Isolation Distress Update

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to post for a couple reasons – one being it’s really tough to find the time to blog when you’re doing behaviour modification with your own dog and everyone else’s too! 

I was having a rough time with Parker’s isolation distress and so I made a few decisions that changed our world.

  • start Parker on medication to lower his anxiety (see my last blogpost)
  • hire a trainer to help me through behaviour modification

So I decided to hire a trainer. *GASP!!* A trainer hiring a trainer? We all need a hand sometimes and I have an incredible network of qualified trainers who I am lucky to rely on for personal and professional assistance. So I hired a Separation Anxiety expert in the USA who takes on separation anxiety cases exclusively and will only work with clients who can commit to the program. Malena is a fantastic speaker and a motivating trainer. I needed someone super-savvy but also a great people-trainer because I need to be motivated but also held accountable during this process so that I don’t give up on Parker or myself. It’s hard to be objective when it’s your own dog. This is why we hire trainers, right? 

The first order of business is management. I have to be able to manage Parker 100% which means he cannot be left alone until we have built up his “alone time” muscle enough that I can leave him for short trips. Impossible! You say. Nope. Not impossible. We have to get creative. I’m lucky enough to work for myself and have the ability to work from home for at least half of my day. So I do. When I do have to go into work for client sessions or classes, I have to set up a network of people who are able to dog-sit.

Lucky for me, Parker is generally okay as long as there’s another person here, regardless of who it is. So I have a list of nine people I know and trust who are wiling and able to dog-sit occasionally. Mostly friends and colleagues and some clients. I have a rotation and send out a weekly email with shift options.

That’s the easiest thing for me to do. Pricey, but easy and I know he’s in good hands. Otherwise I’d be looking at sending him to people’s homes, daycare, dog walkers, day-boarding at the vet, and various other options that would work for average dogs but not for a 3-legged, geriatric, deaf, somewhat blind dog who can’t move around a whole lot.

Management sounds hard and it is. It’s the hardest part but it’s the key to success. If you can’t manage your dog during the process, you’re constantly running in circles. Doing behaviour modification and then leaving them and setting them up for failure, setting yourself back to square one each time.

The second order of business is monitoring. I have to set up my devices to be able to watch Parker while I’m gone so that I can monitor his level of stress and stop before he is actually stressed. My goal in this “game” is to avoid letting him feel stress at all. Remember the board game “Operation“? Well, I want to avoid touching the sides and setting off that buzzer. Parker’s anxiety is that buzzer and I have to be slow and steady, watching carefully. 

So I install Presence on my iPhone and iPad and then my two old iPhones which run on Wifi and I set one device up in each room so that I have “eyes” everywhere. This way when I leave I can watch him the whole time and be sure to come back before I see signs of stress. The word “before” being the key here. Just like with everything else in dog training, you will find success working below threshold, never above. 


The third order of business is behaviour modification. This means I need to change Parker’s emotional response to me leaving him alone. I have to work on building his “alone time” muscle as I like to call it, and that is exactly how it sounds – just like a muscle at the gym. You don’t start out bench pressing 120lbs on day one – you work your way up because you know if you push too hard you’re going to do damage and have to stop everything, go to physio and then start from way below easy when you come back to it. 

So I start leaving Parker for short periods of time. 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 15 seconds, 2 seconds, 20 seconds, 1 second, 5 seconds, etc… and each time I am putting on my boots, coat, hat, gloves, picking up my purse, keys, cell phone, and then leaving, returning and putting it all away, taking a 1-2 minute break. Notice that my pattern of absences is unpredictable and short? I’m not leaving for 1s, 5s, 10s, 20s, 40s, 1m, 2m, 5m, etc… I have to start small and keep it successful. The goal is that he gets tired of me coming and going and instead of feeling stressed when I pack up to leave, he thinks “oh, you again? I don’t care. You’re weird.”. 

And I have to do this as often as I can during the time that I’m home. The more I do this, the sooner we’ll see success. When I miss a day, I set us back and waste the time with my trainer. 

I work at it and I’m cautious and in tune with him. We master management quite well. We have one minor setback (hey, life happens!) and loads of small successes. When we hit 60 seconds together on a Skype consultation with Malena and he is anxiety-free, we have a tiny dance party and we exhale. 60 seconds may sound ridiculous to you but it is HUGE to me and to Parker. 

Parker used to yawn and lick his lips (signs of stress and anxiety) when I would put my wallet into my purse – a cue that meant I was leaving shortly. Now, he doesn’t care. I’m building his alone-time muscle and he’s getting stronger every day. 

Separation Anxiety and Isolation Distress can be devastating. I’ve been living it for over ten years with Parker. I know better than many people how it can affect our lives and the quality of living for both dog and human. What I can also say is that the success in behaviour modification is sweeter than the failure is sour. 

We will get through this and we will be successful. 


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”.

5 Responses to Isolation Distress Update

  1. Smurray says:

    Hi, I’ve enjoyed your posts about separation anxiety- my pup has the same problem and we recently moved from a shared house (where people were coming and going lots and she was ok) to our own house where she’s alone all day. I am hiring a dog walker to give her some company (and increase the comings and goings) mid-day and I also check on her via skype. I had one question for you- when you skype with Parker, do you mute the volume so he can’t hear you, or do you think it would be helpful for stressed out doggies to hear their owners voice when they are alone?
    Keep up the good writing!

    • whattapup says:

      Hey there! Thanks so much!
      I always mute the home computer / devices because the sound can definitely cause more anxiety. Dogs don’t understand technology so they can become confused and anxious if they can hear you but can’t see / smell you. I hope that helps!

  2. Liron says:


    I was wondering how you got on?
    I moved with my 8 year old girl to another country, alone, and she’s developed Isolation Distress too. I started doing the leaving game and we got to 12 minutes but then today I failed. I had to go to the supermarket, left her with her Kong and came back 10 minutes later to her crying, howling and scratching the door 😦 when I leave her without the Kong I can’t even make it to 5 seconds.. Working on it though.
    I work a few days a week and I always leave her with a sitter which I can’t really afford but I’m prepared to do all I can.
    I hope your story can help my motivation.

    • Hi Liron,
      We’ve done amazingly well! Parker is up to 6.5 hours stress-free and I’m over the moon. In 11.5 years, this protocol is the only one that has worked. It’s amazing.
      If you want to work together, let me know – I can take on new clients starting as early as next week.
      It’s totally do-able.
      Parker destroyed my doors and door frames, windows, carpeting, you name it. The cost to replace all that was more than I invested in resolving his anxiety. I totally hear ya. 🙂

      • Liron says:

        That’s amazing! Well done!

        Thanks to your blog I started monitoring her through Skype on my computer. I take my phone out to the hallway with me. We made it to 12 minutes today with a NEW Kong I got her since she either finished the other one too quickly or lost interest in it whenever I headed to the door. With the monitor I manage to enter the room as soon as I see signs that she’s about to go scratch the door/start crying.

        I’m able to work with her a lot this week and next week but the week after I’ll be starting a second job and won’t have as much time 😦 I hope we’ll make some progress. As I previously said though, we only seem to be going forward though when I leave her with a Kong. Otherwise she cries within 1-3 seconds of my departure. So we only work on it during breakfast and dinner.. otherwise she’s not hungry and doesn’t care.

        I also took her off my bed. After 7 years of sleeping in it, she now sleeps on a bed next to mine and she took it surprisingly well. Seems harder for me than it is for her. Will also help her gain some confidence. And on the 8th of January I’m taking her to her first ever obedience class, hopefully it’ll help too.

        I’d love to work with you if possible online as unfortunately I’m very far from you physically 🙂 We live in London.
        I plan on moving to my own place in February not too far from where I am now and I’m hoping to take a second dog, also 8 years old.. since I believe it could help her. She used to living with other dogs and I know the dogsitter has sometimes been leaving her with other dogs and she was great then.

What are your thoughts on this?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: