Someone once said, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” As I reflect on our journey—Holly’s and my husband’s and mine—I have to disagree. It’s about both. Breaking that tape is as important as how we got to the finish line. But yes, I concede, the journey to get there was undeniably transformative. All those months ago, we just wanted our sweet Holly “fixed.” We wanted to be able to leave our house, knowing that Holly was OK and that our house was OK. Today, our definition of OK is very different. It has to be; our dog is different.
Every separation anxiety journey is unique. Ours certainly was, as it took much longer than the typical case. But that’s how I know my words carry weight. I’ve been in the trenches and I’m here to tell you: separation anxiety is treatable and you too can be successful.
We were referred to Malena by another trainer. When I reviewed Malena’s website, I noticed she was in Northern California and asked Rob, truly my better half, how he thought that was supposed to work. We are in Pennsylvania, 3000 miles away. As we later learned, technology is your best friend when it comes to separation anxiety. We met with Malena using FaceTime and discussed all the issues we were having with Holly when she was left alone. Malena asked us to commit to four weeks of separation anxiety training and we both thought, “wow, four weeks, that’s really long.” Little did we know then what was in store for our family.
We started out with virtual absences: leaving the gated-off kitchen (Holly’s safe zone) for three seconds, going into the family room, and then returning. Walking halfway to the laundry room door (eight steps), then returning. Walking into the dining room, then returning. This went on for a couple of weeks, with ever so slight increases in time, by seconds. By the four-week mark, we were able to stay in the laundry room for one minute, with the door closed.
You read that right. The laundry room. One minute. We hadn’t even come close to leaving the house. We thought we’d be done training and able to leave Holly alone for a few hours. As you might imagine, we wondered what on earth we had signed up for.
In the beginning we rehearsed our absences three times a day. However, we learned early on that this was too much for Holly—and for us. So we settled in doing twice-daily sessions, with only the occasional day off. After four months, we had built up to a seven-minute drive around the block. Was this the kind of progress we had hoped for or imagined? No, but it was progress and we were committed to Holly. Months later, we cut down to one rehearsal a day, with a few days off per week. It turned out Holly learned better with fewer rehearsals and more days off in between. One rehearsal a day with a few days off per week is what a typical dog requires to make progress with their separation anxiety and in this regard Holly was not an exception.
The biggest issue for Holly was consistency, or rather her inconsistency. We would build up our times over weeks, sometimes months, then we would experience the dreaded crash-and-burn. Weeks upon weeks worth of work would just explode and Holly would inexplicably regress. It was five steps forward, eight steps back. Times like these were devastating for all of us; this was when we really wanted to give up. Rob would have, but I kept pushing. And when I had my moments of hopelessness, Malena was always there, talking me (or us) through it, tweaking criteria, trying different approaches. She never gave up on us.
Occasionally, when we just had to get out together for a much-needed break, we took Holly to Doggy Day Care or had a pet sitter come to our house. In hindsight, we should have taken more breaks. Remember that if you are just starting on your journey: Taking a break preserves your sanity and strengthens your resolve—and you’ll need both.
Weeks turned into months, which turned into one year. We couldn’t believe we had been doing this for a whole year and still weren’t done. How was that possible? Family and friends who knew about our situation often asked how long this would take and we had no answer. Only those who have had a dog with separation anxiety can truly understand that this is not like training a dog to sit, come, stay. It is a painstakingly slow process of counterconditioning and desensitization (terms I’m all-too familiar with now). Quelling anxiety takes time, and often longer than you think. When we started, Rob said “We are going to eat that elephant one bite at a time!” How right he was.
Holly’s second-biggest challenge has been the time of day we go out. Mornings are her best, followed by evenings. But then there’s the dreaded midday. Of course, midday is the time we most like to go out. Malena wrote Steps (Protocols) depending on the time of day. For example, we could be gone one hour in the morning, but the evening absence would only be thirty minutes. The midday sessions were short (e.g. ten minutes) for a long period of time.
After many months, much hard work, thousands of absences, both virtual and real, Holly finally graduated. We can leave her alone for several hours now, even during the formerly dreaded midday. The most important message I want you to take away from this is one of hope. There is hope for these dogs and their guardians, because this horrific disorder, separation anxiety, can be battled and beaten. Is it easy? No. Will it take time? Yes. It likely won’t take as long as Holly did, but it will take time. Will you feel overwhelmed some days? You bet. Are you going to want to give up? Maybe.
But at team Holly, we slayed that dragon and with patience, perseverance, adaptability, determination, and a wonderful trainer, you can do it too! You can give your dog a much-improved life. She can learn it’s OK to be alone; she can have a life free from the crippling anxiety that made her days and yours so distressing and tragic. It is a bright new world out there for you and your dog once you cross that finish line.