The first time I heard about separation anxiety in dogs, I was a teenager. My mom noticed that our dog Boomer was chewing a windowsill when he was home without his people. Mom put a towel over the windowsill and gently told me it would “remind Boomer not to chew when he got nervous.” Like the adolescent skeptic I was, I laughed at her idea, but I distinctly remember the compassion and tenderness she had toward Boomer’s pain. Unsure of how to help him, she sought a way to ease his mind even when the family wasn’t around.
About 20 years later, my husband Jon and I decided we wanted to adopt a dog. I started looking at rescues and immediately saw Oso, a goofy, handsome mutt with big ears, soulful eyes, and adorable spots on his haunches. Facing a slew of intense work commitments, we decided to wait six months until we were in a better place for a big commitment. When it came time to look for a dog, I was surprised to see Oso’s sweet face still posted on the rescue site. He’d been with an incredible foster family who, when asked what Oso most needed from his adopted family, replied “love.”
When we finally brought Oso home with us, we first saw the separation anxiety manifest in destruction around the home. We lost some blinds, door jams, plants, etc. But our situation came to a head when we crated him upon departure (thinking he’d feel safe in a crate—he liked his crate already—and our home wouldn’t suffer damages) and had a terribly scary incident where he really injured himself trying to get free from the crate. We were heartbroken. And then came the vet bills, along with the realization that we had no idea how to help him with this problem. We were one month into our adoption, and it was totally overwhelming for us. We questioned how we’d go to work, how we’d travel (part of my work requirement), who would sit him when we were gone, how we’d ever have another date night out, how we’d see friends and family who couldn’t come to us.
We were so fortunate that an animal behaviorist we know immediately recommended Malena’s protocol. We were matched with Casey, our trainer, who was unbelievably supportive. She monitored Oso via Skype, and we learned that he could tolerate 17 seconds of being alone. That was a scary night, when we realized 17 seconds was his threshold. I cried, Jon paced, and Oso shadowed us from room to room. But over the month, Casey worked with us every day to help desensitize him to departures. It was truly incredible to watch him gain confidence and begin to take naps (instead of follow us to the door in a mild panic) when we departed.
But what was equally important was that Casey took on the practical challenges of how to allow us to live our lives, while supporting Oso’s needs. She helped us identify what to look for in sitters, and taught us how to observe Oso upon returns to know if we might expect setbacks. She learned our routine and provided concrete solutions that helped all three of us thrive during protocol.
She also provided the moral support we needed to stick to the protocol, which was MAJOR for us. She reminded us to celebrate the victories, like Oso making it to one minute of comfortable solitude. As Jon and I watched the timer pass 59 seconds, we knew progress was possible. In one minute, we could grab a forgotten item from the car, or step out to the garage, and know that Oso was okay. We popped a nice bottle of champagne that night.
Now our brave guy can be comfortably alone for over five hours. We can go to parties and dinner dates and know that he’s not suffering or destroying our home. We use an application that alerts us if Oso moves around (one of his indications of discomfort), so we can still keep an eye on him, but we know his capacity now.
Thanks to Casey, we know about his body language, the science supporting desensitization techniques, positive training, thresholds, clickers, tracking progress, and all of the wonderful tools that this experience gave us. We know that separation anxiety is real and curable, and that with the right support, dogs like Oso can live full lives with happy fur parents. And mostly we know that dogs are the best teachers of compassion, tenderness, and love. If you and your fur family are struggling with separation anxiety right now, we wish you endless support, many milestones of progress, and plenty of nights worthy of popping bottles of champagne.