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Case of the Week: Monty

This week’s case it brought to you by: Separation Anxiety.

 


Separation anxiety is a catch-all description for behaviors related to being physically separated from humans within the household. The “traditional” example is a dog that vocalizes, eliminates in the house, and digs or chews at windowsills and doorways. As with anything, this condition occurs on a spectrum. There are a lot of subcategories and not every pup will fit the traditional mold. Below are some examples:

 

  • Dog is okay with “routine” departures, like work, but struggles with weekends or nighttime outings.

  • Fine with any departures from their own house but has anxiety after moving or visiting a different home.

  • May vocalize with departures but can settle down after a few minutes.

  • Only distressed if the owners are home and the dog is separated from them.

  • Only distressed if a specific person leaves the home, despite others being present.

  • Can tolerate the departure of a favored person as long as any other human is in the home.

  • Tolerates departures early in the week but becomes agitated later in the week.

 

The number of dogs suffering from some type of separation-related problems is unclear and varies from populations studies. One study suggests that up to 50-56% of dogs struggle at some point in their lives and up to 40% of those pets assessed in behavior clinics will receive the diagnosis of “separation anxiety.” Regardless of the specifics, it ultimately equals to millions of dogs across the USA. Anecdotally, I would say about half of my patients end up having some type of separation related behaviors, even if that isn’t the primary reason the family sought help.

 

This problem has likely only gotten worse in recent years. During the early months of the COVID quarantine, many families had the time and ability to adopt or purchase new dogs. These pups were able to grow up in a home where people were always present, and they never learned to cope with departures. This entire population, now labelled “Pandemic Puppies,” has very clearly demonstrated the importance of proper education and training in early life.

 


Enter Monty, a beautiful 3.5 year old Husky/Shepherd mix. Her mom sought assistance with her separation anxiety when they found out her husband will be stationed in Japan the following summer. When I first met with Monty, she was terrified of her crate. She immediately panicked and frantically tried to escape. When left home alone without the crate, she was still vocal and highly agitated.  So not only would Monty need to tolerate being separated from her family, but she’d need to be in a crate for several hours AND fly in the belly of a 747.

 

The owners had tried, unsuccessfully, to desensitize Monty to the crate previously. Each time, they might get to the point that she can go in, but they could never close the door or walk away. Based on her history, Monty is clearly a very smart girl, but they just couldn’t get past this point.

 

As we’ve explored in other posts and articles, your body-brain have two modes: the “Feeling Brain” and the “Thinking Brain.” The Thinking Brain is part of the parasympathetic nervous system and is responsible for “rest and digest” conditions. The Feeling Brain is then part of the sympathetic nervous system and responsible for the “fight or flight” response. All the training we do with our animals occurs in the Thinking Brain. When Big Feelings come up in times of stress, excitement, or fear, the Thinking Brain shuts down and the Feeling Brain takes over. This is why so many incredibly smart dogs simply cannot use learned behaviors in the face of their triggers. This is exactly what happened with Monty. She knew a lot but couldn’t access that information in the face of her crate. The emotional response was too quick and too strong.

 

To get Monty back on track, we did a few things. First, her doctor started her on a daily antianxiety medication called sertraline, which is generic Zoloft. The goal here was to help reduce her day-to-day stress and allow her Thinking Brain to remain in the driver’s seat.

 

Next, we got the crate out of the house and locked it up in the garage. We discussed potentially purchasing a new crate that doesn’t look like the old one. Sometimes starting fresh with a new piece of equipment is easier than trying to “fix” the old one.


Finally, Monty and her mom’s biggest homework assignment was to teach a robust “Settle and Relax.” I love to use this skill as a foundation for a lot of things. The idea is to create an incredibly strong, positive association with a certain mat or bed. We use lots of treats to start building that association and then eventually shape a calm down. From there, we practice increasing the distance from the animal while on their mat, increasing the amount of excitement and distractions, and train them to stay there for extended periods of time. After about 4 weeks of working on this skill, her owner informed me that Monty had actually chosen to go to her mat, which was in a different room, during some of the chaos at Thanksgiving. I was blown away! That’s incredible progress.

 

From there, we start practicing in different rooms and ultimately landed in the owner’s bedroom. This was the location that Monty would typically be left when home alone. Once she was comfortable with the mat in the bedroom, the owner practiced leaving the room and closing the door. After just a couple weeks of this, we decided it was time to bring the crate back into the picture.

 

I told her mom to keep the crate in the room with the door closed. Just let it be there. The first time she was allowed into the crate was during a video session. Mom opened the door, put the settle mat inside and, guess what? Monty went RIGHT IN.

 

Again, I was just so impressed with Monty and her mom. They have clearly put in the hard work to make this happen.

 

Now that Monty could happily go in her crate, we needed to start working on some “distractions.” She was scared of the metal scraping sound, so we had an exercise that involved smearing peanut butter all over the crate door. We practiced squeezing the latch, which makes a terrible squeaky sound. We practiced walking away from the crate with the door open. We put the crate in a different room. Now, we’re building up to closing the door and leaving it closed.

 

The most amazing thing about Monty’s progress is that she has never once had a panic attack during our training. Despite our best efforts, sometimes you just mess up your training plan and the learner become distressed. Monty has never done that. I chalk it up to her owner being so incredibly in tune with her dog, she can see those subtle shifts and recognizes when Monty is starting to get a little concerned. When this happens, we make the lesson easier, let Monty settle back into the rhythm, and then build back up to that difficult lesson. I have to laugh, because now when we try and “reset” Monty by getting her out of the crate, she doesn’t want to! She’ll come out, quickly take her treat, then run right back in! It’s such a treat to see Monty so happy with her training.

 

This sweet family still has some strides to make, but I have no doubt we can get Monty comfortable enough to fly in a couple months. We’ll continue using her daily sertraline and are starting to explore some short acting products to help her cope with the actual flight. Separation anxiety can be a tricky condition to treat. It takes a lot of time and patience, but also a really great connection between teacher and learner.

 

 

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