What living with my separation anxiety dog taught me.
Updated: Feb 14, 2022
I said goodbye to my dog Remmy due to old age a little under 2 years ago and it crushed me. He was my first dog as an adult and while I had been wanting a dog for a long time, when we found each other it wasn’t planned. Once I had him? I couldn’t imagine life without him…or remember life before him. I know everyone says this (and everyone’s right) but he was the best dog. My mom was the first to see his cute face on the local shelter’s website. It wasn’t uncommon for her to casually look there, as my parents at that time had a habit of visiting the animals at the shelter during their weekly date night by bringing them treats and affection. They walked through, doting on each set of eyes they passed to let them know they deserved love. Years ago my mom would have never done this, as she would have found it too depressing, but now she is a firm believer that it’s important to help them however she can, even if it makes her sad she can’t bring them all home. My parents have always been animal lovers, so it’s no wonder I ended up being one too.
My mom was so stricken with his unique looks (he was a vizsla - a breed we were all unfamiliar with at the time) that she insisted we go meet him in person even though it wasn’t date night and even though they theoretically were not actively looking for an additional dog at the time. I happened to stop by their house while this was happening, so I rode along with them to go meet this dog that I very well knew may end up theirs. We took him into a “hug room” and he was nervous (not uncommon for dogs who end up in shelters), but super gentle and happy to meet us. My parents sat on the bench in the room and I sat on the floor, and he came and plopped right down in front of me and nuzzled in. Needless to say, we all instantly loved him so much that he was going home with one of us…even though I didn’t come along even thinking about a dog for me.
“Is this our dog or yours?” my mom said as she looked at me with knowing eyes. “I think he’s made his choice,” I retorted with a smirk as he snuggled into my lap despite being too large. And it was done. I brought him home and was enamored from the start.
I very quickly realized that while this sweet 5 year old dog needed some confidence building in other areas of his life, he was pretty much near perfect (I wasn’t biased or anything!), but he did have one glaring problem that became apparent right away. When left alone, Remmy would absolutely wreck my house. He barked and barked…and barked. And when he wasn’t barking, he was busy chewing the door frame to my front door, bending up my door knob, ripping down curtains from my windows and eating couches near the window as well. It was almost hard to believe that this ultra gentle couch potato of a dog was capable of such destruction. But eventually we caught it on camera and there was no denying his culpability, but more devastatingly there was no denying, he was experiencing significant distress. While I would put him into a crate when I had to leave him alone, I tried my best to plan my schedule as best I could so that he could go to grandma and grandpa’s house as often as possible to avoid this. He wasn’t any happier in a crate, something I now know is not uncommon for dogs with separation anxiety, and he even broke off teeth trying to escape it, so as time went on, I twisted and contorted my schedule even more.
I avoided leaving him by himself completely as much as humanly possible. So much so that it impacted my social life, and even my ex-husband, who I met later, would work opposite schedules from me so this otherwise amazing dog didn’t have to be in such a panic. While it was frustrating, and I felt like a bit of a hostage sometimes, more than anything it caused me guilt. I was a rookie in animal behavior, just learning about training basics and I had no idea how to help him. What I knew was that this wasn’t caused by spite, or an attempt to get back at me. I knew he was essentially having a panic attack when the humans weren’t around. As someone who has battled anxiety myself, I know that it’s not rational. He was experiencing a phobia and no amount of leaving toys, treats, or comforting him ahead of time was going to help. It didn’t matter that I came back every single time; he was too stressed to logic that out or learn that pattern. There were a lot of myths back then that didn’t help my inability to help him through it; ones that are still prevalent today, so I basically avoided leaving him and that was my only solution at that time.
Fast forward many years later: I’m working as a behavior consultant and trainer and even after years of working with a myriad of other behavior hurdles, I still wasn’t working with these particular cases because I knew that separation anxiety was different. I knew some things about it but not enough to help others. I finally went through Malena DeMartini’s amazing intensive course on separation anxiety and became certified as a CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer).This amazing experience I had in learning how to effectively help others with this issue made me as emotional as any milestone in my career has. I could easily say that I wish I knew back then what I know now (because it’s true), however I consider that every client I help with this hurdle is a way for me to honor Remmy’s memory.
Now when I tell my separation anxiety clients that I understand how stressful and helpless it feels to have a dog with this phobia, I am overjoyed to also tell them that separation anxiety is highly treatable. I love helping clients achieve their goals and help their dogs feel okay about their departures. I also can all but imagine what a weight off their shoulders it must be to eventually be able to walk out the door and not be checking their watch constantly, or rushing through the supermarket, or telling their friends they can’t get together yet again because their companion needs them home. They feel good about doing these things now because they know their dog is truly comfortable at home and that’s a peace of mind every dog owner needs.
For more information on private separation anxiety training, please check out https://www.homewardboundbehavior.com/dog-separation-anxiety-training-services.