Sunday, November 20, 2011

Separation Anxiety: Day 11 of Slinky with Misha May

I was thinking about Slinky being visited and then being left by her mom at the CPR class yesterday and the anxiety she experienced at the separation. It reminded me of when I taught kindergarten in the 70’s and 80’s in the United States, and in Greece to an international student body. None of these populations was attending pre-school at the time, which made the kindergarten year the first that they were leaving home and being separated from mom. Since those in Greece were living in a foreign country with a foreign language and customs, some having fled from dangerous or conflicted situations, there were additional contributing factors for separation anxiety.

A minority of children were so excited to be attending school that they immediately engaged with the stimulating environment and never looked back. Some of those moms may have been disappointed and thought their kids loved them less but that was not the case. They were most likely hard-wired and parentally prepared to handle social interactions and unfamiliar situations well.

Most children had mixed experiences. They were eager to explore, curious about the school, and yet not completely ready to handle an entire day away from the familiar. Kindergartens which offered initial half days seemed to be more successful. Kids were allowed to gently leave home at a rate more suitable to their age and social skills. After a week or so the children began to attend all day and seemed to blossom. They felt confident and had definitely benefited from the more acceptable transition.

Sadly, in each class, there were one or two kids who were desperate not to separate from mom. They clung and cried and screamed. They were frantic and panicked. It was heartbreaking to watch. My job was to help them transition as easily as possible and to at the same time not allow the more sensitive kids who were holding it together to deteriorate as well. When one kid expresses this anxiety, it can easily become contagious to many in the class.

Typically, my solution was to begin singing with the class while holding the sobbing children on my lap. It generally worked for a number of reasons. The kids who were crying began to be distracted and curious. They could sense that I cared and wasn’t abandoning them, and they could see that the other kids were starting to have fun. The more secure children were thrilled that kindergarten was truly going to have something to offer them right away.

I will never forget one Lebanese girl who clung to her mom in the Athens school. I couldn’t understand what she was saying but it was evident that she was completely panicked about being left. I could imagine what she had already seen and experienced in her brief five years of life. Both her sensitive nature and her life experiences had created a nervous system more likely to panic than remain calm in frightening or unfamiliar situations. The mom continued to be completely loving but clear that school would be attended. She calmed down as her mom supported her to see the other kids, bright classroom and singing teacher. She functioned well from that day forward, although each morning for a week or so she tried to leave with mom. There was less intensity and she was easily redirected. She bonded with me and the class and became eager to attend school. Not only was this part of her day becoming more and more enjoyable, but mom showed up every day at the same time and took her home. She was always a little shy and reticent, but lovely and smart and well-liked. Her personality did not change but her ability to cope was strengthened by the combined support of a loving home and stable classroom.

There are many parallels in both the behavior and treatment of humans and canines regarding separation anxiety. It is healing to create an environment with as little stress as possible. If any stimulus triggers a reaction, then anxiety reduction techniques should be utilized. For humans, age appropriate verbal responses and explanations can help. For canines, a soothing ‘that’s good’ when they are calm will support that behavior rather than the whining. Reiki, Rescue Remedy and massage can help lower anxiety for both species in the midst of the situation. So can a number of distractions like singing, movement, and play. Long term treatment for both includes similar affirmations of safety and security when alone and communication that abandonment is not an option. Each can change over time with a patient confidence building, anxiety assuaging program.

Just as I was concerned that the relaxed kindergarteners might have their anxiety triggered by those kids who were strongly affected, so this type of anxiety can spread with human adults. When I was a school counselor, we addressed the teaching staff before the children in emergency situations so that they could help us create an atmosphere of stability rather than succumb to their own fear and anxiety. I remember one morning when a child was suddenly and tragically killed by a car in the crosswalk in front of the school. The initial work was counseling adults who might have trouble functioning. Then we made the rounds of the classrooms to help the kids process their reactions and emotions.

Anxiety is also contagious in shelter situations. There have been studies that demonstrate how to maintain peace and calm for the dogs which include providing bedding, privacy and stimulation, such as a toy to play with or a bone to gnaw on. Human interaction is also crucial to meet their social needs. Their anxiety is why many humans find it difficult to even visit a shelter much less spend time there volunteering. Our witnessing of these tragic circumstances that feel beyond our control are even more traumatic for the incarcerated animals.

I’ve often wondered why euthanasia was performed in the same building as where the dogs are housed. It seems unduly cruel to force an animal with such an amazing sense of smell to live where he knows what is happening to his fellow creatures, and with the potential of it happening to him. No wonder many animals in shelters seem frantic – they aren’t stupid – they can smell what is going on.

About the worst thing an adopter can do is take that dog back to the shelter for any reason, even if seems like a good idea to you. They can still smell what is going on. When I volunteered as a trainer / behaviorist at a local kill shelter, I remember the worst behaved / most anxious dogs in the public classes were the ones who had been adopted from there. That made perfect sense to me.

Given the anxiety levels in some shelters, I am surprised that there aren’t more cases of generalized anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder and separation anxiety, but dogs are amazingly resilient.

Back to Slinky, rescued after stays in two shelters….you have to ask yourself why such a cute young dog waited in two shelters and wasn’t adopted. Sometimes great dogs just get passed over. It is very sad.

I gave Slinky her breakfast today in the medium sized wire crate in the office, with Twinkle in the large crate and Shadow in his small plastic one. Valentino had the whole living room to himself. Slinky focused on the meal and ate with great appetite finishing every bite of kibble. Both back feet were outside of the crate as her bowl was near the edge, but she was a focused relaxed diner. I was sitting at the computer typing and noticed that instead of dancing she ate steadily.

Dinner happened in the same way. She is having numerous positive associations with the crates.

Three volunteers, Doug, Ann and Ann, were here for the afternoon to prepare the baskets for our Live Auction at A Moment for Mutts at the Golden Hotel on November 14th. You can see the results and the wonderful sponsors, donors and vendors on a special page at our website Slinky enjoyed all of the attention and activity. She was so comfortable that she kept leaping from the couch to the table to be involved more closely. We, of course, took her off each time and then finally put her behind a gate. I was happy to see her so relaxed and having fun with yet more new people.

Slinky also continues to do well with dogs. She has been in my yard when dogs go by on walks. With very little help from me ‘oh it’s a pup!’ she is quiet and curious - very civilized behavior. I remember the first time she was in my driveway and the neighbor dog went by. She reacted and barked, but not anymore. The little Pomeranian neighbor has actually grown into a wonderfully polite and sweet dog. He gets walked often and you can tell he is very loved.

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