May 3 through 9 is National Anxiety and Depression Awareness Week. With warmer temperatures — ideal for dog walking — and more smile-producing daylight hours after a dark and dreary winter, it’s somewhat surprising that the middle of spring comes with such an uneasy association as anxiety.
The mere mention of the A-word immediately makes me think of my dog, Finley, who’s struggled with separation anxiety since day one of her short two-year life. By the time we brought her home from the breeder at seven weeks old, we had read Dogs for Dummies and Versatile Vizsla, in hopes that we had prepared ourselves for whatever we were getting into as puppy parents. We bought a widely recommended crate, stocked up on safe squeaky toys, and developed a training regimen based upon positive reinforcement. In spite of some new parent jitters over bringing a living thing into our home, we were over the moon to have found an adorable pup and felt ready for almost anything.
We were told that such a young puppy might tremble out of fear in a new environment, so we weren’t surprised when Finley shook like a little furry leaf every few minutes during the car ride home. She softly whimpered and looked at us as if to ask, “What’s happening? Where am I going?” She had a nearly permanent crease in her brow for the first few weeks it seemed. It broke our hearts, but we were confident she’d eventually settle in with us, her new family.
That very first night with Finley, we gently placed her in the cozy, blanket-lined crate, turned off the lights, and slid into bed mere inches from where she was. Within seconds, she barked and shrieked and howled as if someone (or something) was torturing her. We told her “shhh!” and reassured her that we were right there, but nothing could soothe this hysterical pup of ours. We probably slept for a total of one hour that night.
From then on, every night was much of the same. Although we did get more sleep and moments of quiet respite little by little, Finley still protested being put in her crate and barked and whined for the first few hours. But we held our ground, all through the night. Giving in would only make the situation worse, and we had learned that crate training was important to establishing rules around safety. Still, we never anticipated how difficult it would become.
Soon, not only was Finley crying in her crate at night, she was complaining all day long when we crated her during work hours. We hired a dog walker to come twice every weekday — once in the morning and again in the afternoon — and those walks were the only time Finley wasn’t making a ruckus, or so our apartment neighbors told us. In fact, a letter from the Department of Health warned us that we needed to cease “disturbing the peace” immediately.
The situation quickly became anxiety producing for us as owners as much as it was for Finley. Despite our best efforts to make Finley love her crate — lavishing her with treats every time she was in it, playing fun crate games, and never using it as punishment — she obviously viewed it as some kind of prison. What were we doing wrong?
I started reading everything I could get my hands on about leaving dogs home alone. Almost every expert recommended the exact approach we were using: plenty of exercise and mental stimulation before leaving, treats and praise upon crating, then walking out the door without making a big deal about it.
On weekday mornings, if we could make it out the door and down the street without hearing Finley’s frantic cries coming from our second-floor apartment, we considered ourselves lucky. But, more often than not, she was wailing before we were even down the front stairs.
On the evening walk back from a nearby subway stop, I would silently say a prayer that all was calm and quiet as I approached the building. About half the time, it was; the other half, I could hear Finley more loudly with each passing step.
Although we couldn’t see any noticeable improvement, we continued this pattern consistently for two months. I was fiercely determined to solve our poor pup’s separation anxiety.
Then Finley broke her leg at the dog park while in our dog walker’s care.
It’s hard to say whether the cumbersome cast made an already bad situation worse, but it definitely didn’t make it any better. The associated confusion and pain that our four-month-old pooch was likely experiencing was probably enough to cause an even greater avalanche of anxiety every time we left the apartment to go to work.
By the time Finley fully recovered, I was making preparations to leave my office job and try working from home as a freelance writer. Although the decision wasn’t made because of our dog, I’ve stuck with this career choice partly due to her ever-evolving needs. I’m able to spend a portion of my day practicing desensitization training with Finley, getting her used to being alone for longer stretches of time. We began with mere seconds of separation, and have gradually worked up to two hours apart after months and months of tiny successes and small setbacks. Along the way we’ve tried the ThunderShirt, some anti-bark collars that made us very uneasy, and meds like Clomicalm. Nothing has solved the problem, but time and training seem to be working — slowly.
Today, Finley is never left alone. We bring her to doggy day care or hire a dog sitter if nobody is going to be home or she can’t come with us wherever we’re headed. Last summer, she escaped from my in-laws’ house when we were gone for only one hour, and we’re not willing to take our chances again given her severe separation anxiety.
In the meantime, I try to manage my own stress and anxiety by reminding myself that there are much bigger problems that afflict dogs — like aggression and serious health issues — and we should be thankful not to have them.
Finley’s intolerance for solitude manifests in some frustrating ways, but the love and appreciation we have for this animal is more than enough to deal with her chronic anxiety.
Do you have a dog with separation anxiety? How have you dealt with it. Share your experience in the comments!
Read more about separation anxiety in dogs:
About the author: Whitney C. Harris is a New York-based freelance writer for websites including StrollerTraffic, Birchbox, and WhattoExpect.com. A former book and magazine editor, she enjoys running (with Finley), watching movies (also with Finley), and cooking meatless meals (usually with Finley watching close by).