Part three of the isolation diSTRESS saga

Set the scene: 4:56pm. I’m sitting on my couch with a bag of chips, two chocolate bars, a large Earl Grey tea and Mandog at my feet. We’ve just been to see our vet (which is a whole other blog post in itself) and he’s pretty exhausted from the trip. I need comfort food. Parker has just taken his anti-anxieties for the first time. I’m watching the clock with one eye and watching the dog with the other. 

I’m living my clients’ lives again. The last couple days have been tough. I worked pretty hard and was able to get Parker up to 30 minutes of calm while I’m out but that’s as far as I could go without triggering the howling and sad-sounds. So in desperation I take a giant leap, leave a few stuffed frozen peanut butter Kongs and I go to work for 3.5 hours.

This is where Trainer Caryn says “You went too far too fast. Back it up and work your way up slowly.”

While I’m at work, I’m Skype-ing with him to check in now and again to see if he’s doing ok and for the first hour he’s actually amazing. Then my home computer shuts itself off. I have 2.5 hours to go with zero contact with my dog. Suddenly I understand Separation Anxiety. I have it.

2 hours in, I have a minor medical emergency and have to cancel the rest of my evening and go to the ER. Ah, no problem. I’ll just check on my dog first. I’m sweating and shaking from pain but my dog is home alone and might be sad and anxious so that’s my priority. Sweet Cara (our new trainer-in-training) is there and takes me home to pick up Parker (who is a howling mess when I arrive) and we pop him in the car and drive to the Hospital. He hangs out in the car with her while I hang out in the ER for 3 hours. I know I’ve blown it. All the work I’ve done is down the drain and I have to really back up now. I curse myself while waiting and feel eternally grateful to Cara for her kindness and patience.

That night, Parker can’t sleep in the living room. He sleeps on the floor beside my bed for the first time in months. He’s terrified to let me out of his sight. The next day, I leave the room and Parker panics. He’s pacing, panting, shadowing me, pupils dilated, refuses peanut butter, and I feel like the worst Mama on the planet. I got greedy. I failed at management. I took a risk and it backfired. I can’t go to the bathroom alone anymore, so we start from scratch (see blog post number one). I spend the day working through the levels with him and I am not seeing progress like I did last week. Instead I see more anxiety. I can get up to 30 minutes again but it’s not a calm 30 minutes, it’s pacing, panting, hyper-vigilance, laying by the door, inability to settle.

Then I do something I wish I had done 10.5 years ago. I call my vet’s office and book an appointment. It’s time to medicate. No part of me can justify putting a geriatric dog through this much anxiety so I choose to help him.

Anyone who works with me knows that I don’t jump to medication first and it takes a lot for me to get to that point in most cases, however I won’t say that I use it as a “last resort” because I think that’s unfair and inaccurate too. It shouldn’t be the immediate go-to, but it certainly should never be a last resort – it should be a tool like any other that is used when necessary. My biggest regret with Parker is that I didn’t medicate him when I should have. It would have been a very different 10.5 years. For us both.

It has changed the way I run my behaviour practice and when I have clients whose dogs are in distress and behaviour modification just isn’t enough, I send them to their vet or to a veterinary behaviourist to discuss pharmaceutical options. Some take it, some don’t. I understand the fear. I really do. However what most people don’t understand is that when your dog acts in an extreme manner, whether it’s reactivity, aggression, fear, anxiety, it’s because they’re screaming for help. Yes, behaviour modification is paramount, but lessening the anxiety is even more important because the animal cannot learn when (s)he is anxious or overly emotional. What is also misunderstood is the fact that long-term, chronic stress can cause significant damage to the body – more than a low-dose anti-anxiety medication likely might. I try to explain this when I hear the famous response to my suggestion of medication, “oh, I could never do that to my dog!”…but it’s more often than not, unsuccessful.

There are ways of lessening anxiety without the use of medications, such as calming aids (Thundershirt, Adaptil, Rescue Remedy, calming music, etc…), nutraceuticals (5HTP, valerian root, etc…), or even massage or Ttouch, however if those don’t have a fairly rapid effect on the dog and results can’t be seen within a couple of weeks, it can really cause a setback in training because the dog continues to spend time feeling anxious and not progressing.

I’ll eventually write a blog post on behaviour modification and medication but for now I’ll sign off. It’s 7:00pm and Parker has been blissfully snoozing after a busy day, got up to eat dinner and have a snuggle and then back to bed for a bit. He’s visibly relaxed but he’s still the same dog; his personality has not changed. He continues to beg for food (which I happily reinforce) and bring me his toy goose when I leave for 20 seconds and come back, but he is sleeping more peacefully and his anxiety is clearly lower when I’m preparing to leave.

I have a lot of work to do because this medication is not forever; it’s not even going to happen every day, but it’s giving us both the relief we need in order for behaviour modification to be successful. Now I can go to work for 3-4 hours at a time knowing my dog is not having a panic attack or meltdown at home alone. When I am at home, we’ll be working our tails off on changing departure cues, gradual departures and other relaxation protocols.

More to come…


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”.

9 Responses to Part three of the isolation diSTRESS saga

  1. Monisa says:

    I have a stupid question. Can you take him to work with you? Leave him in your office for an hour during class so that at least your absences are not quite so long?

    • whattapup says:

      Not stupid at all! I’m doing that tomorrow. Most of the time I can’t because I have mostly aggression cases and can’t risk having another dog in the room, but if I’m not doing a one-on-one, then yep! He’s usually good in my office for an hour tops. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Isolation Distress Update | Whatta Blog!

  3. Eileen fletcher says:

    Why did you wait so long to try medication? This dog could have been helped many years ago 😦 what medication are you using and what are the results?

    • Thanks Eileen – I wasn’t feeling bad enough already. 🙂

      Please remember that real people write these blog posts.

      We all make mistakes and hopefully learn from them – I failed to help my dog through medication until recently and now we’re on the mend.

      We’re using Fluoxetine and so far it’s been magical. We still do the work and will likely wean off at some point in the near future.

  4. Anna says:

    Hi, your blog posts about your beloved Parker resonates with my situation so much that I cry as I read your story. I feel frustrated that I am getting no where with attempts to help my nearly 8 month old pup with isolation distress (same level of destruction as yours), which hasn’t improved an inch since I adopted her from the street, nearly dead, when she was about a month old. While I have been trying and fretting the entire time I have had her with me, I feel guilt at my inability to do any of the many things I have tried consistently, and I feel guilt about not being able to remain calm, about thinking of giving her up. I don’t work at the moment, and end up bringing my dog everywhere. I don’t know what to do. Dismissive advice columns don’t fit my situation – my dog does not calm with gradually increasing separation or time with the crate gate shut. My question – how is the fluoxetine working for you and Parker on the long term? Would you still recommend it to others, as you had in the first week of use? I am planning to visit the vet this week. Many thanks for this valuable blog post – unique in a sea of advice for the average dog with only a touch of isolation issues.

    • torontodogtrainingbehaviour says:

      Hi Anna,

      Thank you so much! I’m glad you’re getting something out of these posts. I know what you mean about the “sea of advice for the average dog with only a touch of isolation distress” – the internet is full of well-meaning but horrible advice for the most part.

      While I’m not someone that leaps to use medication for every case right off the bat, I am definitely a supporter of using it alongside behaviour modification when we’re not seeing progress with training and the quality of life is affected. It sounds like you might be in that kind of place from the sounds of it.

      Personally, I’m finding the Fluoxetine is fantastic for Parker – all of a sudden we’re able to do so much more and not just relating to separation anxiety. It’s frightening when you see your dog on the correct dosage and type of medication and it works wonders. Frightening because you suddenly see how stressed they were before and realize you just got used to seeing them that way and thought that was their “normal” setting.

      We’ve been able to do so much training that he’s perfectly fine on his own now and that means the world to me. We’re about ready to wean off the meds within the next couple of months to see how he does without.

      I think if you’re not seeing a difference with training and the quality of life is affected, please seek out an experienced force-free professional near you or get in touch with me (I work through Skype and Facetime) and talk to your vet about medications.

      Wishing you the best!

      • Anna says:

        Thank you so much for your valuable advice! What you say about realizing that a dog’s anxiety may permeate through many other aspects of her behaviour – that really opens my eyes! Thanks for your comfort – I will proceed and will get back to this blog on how we do! Many thanks!

  5. John says:

    My 3yo Maltese also has isolation distress. He just wants a human around and he doesn’t care who it is. He’s with a sitter at least 3 days a week which gets costly. We’ve tried everything (desensitization, DAP, thundershirts, KONGs), but I don’t think we’re as consistent as we should be. Also, I’m all for joining a support group as I’ve yet to read any success stories so far.

    We have not tried medication. How long does it take for the medication to take effect so behavior modification will be more effective?

    Also, could you recommend a plan for a working professional?

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