by Laura Hentges, CPDT-KA, CCS
This week we welcome guest blogger Laura Hentges, CPDT-KA, CCS, Professional Dog Trainer & Behavior Consultant. Laura shares thoughts about separation anxiety and offers resources that you’ll find helpful.
“My dogs have always been my greatest joy! In 2017, I earned my first certification in dog training and behavior and opened my own business, Cassie’s Canine Connection LLC. I train dogs of any age, but my first love is seniors. I named my business after Cassie because she was the first dog with whom I experienced the highs (and lows) of loving and caring for an old dog. I volunteer at the Seattle Animal Shelter as a Pet Loss Support Group facilitator and am a long-time supporter of Old Dog Haven. I currently share my home with a rescued senior Labrador retriever, Abbie.”
Wally was Sammy’s Caretaker
Wally and Sammy came into my life at a time when my home was empty and in need of dogs to love. I’m a sucker for a grey muzzle and knew I eventually wanted two dogs. My search led me to a pair of bonded seniors at a local rescue; their person died nearly a year prior and they’d been in foster ever since. Wally was eight and Sammy was nine, both in decent health for large older dogs. It was clear from the beginning that Sammy HAD to be next to Wally; when we were out for a walk or just hanging out, they were inseparable. Wally was her rock, so I never separated them.
Early Warning Signs
Early on I started seeing signs of anxiety that I assumed was just Wally getting settled in a new home. The first indication it wasn’t just “settling in” was when the dog walker found Wally had trapped himself in the bathroom. He was in a state of panic—howling/whining and unable to calm down for a long while. Sammy, who I thought couldn’t be separated from Wally, was unscathed. I learned to close doors so he couldn’t accidentally get trapped again, which helped, but I’d still periodically come home to a puddle in the living room and Wally or both of them extremely anxious and not able to relax. (I had them both checked at the vet; no medical cause for accidents.) I always chalked it up to some noise outside or a dog walking by. They both hated storms and fireworks and would freak out even when I was with them. Even when things were quiet, Wally followed me everywhere. I couldn’t go near the front door, let alone open it, without Wally glued to my side.
Fast forward a few years and I was laid off from my job, so my schedule became less predictable. When I would leave, I’d come home to a puddle and an extremely anxious Wally. I started not going out unless I absolutely had to and took care of all my errands in one trip to avoid coming and going multiple times. Wally’s world was further disrupted when Sammy was diagnosed with bone cancer. With the help of my wonderful vet, I kept Sammy comfortable for as long as I could, but she was deteriorating right before my eyes. Her Wally was by her side until her last breath—Wally and I were both devastated.
Wally Became My Caretaker
Not too long before Sammy got sick, I’d decided to pursue dog training as a career. I was volunteering and working with dogs part-time and trying to learn everything I could. Part of me felt I should be able to figure out how to help Wally on my own, but looking back now, I was still grieving, and Wally had shifted his caretaker role from Sammy to me.
The more I studied, the more I learned how to lower his anxiety; I even tried different medications, but nothing stopped him from panicking. I channeled my grief into trying to help Wally. I did see some improvements over time, but he would still have his moments any time there was a change to his routine or a random loud noise. Even little things seemed to be a set-back: when his long-time dog walker left, when my work schedule changed and when I changed my yoga class to a different day. His good days outnumbered the bad, but just when I thought we were in the clear, something else would happen and I felt like a failure. Why couldn’t I help him?
Wally had Separation Anxiety
I didn’t earn my first certification in dog training and behavior until after Wally was gone so it wasn’t until then that I learned Wally had separation anxiety. It’s a term you might see used to generally describe dogs who don’t like being left alone. It’s so much more than that. The clinical term means a primary attachment figure disorder. In non-trainer speak this means the dog is so attached to their primary human that they literally panic when they are separated from them. It’s a myth that dogs are “mad at you” for leaving them or you should just ignore it and it will improve when they eventually figure out you’re coming back.
Every Dog Is Different
In severe cases, dogs with separation anxiety can chew or claw until they’re bloody to escape a crate, dig through drywall, your neighbors complain about constant howling/barking, you find puddles of pee or drool, or piles of poo (you know from your vet there is no medical reason for this). Typically, the panic builds as the human “prepares to leave.” Dogs are visual learners and are constantly watching us. They can read our facial expressions, and the slightest body movement no human would notice means something to our dogs. A dog with separation anxiety knows every detail of their human’s routine. Anything from turning on the shower to putting on your work shoes instead of your walking shoes, pouring your morning coffee into a travel mug or turning off the TV can be a cue to your dog that you’re getting ready to leave the house.
Research suggests that dogs who are generally under confident or nervous, have been rehomed, have had a traumatic event when alone or have experienced other major changes in the family (divorce, death, move to new home, etc.) are more prone to developing separation anxiety. Not all dogs that fit these descriptions have it or will develop it, they’re just more likely to do so.
In Wally’s case, he was generally a nervous guy, his original person died, he was sent to a rescue, rehomed, his canine life-partner died, I lost my job, I went back to work, etc. etc. No wonder he was panicking, and there was no way for me to reassure him that I was coming back. He couldn’t figure it out on his own; dogs don’t learn that way. It wasn’t until after Wally was gone that I learned there is help available and I didn’t have to do it alone.
Help Is Available
If anything I’ve described sounds like what you’re experiencing with your dog (old or otherwise), your dog might have separation anxiety. If general anxiety-lowering measures such as leaving classical music playing, lowering your own anxiety or even medication, don’t seem to help (or help for long), I urge you seek professional help from an expert in dog behavior. Your regular vet can prescribe medication, but they probably aren’t an expert in behavior. Dogs with separation anxiety WILL benefit from behavior modification from a professional.
If you hire a trainer, make sure they use only positive methods. A panicked dog is afraid. Punishing fear won’t help; it will only make it worse in the long run. It really is OK to comfort your frightened dog.
Not all positive trainers take separation anxiety cases or take them on a limited basis (like I do). I typically refer people to Malena DeMartini and her team who are experts in treating separation anxiety. There are a variety of resources on her website.
I loved Wally dearly. I would have done just about anything for him. As much as I loved Sammy and all the dogs that came before them, Wally was my heart, my distinguished old gentleman. I gave him the best life he could have. I gave him everything I knew how to give until the day he died. My only regret is that I didn’t learn sooner that I didn’t have to go it alone.