Moving. With a geriatric dog. Who has isolation distress.

There is really no other title this blog post could possibly have. I sit here at my breakfast bar wearing my winter boots and coat, randomly picking up my keys and putting them down. All my students who are working through separation anxiety and isolation distress are likely doing the same thing this weekend. We could start a support group. 

Yesterday, Mandog and I moved back to Toronto into a condo where it’s just the two of us. Granted, we lived in this building from 2004 – 2010 so it’s familiar to him and I both. I should also mention that timeframe is when he suffered from isolation distress the most in his whole life. Hopefully it’s not the building…! 

Walk to door, pick up keys, walk back to stool and sit down, resume typing.

What is Isolation Distress? It’s an anxiety-disorder that occurs in dogs (or any animal, including people) who suffer from anxiety when left alone for a period of time. 

Separation Anxiety is similar, however it occurs in dogs (animals, people) who suffer from anxiety when separated from a specific person (or other animal). 

Parker (affectionately known as “Mandog”) has always suffered from isolation distress. His has been the most severe case I’ve seen to date and has gradually gotten much better over the years. We went through years of barking, howling, whining, pacing, tearing doorframes, baseboards, clawing doors, clawing through concrete, drywall, tearing screen doors and windows, jumping out of windows, locking himself in the bathroom, turning on the tub, explosive diarrhea, you name it. I would come home to a bloodbath from all the destruction. 

Take off coat and boots, open door, close door, resume typing. 

Neighbour complaints, eviction notices, repairs after repairs, sick days from corporate jobs, annoyed bosses, citronella spray collars, longer lunchbreaks, shock collar, exhaustion, depression, guilt, it nearly broke us. Then I got properly educated and became a force-free trainer, ditching the collars for a clicker and smarts.  

Go to door, pick up keys, touch door handle, put down keys, resume typing. 

When we moved in yesterday and he was a bit tired out so he seemed to be settling in quite nicely. I have an Adaptil plug-in that seems to be helping a bit. I would normally be playing Through a Dog’s Ear but sadly Mandog lost his hearing this past year so the music would just be calming me down instead. I’ve booked off a few days from work to help him settle in and work through this process with him before actually leaving him. This means my groceries will be delivered and he’ll come with me on dog-friendly errands for now. 

Put on hat and scarf, pick up keys, sit down, resume typing. 

 Earlier today I noticed he was shadowing me; following me around, laying outside the bathroom door while I showered, watching me like a hawk as I moved from desk to kitchen to bedroom to desk. If I was out of sight for longer than 1-2 minutes he would get up to move closer to me. You see…dogs with separation anxiety or isolation distress are seeking comfort and predictability. They cannot be rushed in this process so we have to take baby steps to build up their tolerance to being alone or without us. 

Put on coat and boots, pick up purse and keys, sit down, resume typing. 

Today I checked his baseline – I put on my coat, boots, hat, mitts, picked up my purse and keys, left, locking the door behind me, and walked down the hall and around the corner. I waited 3 minutes and then returned. I had video-recorded this so that I could see at what point he was becoming stressed but I didn’t really need to. The second I put my boots on and pick up my keys, he perks up and starts tongue-flicking. There. He is stressed. He whined for about 8 seconds when I was down the hall and then lay on the mat in the hall where he can watch the door. He wasn’t settled – he was alert and waiting. Had I left him for longer than 20 minutes that time, his anxiety would have built up and he would have started howling and barking. 

Take off coat and boots, jingle keys, sit down, resume typing. 

So today I will spend writing client notes and catching up on email and voicemail while desensitizing my departure cues. What does that mean? All the cues that mean “Mama is leaving” (such as picking up my purse, putting on my coat, putting on my boots, picking up my keys, even going toward the front door, and doing my makeup) now have to mean something different. So I pick up my keys and watch TV. I put on my coat and boots and work on my computer. I pick up my purse and make dinner. I do this so many times over and over again until he couldn’t care less what I’m doing. 

Put on coat and boots, pick up keys, open door, step into corridor, come back in, close door, resume typing. 

You can see how things are progressing. I have been doing this since 8:30am today and in between I return calls, answer emails, clean my new condo, make meals, unpack boxes, and look forward to leaving Mandog alone in the apartment long enough to go for dinner and a movie. In the same night. It’ll happen soon – this is just our refresher course since we’ve been doing it for almost 11 years now. 

It’s now 6:00pm and I have progressed even further than just stepping out into the corridor at this point. I’m doing graduated departures, which means that I (get winterized every time,) leave for 2 seconds, come back (de-winterize and settle every time). Then I leave for 5 seconds and come back. Then 10 seconds. Then 4 seconds. Then 8 seconds. 14 seconds. 5 seconds. 20 seconds. 10 seconds. 30 seconds. 40 seconds. 10 seconds. Change departures cues again (pick up keys, make a tea. Put on boots, go to washroom…etc…). Then I leave again for 1 minute. Then 2 minutes. and so on and so forth. 

I make it random but consistently increasing the time with easy breaks in between and longer breaks too (for both of us because man….is this tedious and dizzying!) 

I set up my Skype on my MacBook and my iPhone, started a video call and left to go to the convenience store for a snack. He didn’t show a single sign of stress as I laced up my boots, put on my coat, opened the door. I watched the whole way to the store and back. As soon as I was 10 feet from the door, he got up and went to his bed (great sign!) on the other side of the condo, away from the door. He stayed there, relaxing until I came back. His greeting at the door was happy but nowhere near frantic. 12 minutes on the button. 

I settled for 5 minutes at my computer and then put on my coat, boots, etc…again and called him to go for a walk. He was excited but not frantic.

Success. It’s never a straight line and it’s never a short line. It is a long, squiggly line that gets tangled in itself until it reaches its destination. 

I’m going to give it a rest tonight, order in some Thai and watch BBC’s Sherlock. Tomorrow, we begin again. We’ll get there. 

Stay tuned…

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About Caryn Charlie Liles
Caryn is a Toronto-based “people-trainer for dogs” and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT). She is the founder of Whatta Pup!, a pet dog training company established in 2008. Seeing a growing need for specialized training due to an increase in aggression in Toronto, Caryn co-founded The Toronto Centre for Canine Education, specializing in “the socially-challenged dog”.

One Response to Moving. With a geriatric dog. Who has isolation distress.

  1. enviromo says:

    Love that you’re back downtown and I LOVE SHERLOCK!

    Now, does Mr Parker get anything when you leave? Stuffed kong? Even if you’re just in another room? How was he with hallway noises when you first lived there? I’m thinking someone (hint hint) should develop a puppy socialisation program for condo life. Elevators, garbage chutes, drunk neighbours and vacuum cleaners in the hallway etc.

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