Pets with Problems

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separation anxiety

Separation Anxiety - Success Stories

Alfie's Story

At the time of writing this I’d just come out of a Covid isolation period. This disrupted Alfie’s routine and it has meant we’re now re-building confidence in home alone time. We’ll be back to where we were soon enough. We’re not your usual SA story (if there is such a thing). I think we’re Ingrid’s longest standing clients, and we’re still pretty early in our journey in terms of building duration. But very far along in our journey in terms of managing the situation and following the desensitisation process. Counting the time I spent doing this solo before working with Ingrid (5 months), we’re now two years in. But we’re both no longer traumatised by what leaving Alfie alone looked like. I still can’t watch Ingrid’s original video clip of his assessment. I may never be able to watch it. I know what his distress looked like, I felt it, and it took a lot of work and dedicated time to get to the stage we’re at now. 

I met a lady in the park recently who’s training to be a dog behaviourist. I was talking to her about Alfie’s separation anxiety journey (as I want folks to understand it), and this is what she told me, which is presume is what she’d been told: “It should take six months to fix”. This approach doesn’t work on many levels. Firstly, animals aren’t machines that we programme and set to go. They’re individuals with the breadth of emotions that all sentient beings have and their journey in this distressing condition is a personal one. We can’t define how long it will take. We can only listen to and address our dog’s concerns and work with them. At their pace. Also, “fix” – I’m not sure this will ever be fully fixed for Alfie, but he’s learnt that being home alone is okay. And now he’s learning that it can be okay for a bit longer. Alfie can settle when I’m out, he can lie on the mat in the hall, or choose to go and get comfy in his bed (this always makes me so happy when I see it on the live video feed). A world away from where we started. Do we say that someone is “fixed” when they’ve had PTSD? And that it should be fixed in a pre-determined time scale? We need to apply that same understanding when talking about dogs and their emotional path. 

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I didn’t know when I adopted Alfie that separation anxiety would be an issue for us. But I’d done my reading before adopting a dog, so was aware of various things we may need to work through. Dogs are emotional beings like us, and upheaval takes its toll. The advice on managing any potential SA was very varied. I’ve since learnt a lot more on the subject and can now see that lots of it, although well intentioned, doesn’t really get to the crux of the issue. Or doesn’t go deep enough into the desensitising process.

Alfie was 13 months old and had come to the RSPCA as a neglect case. I was lucky enough to meet him and become his reserve at Bath Cats and Dogs Home. Then after near daily visits for 3.5 weeks, he moved in. We had a good bond by that time, but of course he’d been through a lot in his short life. The rescue centre had given me a 1:1 with their in-house behaviourist before taking him home and she’d given me some good advice on settling in and taking things slow. All of which I followed.

We can’t know why one dog is okay being left and another not. My lad is a sensitive soul and it’s likely the early disruption had some effect. Though I know other dogs that have been in the same home since early puppyhood and have big home alone worries. In a way, it doesn’t matter why. It’s more about understanding the level of panic that’s happening, finding a way to address that in the kindest way possible, following the best science available, with advice from specialists in the field. And most critically working at your dog’s pace. Don’t compare with others, it really doesn’t help. Just focus on your situation and your dog and learn everything you can about how to help them.

I read three books on SA, including Marlena De Martini’s first edition, and had been working a desensitisation process before contacting Ingrid. I had some success and some setbacks. I was likely working through things too quickly. It’s hard as a human not to be goal orientated and focus on gaining time. I went back to the beginning several times. I didn’t go through the PDQs early on. I wasn’t seeing consistent results. I was going round in circles. Eventually I reached confusion, doubt and emotional overload – I knew I needed help. Not long after this point I found Ingrid’s details and got in touch.

All the work with Ingrid is done remotely. When you think about it, it makes sense. We need to be able to observe how the dog responds to being in the home alone. A good camera set up and decent bandwidth are really useful in this process. We made a plan, sessions 5 days a week, one live with Ingrid, others I’d record the data and give back to Ingrid and she’d set the mission for the following session. Initially you do lots of micro steps towards absence, multiple steps, breaks between, continually watching really carefully how your dog pal manages, or doesn’t manage. Rest days are also critical to the process. Learning isn’t linear, we know that ourselves, so don’t expect that to be the case. My advice is to let go of the goals, and celebrate the wins, keep records so you can see changes and adapt or adjust based on the information gathered. 

I really needed Ingrid’s help by the time I contacted her. I needed someone to support and guide me, as much as I needed someone to support and guide the process for Alfie. We had lots of contact, I’d leave messages on the day’s session notes, and we’d chat weekly on our live zoom sessions. Ingrid is open to any questions, obviously we chatted about other behaviours or changes going on in Alfie’s life and took that into account as part of the process.

In the early days we had to work through the pre-departure cues (PDQs) and I think we started with 14 steps per session. The sessions were to be at different times of day, dogs need that practice. If you only practiced on a Wednesday morning, then you’d have a dog who eventually could be left on a Wednesday morning. But that’s a bit limiting. You need to vary and generalise the learning for it to be understood fully. Ingrid was good throughout at ensuring that the sessions were varied, with number of steps, breaks, durations, PDQs, etc – all of this will help build the foundations you need before building time. There were so many decisions to make, and I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to have Ingrid take the reins and make all those decisions in a very responsive way, so I could focus on the observation during sessions between our zoom calls.

Slowly, slowly, slowly, we reduced the number of steps. We filled many many rows of spreadsheets with data. We had many conversations. Ingrid gave me lots of advice and support. And we reached a point where we could do just one step. In fact, at that point, Alfie was happier with one step rather than multiple. We created a sort of shorthand language between us, so we could record the sessions without typing too much. There are real ups and downs in the process, and if you can (this isn’t always easy), it helps to take a step back to a place of acceptance. This takes the pressure off and means you can just focus in on what’s happening that day. You celebrate the incremental changes, but don’t let the to-and-fro of learning beat you down. I’ve felt a full spectrum of emotions on this journey, and Ingrid has supported me and Alfie throughout.

We got to a point where the process was more streamlined. I had a much better understanding of the process needed thanks to Ingrid’s coaching, and I could see that at that point it was just time that was needed. I felt stronger and more able to carry on alone again. I was also aware that there were other guardians and dogs on Ingrid’s waiting list that needed her help and I was at the point where I could go forward alone. It was time.

We’re still working away. I can hear Ingrid’s words in my ear often. I know it will still take time, I’m accepting of that. Alfie and I have a lovely life together. I love him to bits and wouldn’t be without him. Those early sounds of crying and deep panic don’t haunt me like they used to. I won’t ever forget them. But I hope they are now a distant memory for us both. And we are empowered with all the knowledge we need to let the process do its job. Thank you Ingrid.

Ingrid Haskal

I am passionate about helping dogs and their owners get over this terrible condition. So much so that I have made treating separation cases my speciality and am a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer. Using modern, scientific and up to date methods I get true insight into how you and your dog are progressing and can keep you motivated and on track throughout the training process until the problem has been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

I got my life back

Above all thank you for being there for us when we were experiencing very difficult times with Reggie and thank you for cheering us on and giving us hope to persevere and not to give up

Andrea

home alone and happy

I really thought this would never happen and its true that it took time and hard work but Ingrid’s enthusiasm, support and expertise kept us going. It was like having my own personal trainer! She was with us every step of the way until finally our little Alfie can be left at home and our new sofa is safe from being ripped to shreds.

Trina
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