Separation anxiety is less cause for anxiety these days

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Yesterday, on vacation, I was enjoying a luxuriously deep sleep. Then, an extremely large, cold, wet nose planted itself firmly in my ear. HELLLOOO! It was Tiki, a voluminous chocolate Labrador, checking in on me, his houseguest, in true Lab style. Rudi, his only slightly shyer sidekick, was next in line. Both are former shelters dogs that now live the good life.

Betsy and Tiki

Betsy and her friend’s dog, Rudy, enjoy a quiet anxiety-free moment.

Tiki  has always been easy-going, but Rudi came with pretty severe separation anxiety — severe enough that a decade or two ago he would probably have been deemed “unadoptable.” But no more!

On this visit, within moments of arriving for our weekend with friends, my husband, Ed, and I had gotten a status report from the dogs’ mom, Yasmine, who proudly announced that, after months of daily work, Rudi no longer needs his daily anxiety meds. Go, Rudi!

I’ve been hearing this happy tale more and more. Sixteen years ago, when we first started Petfinder, a pooch with severe separation anxiety was hardly understood. The most common treatments might have included “tough love,” maybe becoming an outside or garage dog, or euthanasia. Now more and more families are taking these dogs in from homelessness and assembling the patchwork of resources that exist to support their serious, but often highly treatable issues.

Amanda, a board member of the Petfinder Foundation first taught me about separation anxiety many years ago. Until then, I assumed it was the neurotic breakdown I suffered when I had to leave my dog at the vet’s office for his annual dental. That would be the human form of the disorder.

Amanda’s sweet Rosie-the-Pit-Bull would throw herself at the door in a panic when Amanda left home, and she’d return to an anxiety-produced minefield that had been nervously tracked through the house. Luckily for Rosie, her momma understood. As a dog trainer, Amanda was more equipped than most to help Rosie become comfortable being alone. But it wasn’t easy back then.

Now Yasmine and her lucky boy, Rudi, have a veterinary behaviorist with an arsenal of tricks, and medications and a deeper understanding of a  dog’s psyche, thanks to a decade’s advancement in research into this area. We even have Thundershirts and calming masks that can work miracles for less than it costs to go to dinner and the movies, which, by the way, is a lot more pleasant if you know your dog isn’t freaking out without you.

Effectively treating dogs with anxiety disorders is a necessary step to meeting our mission … that no pet will be euthanized simply for lack of a home. Any community with aspirations of ending the euthanasia of adoptable pets needs to be doing its best to attract veterinary behaviorists and trainers that focus on positive reinforcement.

Our foundation has been studying the impact of hiring trainers in shelters. Increasing confidence and communication skills in the shelter environment may be tools we have to identify anxious pups and start to support them.

Max, the dog who inspired me to dedicate my life to homeless pets, used to become so disturbed when we left town without him that he’d “take to the closet” and only after his grandparents begged and cajoled him for over a day did he finally relent and join them in the living room. One evening, still unhappy with his bitter circumstance, he grudgingly joined them as they watched TV. But he took no satisfaction in it. He sat bolt upright on the sofa, faced the wall and refused to make eye contact with his sitters. This made my folks, who had flown into town just to babysit their granddog, feel terrible. Perhaps if we’d realized that his broken heart was a mild case of separation anxiety, we could have comforted him.

My folks’ dog, Tucker, used to chew on inappropriate things when they left him alone. The mattress, the dining room table and a few of my grandmother’s antiques all have the tell-tale signs of a bored, if not anxious pooch.

Naughty-Jake

Betsy suffers separation anxiety when she leaves Jake.

Our new guy, Naughty-Jake, may be happy when we are home, but when we leave, it appears that his self-worth goes unharmed. He is a man of industry and makes his own opportunity. We’ve returned to find he has opened the back door, inviting a host of our barnyard pets in for a party. We’ve returned to find suspicious muddy paw-prints throughout the house — but have no idea where the mud came from. And from time to time, we get a call from the dog park that he’s ready to go home (he sneaks off the farm when we leave and waits at the local dog park gate for someone to let him in). Jake’s good times are inspiring in me a new brand of the human form of separation anxiety: I never know what I’ll return to when we leave our way-too-smart-for-us pooch home alone.

As for the dog version of separation anxiety, it takes real commitment and a very special person to fix it. We all need to spread the word about the variety of support resources: positive reinforcement trainers, veterinary behaviorists, great books and online resources, anti-anxiety products, and sometimes prescription drugs are important tools. I’d like to hear your stories of separation anxiety and what has worked for you.

Oh, and one more thing. While I have no scientific data to back it up, my favorite suggestion will always be to adopt a friend for your pet. Taking the edge off of loneliness can work wonders in some cases. We’re even considering a rounder, less agile pup for Jake, thinking maybe a best friend who can’t sneak through gates and over fences might keep him closer to home.

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