Please Don’t Leave Me! Tackling Separation Anxiety

by Sandy Oelschlegel

Handsome Taylor

Today I walked into the bedroom and Taylor was in the center of the bed calmly looking at me. I gave him his goodbye dog cookie and turned around to leave. I knew he was aware that I was leaving the house because I had given him all the well-rehearsed departure cues.

I changed clothes and shoes, turned the hairdryer on briefly, closed the curtain on the patio door and put on the radio. He had watched me do all those things.

Then he chose to hop on the bed to take a nap instead of clamoring to follow me, or pacing with anxiety.

We have certainly come a long way.  You see, Taylor came to us as a heart worm positive, owner surrender foster displaying “separation anxiety.

According to Lisa Lyle Waggoner, Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (CSAT); “Separation anxiety is a common anxiety disorder among dogs. It can be triggered by re-homing, changes in the household composition (such as key people in the dog’s life moving out), moving, or traumatic experiences…. Separation anxiety normally worsens over time without treatment.”

It was on January 27thof 2018 that we met ABR volunteer Rachel Arden-Atkins at a PetSmart in East Tennessee. She and her husband had intercepted 7-year-old Taylor as his owner was about to leave him at a shelter. Thanks goodness!

He was now an ABR dog. The introductions to our two ABR Brittanys went well and we became fosters for the first time.

One of my first emails to our wonderful regional coordinator Rebecca Rockwell Wallace said “I wanted to update you on Taylor. The anxiety I mentioned before is pretty strong, and he barks and whines when left in the house, confined or not confined, with the other dogs in the house or without them. He gets quite worked up panting and trembling but he is not at all destructive, which is good!”

My second email included a detailed list of his symptoms 

  • Shaking and trembling when placed in a crate.
  • Yipping and whining all night unless he is sleeping in a room with a human. 
  • Yodeling and howling when left in the house while we go out to the barn or yard. 
  • Shaking and trembling and yipping and yodeling and howling when we leave the property in the car.

And so, our introduction to separation anxiety began.

Rebecca was wonderful and helpful and always there for us as a resource. She fielded many emails from me about his incremental progress with the anxiety as well as his heartworm treatment.

Taylor had to be kept quiet during his 60 plus days of heartworm treatment and that meant we could not let him get upset and anxious. We had to make many compromises. To prevent him from getting too worked up about us leaving the house together, we took turns staying inside with him. One of us would always stay home if there was shopping or other errands to be done.

In order to get a good night’s sleep, I moved a crate into my room where he could sleep without vocalizing. I have learned that many people who have dogs with separation anxiety make such adjustments and compromises, and it has an impact on their life. In fact, these dogs can end up in animal shelters when it all becomes too much.

But there is hope. And Taylor is proof.

By mid-February we were looking for answers. With Rebecca’s blessing we contacted a behavior program at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. Unfortunately, their next available appointment for a consult was the end of March, and they mentioned using drugs to relieve the anxiety as a primary solution, which we were not comfortable with. 

Rebecca then told us about a trainer, Lisa Lyle Waggoner at Cold Nose College, that was a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer who worked with people around the United States by using Zoom video conference technology.

Lisa’s work with separation anxiety dogs is based on desensitization, which as she explained to me is “presenting the stimulus that stresses the dog at an intensity low enough so that the dog does not to respond to the stimulus.”

In the case of separation anxiety, the stimuli are all things related to the owner’s departure.

With the blessing and support of ABR Rebecca contacted and arranged for us to begin a month-long intensive separation anxiety program with Lisa.

The program used by Cold Nose College is highly customized, designed specifically for each dog, and based on the specific situation involved around the departure.

In order to desensitize the dog to absences, the parts of the owner’s departure are introduced in very small increments over and over and with varied duration.

This is all based on science that is proven to work.

It is important that the dog does not experience anxiety or panic during the steps. After an initial assessment where we left the house and Lisa viewed Taylor’s behavior via Zoom, we were given an assignment of activities to do daily, which Lisa varied based on her observations. We also had an online log to complete each day, which Lisa reviewed. Each week we would meet with her via Zoom to discuss the progress or problems, we would then leave the house with the video on the dogs so Lisa could assess Taylor’s progress.

Working through the program was very interesting and we took it very seriously. Mindful of the fact that ABR was sponsoring us, we dug in and applied ourselves. It was quite a commitment to do the activities every day, record the dogs with a video during the activity, and then transcribe Taylor’s behavior into the online spreadsheet. 

Here is an example of one of the daily exercises which was done during the second week in the program. Each departure cue is done with only 60-90 seconds between them and the total time for each exercise is 20-30 minutes.

Of course, this was designed for Taylor. The stimulus in your home will be different so, as they say – don’t try this at home!

  • Bathroom routine w/hair dryer, walk to door, exit, immediately return
  • Bathroom routine with hair dryer, purse and keys, exit, wait 5 seconds return
  • Close blinds, exit, wait 10 seconds, return 
  • With purse and keys, exit, walk to car open/close car doors (do not get in), immediately return
  • Exit, wait 20 seconds, return
  • Bathroom routine w/hair dryer, with purse and keys, exit, walk to car, open/close car doors (do not get in), immediately return
  • With purse and keys, exit, walk to car, get in, close doors, start engine, wait 10 seconds return
  • Bathroom routine without hairdryer, exit, wait 5 seconds, return
  • Bathroom routine w/hair dryer, with purse and keys, exit, walk to car, open/close car doors (do not get in), immediately return
  • With purse and keys, exit, walk to car, get in, back out of carport and right back in, return
  • With purse and keys, exit, wait 15 seconds, return
  • Bathroom routine w/hair dryer, walk to car, get in, drive half way to the gate, turn around and return 

As you can see it is repetitive, and boring, which is the whole point.

While we were doing this the dogs got so perplexed, and then bored with it, they eventually just sat or laid down and watched. The last step was always an actual “departure” with us leaving for variable lengths of time, sometimes just starting the car, later, backing out of the car port, or down the driveway and back. The video recordings showed that Taylor was quiet for longer and longer during departures.

In early June we finished working with Lisa, and we had accomplished a lot. Lisa commented that we had come further, faster than most of the dogs she has worked with. She believed, as we do, that the good progress is because of the work we did before we started with her, and because of our lifestyle where we are in and out all day working around the farm.

Taylor does not get upset when left in the house anymore, he sleeps through the night without being near a human, he calmly accepts that we sometimes leave in the car.

But the work is not over. Separation anxiety is a condition that requires a commitment over time. We continue to use departure cues before we leave because it seems to calm Taylor to know what is about to happen. We leave for several hours now, but as the absence lengthens, it seems that he has more anxiety. 

Now we are approaching our 1-year anniversary with this sweet little gentleman. I wanted to share our story so that others can see that there is hope for this condition.

We did not have the heart to move Taylor again to another home, he is our foster failure. On my birthday in July, Rebecca asked if we wanted to adopt him and of course we said YES. He is a beautiful little gentleman who just wants to know that he won’t be left behind again- so he joined our family, now we have Zeebo, Liberty and Taylor too.

Sandy is a volunteer and member of the Board of Directors of the American Brittany Rescue. She is a recently retired medical librarian with a long history of working with a variety of animal species. She lives with her husband, their 3 Brittanys, her 33 year old mule, Barbados sheep, and many show pigeons and bantam chickens.

Lisa Lyle Waggoner is the author of The Original Rocket Recall™: Teach Your Dog to Come. She’s a CPDT-KA, a CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer), a Pat Miller Certified Trainer Level 2, Faculty for the Victoria Stilwell Academy of Dog Training and Behavior, a dog*tec Certified Professional Dog Walker and the founder of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina. The company’s trainers enjoy providing virtual behavior consulting and training solutions to clients around the globe and offers coaching, mentoring and behavior case support for pet professionals.


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