I will never forget the last time Beanz was home alone. I had left early for work and my housemate had taken Beanz for a walk, settled her in her room with a stuffed Kong, and turned on Beanz’s special TV channel. She had left Beanz safe and sound. On my return from work, as I reached the bottom of our garden and opened the gate I was horrified to find Beanz at the top of the pathway trembling with fear, blood splattered on her paws and around her mouth. My heart sank. Somehow she had managed a Colditz-style escape through two doors – the bedroom door and the security door. From the time of my housemate’s departure to my return, Beanz had been home alone for only 20 minutes. Still in shock, I vowed to find a solution to the separation anxiety that had petrified our poor pup.
When I first suspected Beanz had separation anxiety, I was in denial. How could this be? Was it my fault Beanz was struggling? Had I loved her too much? Should I have made her sleep on the floor? Was I molly coddling her by not leaving her to ‘get over it’? How could I be a dog trainer and have a pup with separation anxiety? I had let Beanz down and felt I had let my housemate down – what had I done wrong?
The signs of separation anxiety had been small to begin with, almost unnoticeable, but escalated very quickly. Initially, for home alone time, Beanz stayed in the downstairs bedroom. I made sure that Beanz’s room was what I thought was an awesome place for her. I had built her home alone time up in tiny steps, and always paired departures with a tasty Kong or food toy to keep her occupied. I had followed recommended guidelines but to no avail. In North America it is thought that 20% of the nation’s 80 million dogs have separation anxiety. Having followed to the letter what I had thought to be proficient advice from when Beanz had been a tiny puppy, I didn’t expect to become a statistic.
Beanz’s separation anxiety was life changing. Until we had some kind of resolve we could not leave Beanz at home. Going to the shops, going to work or going to the vet’s with one of our other dogs had to be planned with military precision to ensure she was never left. We desperately needed help!
Talking with several colleagues, I realised that many did not like working with separation anxiety because the general consensus was that the prognosis was poor. At that point no one I knew had any hands on experience or resolution on separation anxiety cases. I turned back to the Internet for help.
Returning to the same training plan that I had followed when Beanz was a pup I attempted to rebuild home alone time in small increments. Despite following the plan precisely, five weeks later I had only succeeded in being two steps away from Beanz. Each time I placed one foot on the staircase, Beanz would stop eating, push past me and run upstairs like she was fleeing for her life. I changed rooms to start afresh. The kitchen would be her new ‘safe’ place. But it just wasn’t working. It felt as if she was reading my mind and if I just thought about exiting the room she would panic. Seeing her so distressed was soul destroying. In short, I gave up.
A year on, a colleague suggested that I contacted Malena. I learnt that Malena had dedicated her career to working with separation anxiety cases. The fact that Malena and her team of Certified Separation Anxiety Trainers (CSATs) lived in a different country didn’t matter. In fact, when working with separation anxiety dogs, the process is more efficient if the trainer/behaviourist does not come to your home to ensure that the environment is as normal as possible when practising absence rehearsals. During our first conversation I was given hope. I hadn’t felt this before. Treating separation anxiety was possible and I booked in for coaching straightaway.
Lisa, one of Malena’s staff members, completed our initial assessment and after that we worked together for a month. Her much needed support was amazing, and within a few weeks of following tailored plans for Beanz called ‘Missions’, we had a 15 second absence outside of the front door. Wow! To some that may not sound much but it was a monumental moment for us. Ecstatic with what we were seeing and encouraged by Lisa’s incredible coaching, I felt I had enough tools to continue the desensitization program myself. Then things took a slight twist.
The lady who owned the rescue from where we had adopted Beanz suddenly passed away. She had around 70 dogs in her care including Beanz’s sister Kiz. The thought of where Kiz might end up tugged on our heart strings. What if she had separation anxiety, too? Could we help her? Needless to say, Kiz became a permanent member of our household.
Kiz did have separation anxiety. For the first few days, Kiz couldn’t cope with being out of the sight of whomever was left at home. If one of us left to go shopping or to work, Kiz would turn into an inconsolable trembling wreck. Beanz’s separation anxiety Missions got put on hold. First and foremost we needed to build up Kiz’s confidence, then tackle her separation anxiety. Over the next few months seeing Kiz grow in confidence and start to love life again was a beautiful thing to witness, but our thoughts soon turned to the separation anxiety problem. Would we ever be able to leave them? I was frantically trying to push down the thought that regularly crept into my head: “Do we really need to work through their separation anxiety?” The routine of never leaving them home alone was well rehearsed and was becoming an ingrained habit. On the other hand they were young dogs and the idea of not being able lead a normal life for the next ten plus years was disheartening, and we didn’t want them to suffer. Despite my own indecisiveness about whether we were going to ever leave our dogs home alone again, I craved to learn more about this life altering condition that unequivocally effects both dogs and guardians with devastating consequences for both.
A few months earlier I had been accepted onto the CSAT course. Within the first two weeks I decided to get back on track with the Missions. After reading the success stories that Malena and her team shared, I knew we could do it! In late October 2017 we started to work with Malena again. Despite gaining my CSAT qualification I recognised that to get through this we needed her steadfast support.
Four months on and we have had many successes. To date we have had one 30 minute absence, one 20 minute absence and other absences with both dogs sleeping peacefully. The training has been more challenging because there are two of them, and they certainly add their own entertainment value. On some days Beanz sleeps peacefully during our absence rehearsals and Kiz is wide awake; other weeks they swap roles. We have also had days where they play like loonies, or when they would much rather be outside sunbathing on the veranda. I have learned to accept each absence for what it is, and our Missions are work in progress.
The fact that Kiz, who was brought up in an entirely different environment, also has separation anxiety made me realise that separation anxiety is not necessarily something that you can prevent from puppyhood.
My aspiration is to support guardians whose dogs are suffering from separation anxiety. I want to give them the same hope that was given to me. Finding Malena, her team of CSATs and becoming a CSAT was written in the stars! Without them we would not be where we are today. They have changed many lives for the better, both human and canine, and I am extremely proud to be a part of the CSAT team.
For Beanz and Kiz, the future looks promising. We are confident that the day will come when we can leave our house knowing that they are safe, sound and happy, home alone. Three years ago separation anxiety seemed like fixing the impossible and although our journey is far from over I know in my heart of hearts that we will make it.