By: Andrea Friedland
We really thought Harrison, our 9-year-old Brittany, would love our new Florida home. Along with his favorite blanket from our home in western New York, we schlepped his crate, an endless supply of treats, and his beloved toys. My husband, Steve, arranged for a new fence for our Florida home and a nifty doggie door. We brought Harrison to this beautiful dog-friendly community with built-in great weather, long walks, and new doggie smells. We thought Harrison was going to be one very happy dog until we were blind-sided when we needed to leave him alone to run errands. It seems our funny, wildly curious pet went into a blind and bloody panic, clawing at doors and walls, whenever we left him alone.
Harrison is a bit of a folk legend among our circle of friends and family. There are so many stories about our wacky, but a brilliant dog that folks just figured this was another one of those stories. Our friends said, that Harrison was sure to get used to the new place soon, but that just did not happen. Instead, Harrison’s panic increased when we left him alone. We came home to horrible blood smears on the walls and doors and bloody paws on our very frightened dog. Why was this suddenly happening in Florida and not back in our New York home?
That sent us running to our new Florida veterinarian who informed us that Harrison is suffering from Separation Anxiety. No, it was not a joke and to our horror, we were told there was no easy fix. Although over time, we tried many different kinds of medications to help Harrison handle his fears, the vet said the only hope for Harrison was to take him to a behavioral specialist. Our dog needed to see a psychiatrist? Was I going to be blamed for somehow causing these fears in my dog? I resisted this form of treatment but the vet made it sound like this was a do-or-die situation. Not in a million years did I ever think I would even consider bringing my dog to a psychiatrist!
Unfortunately, Harrison’s condition sealed my fate as well. I was a prisoner in our paradise; not being able to leave the house for fear our dog would hurt himself while I was gone. It seemed to be my leaving, in particular, that brought on the panic. Not only were we upset over the dog hurting himself, but Steve and I also became increasingly frustrated when we had to cancel important doctor appointments and social engagements. Reluctantly and desperately, we filled out the twelve-page questionnaire required by the behavioral specialist detailing Harrison’s life and behaviors and prepared ourselves to part with a serious chunk of our “fix the new House” cash.
Enter Dr. ‘R’, DVM, DACVB (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists)! Our time in Florida was about to change drastically and so was Harrison’s. Dr. ‘R’, a petite, attractive woman, who was extremely well-recommended, told us that we needed to train Harrison to relax and to desensitize him to all the little cues that tipped him off to my departures. Steve was asked to train Harrison to chill out on a ‘relaxation mat’ by very patiently waiting for any sign of relaxation before giving a treat. Harrison caught onto the ‘game’ quickly; put your head down, stretch a paw, yawn, flop on your side and you get a treat! Several times a day Steve worked with Harrison and also started taking him on long walks. I am sure there was great bonding over all the ‘surprises’ Steve scooped up with our plastic bags. As the walks got longer, so did the distance carrying back the filled ‘goody’ bags.
Meanwhile, my job was to isolate all the movements I normally make preparing to leave the house. Then I was to repeat each one over and over giving Harrison treats every time he stayed in a relaxed position. Wiggle those door handles! Open and close my closet door ten times! Get up from my chair, walk to the door, open the door, and step out and back in, over and over again. Harrison loved those tiny treats in exchange for just lying there! As for me, I was exhausted! I put my clothes on, one piece at a time, over and over, as I dispensed those magical treats to my dog. Eventually, he became used to all the infinitesimal, individual cues which previously got him so upset. But would he be able to handle my departure when all these cues were put together?
Finally, we practiced departures starting with just a few minutes and slowly increased the time using another house exit. No, Harrison adorably watching us from the window was not a great sign. No, Harrison fighting his medication and meandering all throughout the house while we were gone was also not a good sign. But we all persevered until our dog learned to stay on his ‘relaxation mat’, licking a treat or falling asleep after we departed. We medicated Harrison for longer and longer departures and captured his time alone on the camcorder to see what he did when we were not there. I diligently watched those recordings and reported his progress in achingly boring daily e-mails to Dr. ‘R’. We were so excited when Harrison slept through most of our time away, but so discouraged other times when he howled and whimpered throughout the house, all caught on a camcorder. “Baby steps!“ Dr. ‘R’ wrote, always so very encouraging and helpful!
It has been five months since we met with Dr. ‘R’ for the second time before returning to our northern home. She is still answering my e-mails and is continuing to advise us. We still do not really know exactly what is spooking Harrison but I know we have to keep working with our dog no matter where we are living. We have to be careful not to put Harrison into any stressful situations for fear he will regress. Loud noises such as thunderstorms and fireworks can bring on fear. Dr. ‘R’ told us how to deal with that. But Harrison has come a long way from those horrible times of clawing the walls and he is a much happier dog today! Hopefully, he will be able to handle living in our Florida home when we return. If not, I know Dr. ‘R’ will help us save our dog.
That really was what was at stake. If we all could not help Harrison with his fears I do not even want to think of the heart-breaking decisions we would be forced to make. The statistics of the number of dogs suffering from some form of separation anxiety are staggering. Even worse are the number of dogs needlessly euthanized or given up by their owners. Just put on ‘youtube.com’ and you will see the devastation an untreated dog can cause. Now imagine the anxiety those owners are facing not knowing where to turn just like we did not know where to turn. I never thought I would bring my dog to a pet psychiatrist. I am so relieved that we did just that!