Patricia McConnell had me at “separation anxiety.” But not in the way you might normally think.
“I do indeed suffer from separation anxiety when I leave my dogs,” the renowned animal behaviorist and author said in her 2014 APDT conference keynote presentation. “I don’t know about you, but I’m already starting to stress lick,” she said while preening her front paw. “What makes it okay is that I’ve come to talk with a group of people who are as stupid in love with their dogs as I am. So I’m in good company, and that helps a tremendous amount.”
My reaction? I’m not alone!
It turns out that separation anxiety in pet owners—which ranges from a reluctance to leave a companion animal for even a few minutes to a complete inability to travel—is a lot more common than I realized.
“It’s so individual,” says Faith Maloney, co-founder of Best Friends Animal Society, who, along with psychologist Linda Harper, PhD, runs the annual Giving Heart Retreat, a three-day workshop that helps people with problems such as this. “Every single situation that I’ve come across is unique to that person or that family,” she says.
One scenario does pop up a lot, though, Maloney says. Something bad happens while the owner is away—the dog becomes sick at a boarding kennel, for example, or the pet sitter forgets to show up. “Then, based on some of these traumatic experiences, people say they can never leave again.”
For others, the mere fact that their dog had a rough past before they adopted him can keep them tethered.
“I’ve got rescues,” says Sarah Bartley of Luling, Texas, who currently shares her home with a 14-year-old Pit Bull/Greyhound mix, an 8-year-old Shepherd/Border Collie mix, two previously neglected horses, and even a rescued bearded dragon.
“I gave my dogs my word when I took them on that they would have the best life possible,” she says. “They’ve come to love me, so I don’t want to go out without them.”
I made a similar promise to my Beagle, Emma, who was a caged breeder before she came to live with us. She crawled into my lap the moment I met her at the North Shore Animal League in New York, and my lap remains Emma’s safe place when she’s scared or insecure.
Frankly, I love that Emma wants to press into me every chance she gets and comes straight to me when she needs support. But when I comfort her, am I making it harder for her stand on her own two … er … four feet?
“You can’t change what happened to [your dog]. You cannot make up for that,” McConnell says in a phone interview. “But you can do everything [possible] to help your dog be a healthy, happy, and stable individual. Dogs who have been really damaged tend to be brittle. But we work toward creating individuals who are more flexible, who can bend rather than crack,” she says.
Understanding that the best thing my husband Tom and I can do for Emma is to help her develop the confidence and comfort level to be alone is helping us “cut the cord,” if you will.
Of course, even if the dogs can handle our departures, that doesn’t guarantee it will be easy for us to say farewell.
During a four-day trip to Florida last year, Pamela Rachil, owner of Woofy University training, daycare, and boarding in Rochester, N.Y., boarded her two Pomeranians with a woman who cares for dogs in her home. “The boys had a great time, but I was miserable,” she says. “I was lying by the pool thinking, Oh God, I wish I could be walking the dogs on the beach. I missed them so much.”
Some psychologists, such as Chicago-based Linda Harper, specialize in helping people deal with the highs and lows of caring for animals.
“It is in the animal advocate’s nature to experience intense feelings for animals,” Harper writes in her book, The Power of Joy in Giving to Animals (Cap Publishing, 2014), on which Maloney collaborated. “We feel what we think they feel. It’s not ‘just an animal.’ We read pain in their eyes, we interpret their whines and barks and meows. We feel their excitement and we imagine their disappointment.”
Sarah Bartley—rescuer of two dogs, two horses and one bearded dragon—does, indeed, feel such intense emotions. She recognized that she was giving all that she had to her animals and not taking enough for herself.
In eight years, Bartley had only gone home in England once, and that was a short out-and-back for a death in the family. She even reduced her hours working at a skydiving business from full-time to part-time so she didn’t have to leave the dogs alone so long.
Okay. You’re getting kind of crazy, Bartley recalls saying to herself one day. You have to let go a little bit. So she made arrangements for someone to care for her animals and headed out to Kanab, Utah, where she and about a dozen others attended the three-day Giving Heart Retreat (bestfriends.org/What-we-do/Events/Workshops).
Most people attend the retreat to deal with burnout and grief, Maloney says. For the obvious reason, people with anxiety about leaving their animals don’t often make it.
That is partly what motivated her and Harper to create The Power of Joy in Giving to Animals. “It’s something we did specifically to help all the people who, because of the nature of the condition, are not going to leave home to get the help they need,” says Maloney. “This is a way we hope we’re reaching those people.”
The good news is that the mere act of traveling to the retreat could, in some cases, give people the nudge they need to be able to go away again.
“A good first step is to travel to a dog behavior or training seminar,” McConnell says. Concerned owners can justify leaving the pup at home because they’re going to learn something that will benefit him. After returning home to a happy and healthy dog (assuming all goes well), they just might feel confident enough to try traveling again.
But for some—even when they know that their dogs can handle their absences and will receive great care while they’re gone—parting can still be such sweet sorrow.
“When we drive away, and I look back, and there’s my little farmhouse with my little dogs inside,” McConnell says, “sometimes I admit to getting tears in my eyes.”
So for the really rough times, she turns to good ol’ classical conditioning for some help.
“I will eat chocolate,” McConnell says. “I literally give myself chocolate. Never, never, ever, ever dismiss the power of chocolate.”
A version of this story originally ran in the APDT’s Chronicle of the Dog and The Bark magazine.