Sunday, November 6, 2011

Separation Anxiety: Day 7 of Slinky with Misha May

Slinky got her name because when they tried to put a leash on her at the shelter, she slinked across the floor. That says to me that although she was almost one year old, she seemed to have been deprived of some common and necessary experiences. Perhaps her separation anxiety was caused at least in part by neglect. The result of this was her feeling insecure when she was left alone, knowing it was very possible she would not get her basic needs met.

She no longer needs treats or any special cue when I exit through a door. I can go down to the basement, out to the back yard and out the front door without her being triggered. I do return in a matter of seconds or minutes and am increasing the length of time as tolerated. She hasn’t had any intense vocalizations since the first evening and those were nothing compared to the crate video.

In the beginning, my Rena used to vocalize when I was standing even just a few feet away. It was heartbreaking and was frustrating and irritating and tragic. I felt that I was being controlled by her. It took quite some time of miniscule absences until she could tolerate distance. She was damaged beyond just separation anxiety and was clearly an anxious dog even when the particular behaviors were extinguished.

She always accompanied us to work. Within a few days of her adoption, a group of us was purging and cleaning the offices. We were right there in the hallway outside of her room and she could see us. But she could not tolerate being ‘alone’. She sounded to me like the Three Stooges all expressing themselves at the same time. It was difficult in those beginning days to attend to her and get anything done. Sometimes I felt resentful that so much accommodation had to be designed for her. But I soon realized just how terrifying this was for her and concentrated on feeling elated at each inch of her progress.

In comparison, when Nancy came to drop off her artwork and quilt donations for our Moment for Mutts auction coming up on November 12, Slinky was behind a gate and looking into the living room, so that we could go in and out of the front door with the dogs safely contained. She was happy and twirling and seemed to feel a part of our enterprises. This is an important aspect of designing a rehabilitation program. Even though dogs may share the condition of separation anxiety, each is an individual dog with particular strengths and fragilities that need to be addressed in order to be successful.

Professionals do not agree on one theory regarding the exact causes of separation anxiety but contributing factors may include extremely social dogs being left alone, associating a negative or frightening experience with being left alone, or being left alone for the first time without preparation. Dogs who have been abandoned, traumatized, or abused may find it difficult to face not having someone to comfort them. And some dogs may be genetically predisposed to the condition.

Charlie, the only male pup of terrier Sugar in a litter of six, exhibited some behaviors early on that might have led to separation anxiety even though none of his littermates or mother did. He seemed a likely candidate for preventative measures. Foster pup Charlie was first separated from his littermates and mom at about 13 weeks because it was believed that he was a bully picking on his sisters. When he came to my house, where he spent a week prior to adoption, he seemed more anxious and demanding to me than aggressive.

I had brought a crate with me to transport him home and he began to scream the second he was inside. The foster told me that he had had that same reaction each time he was placed in a crate. He would have benefited from gradual crate training, but it wasn’t possible seeing as how he had to be transported to vet appointments safely in the car with all of the others. Unfortunately this happens – dogs need to be crated but there hasn’t been time to acclimate them to the idea. The best case scenario is to continue to work on gradual crate training in addition to necessary trips. Eventually, a natural affinity for the crate will most likely emerge.

When Charlie arrived at my house, he followed me around, which is not that odd for a pup. But when I went out of his sight and he couldn’t follow, he screamed and wailed. Charlie seemed to have little tolerance for being alone or controlling his impulses. He went from hanging out to completely frustrated very quickly. I focused on rewarding polite behaviors and ignoring what I could ignore such as jumping up and barking. I taught him that waiting patiently would earn him attention and a reward. He learned to ‘wait’ at a closed door as if it were the most important job on earth. He seemed to feel so proud and confident as I praised each little step.

I reminded myself that he had been living in his foster home with 9 other dogs, 2 adults and 4 children, not to mention neighbors, friends and additional family. He was extremely well socialized but he lacked the capacity to be alone and happy and to self-soothe. The week at my house was a successful transition time for him. He now lives with 2 adults and another dog and we hear he is very well adjusted. No one knows for sure if he would have developed into a more anxious dog, but preventative measures can decidedly impact a dog’s future behaviors.

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