowing what I know now, I will always refer people to Malena and her team of awesome CSATs. People have asked me why I don’t go through the CSAT program and the answer is simple. I like what I do for that team. I like talking to people who have tried to piece together solutions and helping them see that we can actually offer them a real one. I love the light bulb moments when they understand that increasing the amount of time doesn’t mean to go from 15 minutes to 30 minutes in a day. I love when they understand why the Kong didn’t work, or why their dog busts out of crates, or worse, windows or doors. I love when they realize that they are not alone. Most of all, I love when they take that deep sigh of relief and commit. Whether they commit because their landlord is threatening to evict them or because they know their dog is suffering doesn’t really matter. What matters is that by going through this protocol, they and their dogs can live better lives. There is light at the end of the tunnel for people who have likely been living in a very dark place.
Many of our colleagues refer clients directly to us. I love that. Not because I don’t want other trainers to treat dogs with separation anxiety, but because they understand that in terms of expertise, Malena and her team can’t be beat. Separation anxiety is a specialty. It is not for every trainer. But, for those it is, it can be more than a job. It can be a passion. It’s become one for me. It has increased my level of empathy and made me that much more determined to get good information out there. People whose dogs suffer from separation anxiety are a dedicated bunch. I’m grateful that there are people who are so dedicated to helping them.