We adopted Wally, a Dachshund/Chihuahua mix, from a shelter here in Las Vegas in June of 2015. He was about one year old, and recently rescued from a kill shelter in California. Wally had obviously gone through a very unsettled first year of his life. There was no evidence of obedience training, he was aggressive toward other dogs...and we soon found out that when left home alone, he went into a panic. He was barking, howling, fighting to get out of his crate, and it didn't stop until we returned. Wally had separation anxiety.
He was our first dog, so we did not even know what SA was. But after doing some research, it became clear to us that we needed some professional guidance to get Wally well. So we started working with Deb Manheim in August of 2015, and learned that an unwavering level of commitment is required by an owner/trainer in getting a dog past its SA demons. Deb also told us that in order to succeed, it is vital to understand a dogs body language. A dog is always telling you something, you just need to know what to look for in order to "hear" it.
There is a real dichotomy at the beginning of the SA training process. As the dogs trainer you are committed to never leaving it alone...essentially giving it 24/7 support. But at the same time, in your initial training sessions, success is measured in mere seconds. It can be as simple as touching a door knob for 2 seconds, or leaving the dog alone for 1 second. And it is difficult to comprehend at that point in the process, but all of those tiny steps are critical building blocks toward the ultimate goal of a dog being comfortable in its own skin when left alone for extended periods of time.
"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Lao Tzu
So through repetition in the de-sensitization training, we learned that those departure durations measured in seconds could eventually become measured in minutes, and with a lot of work minutes can become hours. But we also learned that minutes can become seconds again - progress in this effort does not follow a straight line. In fact, Wally regressed several times during his first 5 months. Yet despite this there was an overall positive trend, so we remained upbeat, taking what he was giving us and building from it.
We did our best to always position Wally for success. If he was having a bad day, then we would shorten our planned departure time to ensure that the "mission" would be a success. We would give him as many warmups (shorter pre-departures) as he needed to be sure he was comfortable before we actually left for the true mission duration. And when he reached a duration plateau that he just could not get past, we decided to help him along with anti-anxiety medication. The goal here was not to keep him medicated for life, but to use the drug as a tool during his training. It allowed him to get past the plateau, and allowed us to continue his positive progress. Ultimately, when we feel he is ready, we will begin a very gradual process of weaning him off the meds. We will observe him closely during that time, paying attention to his comfort level when left alone, and making our treatment decisions based on that.
So...it is now 8 months later, and Wally has made tremendous strides in his "independence training". We routinely leave him home alone for 2-3 hours at a time and he tolerates it well. Most of the time he is partially or fully awake, and calmly waiting for us to return. But there are other times when he actually falls asleep! In all cases he remains under control and not in any type of distress or panic mode. And when we finally return home, he greets us happily but still remains under control.
This has not been an easy process, and we still have a ways to go in terms of duration (the goal is 4-5 hours). But we can confidently say 8 months later that the training works! Deb's expertise has been vital during this journey. We worked directly with her for the first two months of training, and through the use of off the shelf video technology (webcams, etc.) she was able to join us in our home...observing Wally in the home environment and getting a true picture of his situation. She made several suggestions that were appropriate for Wally (ex: we added a see through gate at the main entrance/exit point, we also stopped crating Wally as the containment only heightened his anxiety, etc.) and all of them have helped him immensely. Since those first two months we have been on our own with her helpful guidance, and she has been a dedicated partner in the process. The training is not easy...in fact it is very hard...but with diligent commitment we have learned that it is very effective at getting an SA dog well. Wally is the better for it, and so are we.
Peter & Cindy Gormley