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…


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…

Don’t Leave Me!

Don’t Leave Me is a new book, just released by Nicole Wilde, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in behaviour issues. She’s definitely one of my Top Five people to follow in this industry. Her books are simply phenomenal and her knowledge is astounding. She is the type of trainer I aspire to be.

I’ve just recently ordered this book (and am waiting impatiently while it ships here) and am going to block some time to sit down and read it in one sitting.

If you know me, you’ll know that in the 6+ years I’ve had Parker, we’ve struggled with something that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, ever. Separation Anxiety. It’s awful. Parker had the most severe case I’ve seen yet and I didn’t know how to deal with it properly. In the beginning, I dealt with it by being frustrated, by yelling, by using a citronella spray collar, by walking him for 6 hours a day in the hopes of wearing him out so I could leave for a few hours. I did what any normal person would do. Right?

I had multiple eviction notices, letters from neighbours, notes from employers about missing time to go home to walk him at lunch, leaving early due to his barking/howling. The end of my sanity came when I purchased a shock collar. I thought, hey – this spray collar is no longer effective and I need to take it to the next level to ensure we don’t end up homeless. I had considered drugs, but for some odd reason (lack of education) I thought that a shock collar was more humane because at least when he was wearing it, he had a choice; bark and get shocked, or keep quiet and don’t get shocked. With drugs, he had no choice – they would take over his mind and body. That seemed wrong to me.

Can I tell you how wrong I was about everything? Can I tell you how many times I have apologized to my dog? How often I cried my eyes out out of frustration, worry, and guilt?

There is so much information on the internet for willing pet-owners to find and I was one of those. What I didn’t understand was that he wasn’t “doing this to me” – he was vocalizing his fears and anxiety and my reaction? Anger. Can you imagine saying to someone close to you “I’m scared, lonely and really anxious” and they blow up at you and tell you to “be quiet and go to bed”? Would that make all your fears go away? No. You would likely lose all trust in that person and spiral into a deeper depression.

Well, pin a ribbon on me for Mother of the Year.

I used the shock collar for 2 days before I broke down, quite literally. It was horrific and terrifying for both of us. It went back into the box and sits in a closet somewhere as a reminder to myself of what not to do. I started doing some desensitization and counterconditioning, some mental stimulation and confidence-building exercises with him. I worked so hard with him and he responded well. Not 100% as this behaviour was 6 years in the making, but the progress was giving me hope.

We moved in June of this year to a new condo where we would live one floor away from Parker’s Daddy (my best friend) and his brother, Buster. It was a bit of a strategic move; I needed office space, I needed change, Parker and I both felt it was better to be closer to his Daddy and brother (for easier shared custody), and aesthetically, the condo is so much nicer.

The day we moved in, I noticed a difference in Parker. He was calm and relaxed – he actually seemed happier (if that’s possible). He now has a balcony with a glass surround, as opposed to a brick surround terrace with no view. I mention this because it is key. I realized quickly that if he can’t see life happening outside, he feels like the world has stopped. He needs to be able to people-watch so that he feels less lonely and isolated. I completely understand that.

His separation anxiety disappeared. Instantly. There were no more wide-eyed stares with dilated pupils before I left, no more barking and howling once I was gone, my doorframes stayed intact, my neighbours weren’t calling. He decided to spend the bulk of his time in his crate, which he had never done. He started eating his food after I had left, which is unbelievable. I would come home and he would come say hello and then go back to his warm spot by the door and wait to see what happened next. This was a far cry from his frantic whining and pacing for 10 minutes after I normally returned from an absence.

It has been almost 6 full months of comfort and happiness here. It has been bliss.

Until this past week. I’ve seen the signs again, but on a lower scale – the wide-eyed stares, the dilated pupils, the pacing, the howling after I leave. There’s no destruction, but I know how quickly this can escalate.

Here I am, the Trainer, having to start all over again with the demo-dog. I have a great five-week plan à la Patricia McConnell and am going to start it now. We need to work on desensitization and counterconditioning until Nicole Wilde’s book arrives and I can get even more clarity.

It goes to show that training rarely has an overnight effect, and those effects can wear off in time when you’re not paying attention. Don’t take the good for granted when it comes to your dog. Reinforce all the good behaviours and keep consistent – you never know when things can change.

Wish me luck –