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Separation Anxiety: A trainer’s story

Tracy Krulik is a certified dog trainer and behavior consultant, and is a specialist in the area of separation anxiety. The following is a first-person account of the challenges she faced with her dog and separation anxiety.


It wasn’t the barking, howling, running in circles, peeing on the rugs or peeing on the couch that made me realize Emma’s separation was completely out of control — it was when she started chewing the door frame.

Over the course of our first year with our sweet Beagle, Emma, my husband and I tried so hard to settle Ems down when we left her home alone, but we kept failing. We tried waiting for her to stop barking to walk back into the condo, so that she would learn that only keeping quiet would bring us home. We tried leaving her stuffed Kongs, but she wouldn’t eat. We tried teaching Emma to relax in her bed and reward her for staying put. We tried pheromone diffusers, lavender oil, Thunder shirts, and even therapeutic massages, but none of that helped.

Despite everything we were doing to help her, Emma’s anxiety only got worse. And yet, today, Emma the Beagle is cured.

Whereas she used to have a complete meltdown if we left Emma alone for a few seconds, now we can be gone for more than four hours, and Ems relaxes and snoozes the whole time. If I didn’t know better, I would say that magic turned our girl around. But as a certified dog trainer who specializes in separation anxiety, I can tell you the real reason behind the transformation: science.

Desensitization

Separation anxiety is a phobia — no different than a fear of spiders or heights. Just as I shrieked in terror when those big, furry, mini-tarantula-looking monsters ran towards me in my childhood home, dogs with separation anxiety are doing the same. They are flat out petrified.

And the method we use to help people overcome fears is the same method we use for dogs — desensitization.  

Without meaning to, moving to a house in Loudoun County has helped desensitize me to spiders. When we first got here two years ago, there were easily 40 massive dead spiders in the garage. After a week of wishing they would disappear, I accepted that the only way they would leave my sight was if I did something about it.

So, I grabbed my broom and started sweeping. At first, my heart raced, and I was covered in goosebumps. But the more I swept, the more I realized that nothing bad was happening to me. When I saw a live spider in my basement a few weeks later, I didn’t scream! In fact, I was able to grab a cup and piece of cardboard, and I actually transported the little monster outside.

This same method is how Emma overcame her separation anxiety.

Find the fear threshold line

We first had to figure out where Emma’s “fear threshold” was. What is the dividing line between where Emma can stay cool, calm, and collected and where she panics? It turned out that Emma blew a gasket at 10 seconds. For some dogs it’s a few seconds, others it’s five minutes, others it’s 30. Every dog is individual.

We used a video camera to watch Emma’s body language to find her line. Just before she gets really scared, Emma licks her lips, and yawns. As her fear progresses, her brow furrows, her pupils dilate, she whimpers and whines, and then the full fireworks explode.

Every dog shows fear differently, so, you have to become somewhat of a master at reading body language to get this right. The clues can be very subtle. At least in the beginning, therefore, I recommend working with a certified trainer to set you down the path correctly.

Break it down

Once we knew where Emma’s threshold was, we did a series of practice absences for about 30 minutes a day — all under that threshold line. On the first day, we did stuff like:

  • Walk to door, open door 1-inch, close door, sit back down (wait 30-90 seconds)
  • Walk to door, fully open/close door, sit back down (wait)
  • Grab keys, walk into mudroom but don’t touch the door, sit back down (wait)
  • Walk to door, step outside for 1 second, return, sit back down…

Like I had done by sweeping dead spiders rather than being chased by live ones, we kept Emma feeling safe the whole time. And while we did that, we taught her that us walking out the door is nothing to fear.

Over time we increased how long we were away. By using the video camera, we could watch Emma’s body language to see that, “Wow! I was gone for five minutes, and Emma is totally chill!” And then eventually, 10 minutes, and then 17 minutes, and one day 40 minutes, and another day an hour, and eventually, where we are today: well over four hours!

Progress at the dog’s pace

Have you figured out the catch? Yes. The only way we were finally able to make any progress in helping Emma overcome her fear was to only leave her home alone for as long as she could handle. At first that meant less than 10 seconds.

Thankfully, the world is full of wonderful people, and my husband and I were able to build a support network of friends and professional pet sitters who would keep Emma company when we couldn’t be home. Emma is scared around other dogs, so doggie daycare was not an option for us, but for many sep-anx dogs, it’s a great solution.

In truth, well before we starting this training, my husband and I had already stopped leaving Emma home alone. It was too painful for all of us. The more people I encounter with sep-anx pups, the more I’m finding that we are not unique. Most of these people are already not leaving their scared dogs alone too. So, the training ends up becoming therapeutic for both the pups and the people who love them.

Work with your veterinarian

For many dogs — Emma included — anti-anxiety medications can help the process go so much faster. I used to think of meds as a “last case scenario,” and so I fought against using them for Emma. But without them, Emma kept suffering regressions. She’d start to build duration, and then suddenly she would freak out again as if we had never trained her at all. Once we worked with our vet to get Emma on appropriate supplements and medications, though, she started flying through the training.

Essentially, with the veterinarian’s help, we washed away the top level of panic that had always been shrouding Emma, so that she could finally relax, think clearly, and learn. The medication on its own will likely not cure a dog’s separation anxiety, but as we saw with Ems, it can sure speed the up the process when paired with training.

It’s not your fault

Before I leave you (pardon the pun), I’d like to share one more thought. If your dog suffers from separation anxiety, I want to lift one burden off of your shoulders: you did not cause your dog’s phobia. This is not your fault. Just like people, dogs have feelings too. And like many of us, some find certain aspects of life really scary. The good news is, thanks to science, we have a tried and true method to help them feel better.


Northern Virginia based certified dog trainer and behavior consultant, Tracy Krulik, CTC, CSAT, is the founder and managing editor of iSpeakDog — a website and public awareness campaign to teach dog body language and behavior. Tracy is an honors graduate of the prestigious Academy for Dog Trainers and certified separation anxiety trainer. Learn more about Tracy and the Humane Rescue Alliance Behavior and Training programs at humanerescuealliance.org/training.