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…


Let’s throw a wrench in it!

Day three and Mandog is much more relaxed for the most part. Doesn’t care at all about my departure cues. I haven’t left him today (thanks to almost 300 emails calling my name) but have given him some great exercise as well as some training (head halter training for fun) so he’ll be tired out tonight.

Around 4pm he came to me with a glassy-eyed look, panting, then went to the front door and rang the bell. I packed us up and we took off outside. Poor Mandog has diarrhea. Normally this isn’t a big deal except he has a long history of Colitis and it happens in the snap of a finger for him, especially with the stress of a move. It’s not surprising…in fact I was expecting it sooner.

Not only this, but the poor guy had a big walk this morning (bad Mama!) because he was feeling energetic and now he’s having a rough time walking. Missing his back right leg for the last 10.5 years is catching up to him and he’s starting to slow down and really have a rough time. I’ll be measuring him and ordering him a wheelchair this week so that he can take walks and enjoy life a little more.

Last month, he had a vestibular attack that almost made his Mama lose her mind with worry but has recovered to about 95%. That’s the best we’ll do. It’s been a difficult couple of months especially with all the snow and ice and cold weather…so I’m sure as we get closer to spring he’ll feel more like himself again.

So tonight I go to class, anxiously Skype-ing him before, between, and after. I’ve also made an area for newspapering in case he has a moment of panic “down there”…

One step forward, two steps back. Nothing we can’t handle. We just take it a day at a time and don’t lose sight of the goal and definitely don’t lose sight of the progress. This Mandog is worth all the work put into him, tenfold. I am the luckiest Mama.

Isolation Distress Part Two

Day two:

I woke up late today with a headache and was short three hours for training, which I kicked myself for later… It’s so important to commit to the plan and be consistent and not skip a day or miss an opportunity. It’s more important than I can even explain.

Even with a headache or a stomach flu, we’re still training.

I had to teach two classes today 1:30pm and 3:00pm and was starting to feel panicked. I called my parents and they agreed to come out and hang out with Mandog until I got home from teaching but they were going to be later than 1pm which meant he’d have to hang out alone for a little while, regardless.

I set up my Skype, did a few rounds of departure cue desensitization, gradual departures, left a surprise stuffed, frozen Kong on his bed when he wasn’t looking, and then took off. By the time the door was locked, he had found the Kong and was settled nicely on the bed without a care in the world. I got to work and he hadn’t moved. Five minutes later, the whining and pacing started.

The sound is awful. It’s a deep, mournful whine that sounds like what a heart would sound like if it were breaking in half very slowly. It continues intermittently for about 60 seconds and I debate going home but then he goes to his bed and resumes the Kongfest. Not a peep for the rest of the time I’m connected by Skype. Students start arriving and I hang up and hope for the best. My parents should be there in 20 minutes.

After class, I race home in a taxi (because clearly I have separation anxiety) to find out that my parents arrived and he was fast asleep on his bed.

Imagine my relief! This is great news. He’s starting to self-soothe and his stress is very short lived.

I have most of the day tomorrow to work on this even more, and then class and clients in the evening, so I’ll be recording him then to see what he’s up to.

Three stuffed Kongs in the freezer and fingers crossed!

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…

Dog-Dog Resource Guarding

Does your dog snarl and growl if another dog approaches her when she’s eating or gnawing on a tasty chew? Does she freeze and look sideways when her canine friends try to join her on the bed or couch? How about starting fights at the dog park when there’s a ball in play?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you’re not alone. When a dog acts possessively over an item, place or person we call it “resource guarding” and it’s more common than you think.

What you may not realize is that despite thousands of years of successful domestication, dogs are still animals. All animals have instincts and resource guarding is one of them. Dogs have to guard or protect their resources in order to ensure survival; if they don’t, they lose their dinner, their sleeping quarters, their mate, etc… Looking at dogs today, this may seem like a somewhat useless instinct as we provide our dogs with life’s necessities, but then again, what use is prey drive if they’re fed twice a day by us? What use is turning around three times before laying down to sleep when there is no tall grass to flatten on their cozy bed?

The bottom line is that these are all instincts that are pre-programmed into our dogs whether we like it or not. We can either punish them when they follow these instincts, or we can teach them to control these instincts and defer to us instead.

Resource Guarding is classified under the “aggression” umbrella but don’t let that scare you. Aggression is actually a perfectly natural part of a dog’s world; it is us who have decided that it is unacceptable. There are varying levels of resource guarding and I urge you to familiarize yourself with these levels so that you can deal with it appropriately.

Level One is where you’ll find a perfectly acceptable level of resource guarding; your dog gives a growl, a sideways stare, a stiff body, even a bark as a warning to another dog approaching while she is in possession of a high value item (toy, bone, chew, food, etc…). The important thing is that the warnings remain as warnings and the other dog obliges and creates distance. Management and a watchful eye is advised here. You may consider contacting your trainer for assistance.

Level Two is where you’ll find a dog who gives the appropriate warning and then the other dog instead of creating distance, he decides to take action and “fight back” in order to gain control of the other dog’s resource. The dog with the resource will be bullied into letting the resource go and no conflict will take place. This is not ideal but it’s better than a conflict taking place. Management and a watchful eye is advised here. You may consider contacting your trainer for assistance.

Level Three is where things get a little riskier. The dog with the resource gives the appropriate warning and then the other dog instead of creating distance, he decides to take action and “fight back” in order to gain control of the other dog’s resource. The dog with the resource will engage in the conflict and a snarkfest ensues where no damage is done and the situation is quickly resolved. Management and a watchful eye is required here. You should consider contacting your trainer for assistance.

Level Four is increasingly dangerous. The dog with the resource gives no warning signals – instead, he instantly aggresses towards the approaching dog and the other dog is quick to retreat. No fight or damage ensues. OR instead of retreating, the other dog engages in the conflict and a snarkfest ensues where no damage is done and the situation is quickly resolved. Management and a watchful eye is required here. You should consider contacting your trainer for assistance.

Level Five is nearing the most dangerous level of resource guarding because we have a dog that has no warning system, aggresses instantly but luckily his bites are inhibited, meaning he may cause minimal damage but does not severely injure the other dog. Contact your trainer immediately and put in place all management techniques immediately. Do not delay.

Level Six is the most dangerous level of resource guarding because not only do we have a dog that has no warning system, but we also have a dog (or two) with uninhibited bites. This is where we see the most damage done as the dog with the resource has been pushed past his threshold and has learned that aggression works. The damage done by these dogs tends to be more serious in nature, requiring veterinary care. Contact your trainer immediately and put in place all management techniques immediately. Do not delay.

Warning Signals
A bark, snarl, growl, stiff posture, tongue flick, accelerated consumption of the item, or a lunge towards the threat – these are all warning signals. You may not like these behaviours but keep in mind that these signals are clear communication from your dog. It’s a warning system and it’s important to allow your dog the opportunity to communicate and warn others when he is uncomfortable or threatened. If you choose to punish these warning signs, your dog learns not to use them, therefore he jumps to the next best option; a bite. Never punish a warning system. Instead, listen carefully and jump straight into management mode until you can meet with your trainer to devise a behaviour modification plan.

Management is key as resource guarding is rarely “cured” in an animal. In order to manage, you must be hyper-vigilant. Keep all high-value objects secured and out of reach when other dogs are around. When visiting the dog park, ask others to put the toys away until your pup has left the park, or simply opt for a leashed walk until the toys are out of play at the park. If you have a multiple-dog household, feed dogs in separate rooms or in their separate crates. Whatever you do, avoid allowing your dog to be pushed past his/her threshold at any time; don’t set them up to practice the behaviour!

Behaviour Modification
There are a few different ways to modify this behaviour, but none of them should involve punishment or harsh methods as this can make resource guarding much worse, much faster. The bottom line is that you want to teach your dog to use his/her warning system first and foremost. Then you want to teach them that when other dogs approach them while they have a resource in their possession, great things happen and the resource isn’t lost. The modification plan will vary from dog to dog but enlisting the help of an experienced, positive trainer early, is key.

Resource Guarding is often caused and/or exacerbated by stress, so do everything you can to decrease the stresses in your dog’s every day life. Have a vet examine your pet for any health concerns that might be causing this increase in aggressive behaviour as well.

Note: If your dog guards resources from people, please contact your trainer immediately as there is a different management protocol and program for behaviour modification.