The Journey Begins Anew: How a Beagle Overcomes Separation Anxiety, Pandemic Style
April 7, 2021
The beginning post of Emma the Beagle's journey to overcome separation anxiety that developed during the covid-19 pandemic..
And so it begins. Again.
If you have followed along Emma the Beagle's journey to overcome many many many fears, you will know about her separation anxiety. This kid was rolling! I could go for jogs, meet with clients, ride my bike, go shopping, have a meal with friends, go to doctors' appointments, get my haircut, you know, anything I wanted or needed to do, and all the while, ETB would peacefully snooze at home.
But then came the pandemic, and Tom the Husband began working from home, and months went by without us leaving Ems. There was nowhere for us to go, so when we did leave the house, it was usually to go on some fun adventure with her. When we went out to pick up tasty meals, ETB joined us. When we went down to Florida to visit my sick father, ETB joined us. When I had to check myself into the hospital to get half of my liver removed last June, ETB joined... wait. That's totally wrong. We actually brought in Jefferson the Pet Sitter to stay with Ems while Tom and I drove to Georgetown Hospital at 4 am. Ems had been SO out of practice with this being-alone thing, that I didn't want to have to worry about her while prepping for surgery. I had good reason too. She has definitely become concerned again when I leave the house.
Now that Tom and I have both received the covid vaccine, we will soon have many more freedoms -- like eating on a restaurant patio with friends or getting a professional (read: not me) to cut my hair -- and so it is time to train The Beagle once again.
What's really cool is that I am SO much better at training dogs with separation anxiety now than I was when I trained Ems the first go. She was my patient zero. Ems taught me that when a dog has a physical ailment (in her case, arthritis and epilepsy), training often can only have limited success until you resolve the health issue. She taught me that anti-anxiety meds should often be considered as a first-resort, not a last. She taught me that different fears weave together and become worse, but as you resolve each one, some of the other stuff goes away too. Most importantly, she taught me empathy.
[Pardon me... Must take a quick break before continuing on with this story. Ems just farted and scared herself. Gonna take her outside...
I'm back! Interesting twist to the story: she did not poop.]
Anyhoo, this time around, I have thousands of training hours with dogs of myriad breeds, ages, personalities, you name it, and what better way to help you understand how I teach dogs to overcome their fears and frustrations than to take you along on this Beagle Journey.
What is the root cause?
In order to help Ems, the first thing I had to do was figure out why she's running to the door, pacing, barking, and panting when we try to leave or actually leave. Earlier into the pandemic I would have said Ems was frustrated. Rather than a fear of being alone, she wanted to join us where the fun was. She was bouncy and happy when we grabbed our belongings, because of course she'd be joining us on a fun adventure. But if we then left without her, she would bark a la COME BACK! YOU FORGOT ME!
Now when I look at her, however, as I move towards the door or grab my wallet and sunglasses, Emma flies to me, her tail is tucked, her brow is furrowed, and she's licking her lips.
If she was frustrated, I'd most likely teach her a relaxing down-stay and reinforce calm behavior with food. But because she is predominantly scared, we're going with systemmatic desensitization instead.
The training protocol I use with the vast majority of dogs I help, is systematic desensitization ("DS"). You know, where you go out and come back in a gazillion times? Well, there are actually two other components to DS that need to happen for it to work best: You have to do the gradual departures at a level that IS NOT AT ALL SCARY TO THE DOG, and, the dog has to be RELAXED.
So here's my trick. Do the training at a time and location where your dog is most relaxed. I was sitting on the couch opposite Ems an hour ago, and she looked very peaceful, so I started training her.
Here's what I did: I stood up, waited 2 seconds, and then sat back down. That's a whole lotta nothing, right? Well, to Emma, it was not nothing. Her head immediately flew up, her ears lifted from the base, her brow was furrowed, and her eyes fixed on me with lots of white showing. To sum it up, Emma was basically screaming her fear through her eyes. I have some work to do! So I stood up and sat down many more times, waiting about 15-30 seconds between each one. After five of them, Emma stood up, walked over to me, sat down pressing her body into me tightly, and licked her lips. Holy cow, I thought. She is stressed the very second I move to get up!
For about 30 minutes I did a bunch of these stand-up-sit-down exercises and eventually was able to throw in some baby steps away. She popped up abruptly with two steps, but she got good at one step.
Three-quarters of the way through the training, Emma moved a bit away from me and flopped on her side. Shortly after that, she sighed. She was starting to finally relax.
Wait. Why the heck are you starting with standing up and not opening the door?
I used to focus on getting dogs accustomed to the sights and sounds of the door opening to begin training, but I have found that for most dogs, the mere act of standing up and walking to the door is unbelievably stressful. By doing these little baby steps, when most people actually get to the door, the dogs have little or no issue with it.
I think of this standing-up stuff as strength training for my beagle's mind and spirit. And, if you're looking for a good lower-body workout for yourself, all the stand-up-sit-downs are a nice workout for your quads, glutes, and hamstrings. Two training sessions for the price of one!
Where to next?
My goal over the next few days is just to get Emma super comfortable with me walking to the door -- and I mean SUPER comfortable. I want my getting up to go to the door to be Emma's cue to relax and snooze. I have seen absolute magic happen (ok, it's science, actually, but it feels like magic) when we take the time to do these basic drills. Dogs who have been petrified for years now flop on their side and sigh when their folks get up and leave. Time for me to put into practice what I preach and teach.
Stay tuned for more adventures of The Beagle Who Re-Learns to Snooze.