“It Can Drive A Grown Man to Tears”: Grappling with Dogs and Separation Anxiety
About six months after we’d moved over to our new Brooklyn high rise, with its generous open space and view of Manhattan across the East River, we noticed a change in Lucie, our beloved basset hound. The typical, adorable basset lethargy she had always displayed when we left her at home, which involved curling up contently on the dog bed, soaking up the rays coming through the window or sandwiched between the couch cushions: it suddenly stopped.
The changes were pretty abrupt. When we’d return home to greet her, Lucie would start panting hard. She’d pace around. She’d cry. And bark persistently. She was drinking water as if severely dehydrated. This had never happened in the nearly six years we had owned her. Why would the normally super docile Lucie shoot across the room like a cannon upon our arrival at home? Why all the new whimpering and barking?
All this new, odd behavior from Lucie began to add up, and we worried it could be separation anxiety. To confirm our suspicions, we turned my Macbook into a nanny cam by using the video feature on the Photo Booth Application (pre-loaded onto every Mac, but there are lots of equivalent programs for PCs).
Separation anxiety isn’t just for puppies in training. It can be really complex, and in adult dogs, it can also be a sign of something else (like hypothyroidism). We knew it was best to consult a vet and tap into our network of dog trainers and veterinary behaviorists. It’s a condition that, in the words of one dog training professional, can be so upsetting to both dogs and owners, it “can drive grown men to tears.”
Despite having moved from the West Village to Williamsburg, we decided to stick with our trusted vet, Dr. Tracy Sane, at Greenwich Village Animal Hospital. One Williamsburg veterinarian we consulted immediately recommended ‘de-barking,’ which was NOT an approach we wanted to entertain— so back to GVAH we went. We also found a local trainer, Denise Herman of Empire of the Dog who really knew her stuff. Both took care to ask lots of questions to get a deep understanding of Lucie’s situation.
Our Photo Booth recordings proved to have tremendous value in communicating what was going on in our absence. We were able to show Denise the howling, crying and pacing that would go on incessantly until our return. (While upsetting to watch, this footage can be crucial to coming up with a customized plan to resolve a particular case of separation anxiety).
Separation anxiety is particularly vexing to urban apartment-dwellers: If an owner leaves a dog alone to wail and howl, the neighbors take notice. So, being very sensitive to this situation, we planned our life around addressing Lucie’s issues and eliminating any circumstances that would provoke her anxious behavior.
One strategy we employed under the advice of our Vet and trainer: gradual desensitization work (leaving and then coming back in incrementally longer durations). This involved true baby steps, starting at 10 seconds and working our way up. The key is to never leave a dog alone long enough that the anxiety escalates. It also involves providing a dog with high-value treats and puzzle toys as a distraction/positive association.
Another invaluable tool in this process was a program called iCam, which allowed me to turn my iPad and Macbook into live-feeds that showed up on my iPhone. While standing in my hallway or building lobby, I had a clear view into the apartment. The moment Lucie became less engaged in her treat or ventured to the front door (where she would ultimately cry), I would walk through the door (without any major displays of celebration on my part so as to minimize the significance of comings and goings) By returning before this kind of duress takes place, a dog becomes confident that the owner will always come back.
Departures don’t need to be scary. So as not to undo some of the progress we were making, when we left town for a friend’s wedding, Lucie stayed in our apartment with a familiar dogsitter who never left her alone.
We also made the very personal decision to try medication in conjunction with the behavioral techniques. Because Lucie’s separation anxiety came on so strongly and suddenly with minimal improvement, we decided that this second line of defense was worth trying. The first medication Lucie tried was Reconcile, also known as “puppy prozac.” While this particular medication has worked well in many dogs, it wasn’t the right fit for Lucie. In addition to her separation anxiety not improving, it seemed to make her quite lethargic and left her with very little appetite. She lost her spark. So we asked our vet about an alternative medication. He recommended Clomicalm, a meat-flavored chewable tablet made specifically for the treatment of separation anxiety in dogs. Lucie has been on Clomicalm for a little while now, and her enthusiasm for food, treats and belly rubs has not waned in the slightest. While we’re not out of the woods yet, we’re hopeful that the gradual separation techniques, coupled with the Clomicalm, will allow Lucie to relax in our absence and reclaim her sunny spot in the corner.
Owning a dog and managing issues like separation anxiety can be complex and overwhelming, but for us, it was about tapping into our network, asking the hard questions and being careful to gather a range of opinions and options.