One of my top goals is to spread hope about positive outcomes for dogs with separation anxiety. After working with many cases personally for many years and recently having witnessed the trainers I’ve trained be successful with their cases as well, I know that separation anxiety can be successfully resolved. Spreading this message of hope and inspiration is as important to me as giving people the best, scientifically sound information available about treatment protocols.
Not long ago, however, I spoke to a lovely woman who reminded me that there’s a dark side to separation anxiety that no one speaks about. It is this: not only does working with separation anxiety take a long time for most guardians, it can take its toll on them in the process. Coming out the other end is glorious, but the effort can be draining and demoralizing. I know this not only from working with hundreds of dogs in my practice, but also from working with my own dog, both many years back and during a recent regression she experienced.
The backstory is that my husband and I lost our senior dog a little while ago. I had expected my younger previously separation anxiety-afflicted dog to plummet into a full regression, but to my amazement she did not. Well, not right away. Several months later, while I was at a speaking engagement out of town, I randomly decided to peek in on her from my phone camera. There was my little sweetie crying (howling, really) at the window. I burst into tears in the middle of brunch. I frantically called my husband who raced home from work, and when I returned we put a plan in place for re-training. Maybe I could have predicted that my travel would affect her, but things had been going so well that I assumed that she’d be fine. This sent me into feelings of desperation and failure.
Which is all to say: I get it. Guardians of separation anxiety dogs can feel imprisoned, can experience depression, despair, hopelessness. On the one hand, their hearts break for their dog so obviously experiencing panic and inexplicable fear. Their empathy for their beloved friend runs deep. On the other hand, anger can set in and resentment fester. The dog they’re rearranging their lives for is bleeding their bank account dry and what’s their reward? A few measly minutes of alone-time here and there. Frustrating to say the least. Then there’s the guilt that piles on top. Painful guilt. How can anyone feel resentment toward an innocent being with big brown eyes and soft ears whose anxiety is involuntary and utterly debilitating? What sort of person would consider surrendering a jovial, loving, and blameless friend just because they want their lives back? Round and round the emotions go, like the worst roller coaster ride imaginable.
As well, manic depression-like feelings often accompany work with a separation anxiety dog. When we reach breakthroughs, the euphoria is better than a drug-induced high. The inevitable regressions are agony.
We need to speak openly about the time it takes from start to finish to work with a separation anxiety dog. Some dogs are ready for full-day absences in a few months, but that’s not the majority of dogs. Most are only ready for an hour or so at that point, and can take much longer to get up to their goal, some even longer still. I often urge people not to give up because I know dogs can continue to make progress, but I also know and completely understand that it varies how much bandwidth a guardian has for the day-to-day training. There’s nothing shameful or wrong about that.
To those of you in the trenches, who feel like you’re unable to go another day: you’re not alone. Compassion fatigue is very real and very common. Many thousands around the globe suffer the way you do. Through the hardship they continue to put one foot in front of another and find success in the end. Some need to take breaks, some find additional support in trainers, behaviorists, or kind friends.
But you need to know that the anguish of the journey will be worth it in the end. Me, all my colleagues who work with separation anxiety, we truly get it. We support your decision to push on and we understand that you feel isolated. There may be a time that you need to make an alternative decision and we get that too – this long, arduous journey is not for everyone
The bottom line is, this stuff is hard. It is painful and you will cry. I still think you can do it, though. I’m starting the process all over with my dog, so if you decide to keep going, I’ll see you on the path!