Many sessions into our separation anxiety training to help Emma the Beagle cope with being alone, I felt like a prisoner. Driving away — really driving away, not driving somewhere to park and watch the video on my iPhone — was only possible if my husband or a pet sitter stayed with Ems.
One morning I felt like the walls on my neighbors’ homes were closing in on me. I desperately missed the freedom of heading out on a whim, and I couldn’t bear the thought of staring at the video from my parked Mini for another five-minute absence.
Then it hit me: What would happen if rather than park somewhere to watch Ems, I drove to the end of my neighborhood and back? Out to Evergreen Mills Road, the gateway to grocery stores, gas stations, and coffee shops.
I channeled my inner Thelma (or was it Louise?), and I did it! Do you know what happened? Nothing! Blissful, wonderful, magnificent NOTHING!
Emma was still lying quietly on the couch when I returned, and I found renewed motivation to tackle a new mission with her the next day.
Interestingly, it turns out that looking away from the camera can be a real challenge for many people working through their dog’s separation anxiety. My bout of neighborhood claustrophobia let me see the light, but it’s still tough for me to turn the video off.
“People need to go through the same desensitization process that their dogs have,” says certified separation anxiety trainer Casey McGee. After seeing our dogs panic to the point of injuringthemselves or tearing apart our homes, we’re hypervigilant to make sure another meltdown is not imminent.
“In the same way that a dog can’t fall asleep, because he’s not sure if his owner is going to put his coat on and leave the house,” McGee says, “we can’t quit watching [the video].”
Luckily, we parents-of-sep-anx-pups, understand a thing or two about how desensitization works. So we can wean ourselves off of the video while we wean our dogs off of our company.
Here’s how to do it.
Simply ask yourself what chunk of time feels manageable for you. Can you go five minutes without looking and without breaking into a cold sweat? Then start there. If that felt easy, bump it up to seven minutes the next time. It’s okay to stick on five minutes or back down to two or three if you need.
Be as kind to yourself as you are to your pup.
You’re not scared to look away “because you’ve got some kind of weird emotional hang-up with your dog,” McGee says. “You’re scared for a really good reason. You’ve been trained to be scared of leaving.”
Looking away is something Nicole M. struggled with while helping her Pit Bull mix Cara overcome her fear of aloneness. “I had to work on it,” she says. She’d tell herself to put the phone aside and “be present” for five minutes. “The more I put energy into staring at her reaction, I felt like I was somehow not leaving her alone.”
Eventually, Nicole had weaned herself down so successfully that there were times that she’d forgotten to check in and would feel guilty. “I definitely had little freak-outs like, ‘Oh my god, I was enjoying myself too much! I forgot about the dog!’” she says. “And then I’d check and she’s lying on the bed.”
As with everything else in life nowadys, there’s an app for this.
By setting up the app Presence (presencepro.com) to text her if her Shepherd-mix Otto moves around, Meghann R. and her husband don’t have to stare at the screen anymore. “You don’t have to set a timer and check every five minutes,” she says. “It reduced the anxiety for us in a really incredible way, where we could just go out for a drink and we might not get a text the whole time. That was a huge step.”
Trust might be the most basic tool we need to devote less time watching the video, says separation anxiety client Deb L.
She and her husband worked with Malena to give their Beagle Holly the coping skills to be alone. “I need to take my own advice with this,” says Deb. “You have to trust in yourself and all the work that you put in, that hey, it’s okay.”
I get that. I do trust that desensitization works. Emma has gone from ten seconds to 20 minutes, and honestly, those 20 minutes are pure heaven.
Until the freedom to go wherever you want whenever you want is taken away from you, you can’t appreciate how wonderful a simple thing like putting gas in your car or picking up groceries can feel.
I’m not going to do it all in one shot, but I will turn that video camera off one day. With the help of desensitization protocols for both Emma’s separation anxiety and my maniacal video viewing, I am getting my life back — a few minutes at a time.