I had no idea when I collected my puppy Reba just what a journey we would have, and how I would learn all about Separation Anxiety.
I knew there was something challenging about this cute fluffball of a puppy right from the outset, but I didn’t know what.
Was it me? Was I too inexperienced to take on a puppy?
No-one ever tells you just how hard work a puppy is.
But this was more. I couldn’t even go to the other side of the room without her worrying, let alone go up to the toilet. She would bark and cry – there is nothing like peeing under pressure!
I had done lots of research on puppies, but none ever told me what to do when she cried when I left the room.
Lots of advice was out there – I sought out my vets, google, facebook, but all said the same thing – leave them to cry, NEVER return to them when they bark, start as you mean to go on and dogs always sleep downstairs. Oh, and keep them in the crate until they are quiet.
I was told to expect them to cry for the first few nights – but even this I have subsequently learnt, is damaging to them.
My initial intention was to have Reba sleep downstairs, so I had set up a crate, and on her first afternoon nap, I encouraged her in and let her sleep, the door was open. I took a picture. This would be the one and only picture of her ok in a crate. Ever.
I had this insane fear of being smothered by my pets in my sleep. I used to have a clingy cat (I seem to attract clingy pets!) called Pippin and given half the chance, she would sleep on my head (she always had to be touching me – shoulder, foot, lap etc.) But I was very allergic to her, and my bed was my sanctuary – the only cat hair free place in the whole house. I had her for 10 years and just got through loads of tissues in that time! So when I got Reba, I had the same thoughts – my bedroom was mine.
The first night I went to bed after making sure Reba had toileted, and tried to settle her in the crate. She was not having it. So I set up the travel crate (admittedly she had NEVER seen this before) and put that in my bedroom. But the damage was done. She didn’t settle in my bedroom in the travel crate, even after in the early hours I moved it next to the bed and draped my hand over the top of it.
After a few nights, seeing that the bedroom set up wasn’t working, I put her back downstairs thinking at least I could be a bit further from the noise. It was distressing for me as well as her but I had no other solution. She wasn’t toilet trained – give her a break, she was only 9 weeks old and I knew that wouldn’t happen for a long time yet!
I didn’t want her wandering about at night peeing on the floor as there are gaps in my really old floorboards and you can see the lower floor lights through the bedroom floor. I feared her pee would fuse the whole house. Yes, lack of sleep was starting the irrational thoughts.
Next step was to apologise profusely to my neighbours, and a trip to the vet for her regular check-up. My vet (now moved away), was wonderful, but like any other new owner who doesn’t know any better, thought that my vet would be the saviour of all my troubles. Vets are excellent at medical issues, but not on training and behaviour. All she did was worry about my lack of sleep and gave me handouts from google about crate training. And to start just leaving Reba home alone for 20 mins as ‘being with her all the time was wrong and spoiling her’. I was home all day with Reba as I was just starting up my new business, recently moved house and had no money to go out with.
I tried to follow the guidance given to me. I was still feeding Reba in the crate however she kept her back paws firmly outside of the confines. No tempting her in worked. Unbeknown to me, she had already developed a serious fear of the crate, and this has led to claustrophobia that I still haven’t cracked. In fact she won’t even go into the kennels in the vets practice when sedated.
But the lack of sleep and crying was more serious. Every time in her crate she would scratch, knock over the water bowl (it was suspended on a loop off the floor and one time I came back after 10 mins to find the loop over her head), the base of the crate would be a sea of drool where she was so stressed, and the noise was unbearable.
I would sit on the other side of the closed door in tears listening to her. It felt wrong, I was very sleep deprived from what was now months of this, and had no idea what to do.
I should have been enjoying Reba as a puppy and instead I wanted rid of her. But the times she was awake and with me were great – she was comical, funny, and even after the appalling way I was handling things, was cuddly and loving. She was a minx in puppy class but I loved her. I just couldn’t live with her.
About 6 months on, she was nearly toilet trained. Still some occasional accidents but I was still crating her. I finally decided to try and let her sleep outside of the crate – still in the kitchen. There was an old chair in the kitchen and she loved being on it during the day, so I tried her loose at night.
Wow, the first 2 nights were peaceful. I finally slept – well, actually I didn’t because I was still hyper alert listening out for her! Then the 3rd night was disaster. A noise outside set her off, and nothing stopped her barking and crying.
This lead to my first breakthrough- a comfy bed on my bedroom floor. The first few nights I had to keep lifting her down off my bed and back into hers, but eventually she worked out what to do and we slept, loads!
She still has the same bed – it’s the only one she has not chewed, and I daren’t replace it! Nowadays, most mornings, I’m prodding her to wake up after 8am.
We finally had some sleep, but I still couldn’t leave her during the day without hearing her cries from down the street.
By now I had learnt a lot more through my training to become a dog trainer, and understood about small increments to build a behaviour.
The crate was now in the loft, we were both feeling better after sleeping at last, so I started again just leaving Reba for really short times – none of this 20 mins (a lifetime to a dog in distress), but barely a minute.
I just kept going, a bit more each time. I had a camera on her but was not good at watching the subtle body language, and missed all the signs before a panic attack. Or I would have to leave her to see a client and would sneak a look on my phone to see her scratching and jumping at the door but there was no option to return to her – I had to earn some money!
Through some more planning on going out for short periods, and a lot of forgiveness on Reba’s part, we got there. She became better at being home alone. She doesn’t love it, and when I go through my routine she is still wide eyed and under her breath saying ‘what, you are leaving me HERE?’, but she copes.
Often she still goes to the door, and lies down there, but calmer. On a few occasions, she will stay on the chair which is near the door. And I have once or twice caught her what looked like snoozing on the chair. This is really rare. However she has accepted that she is home alone, and is not distressed. That is a major win. She will never love it. But I can go out.
I since learnt way more about Separation Anxiety, the effects of the ‘wrong’ advice, and the method that does work in most cases. I just wish I had this knowledge during Reba’s journey. We built absences rather haphazardly, with mixed successes but had I found the desensitisation method earlier, it would have been easier with training plans all sorted for you in appropriate increases and knowing what to look out for.
So what was the effect of the initial advice?
Leaving a puppy to cry it out and stay in a distressed state.
Puppies brains are just one mass of learning, and hormones. To be successful, learning conditions need to be optimal – relaxed, peaceful and when the individual is rested. Screaming all night doesn’t promote sleep, and the amount of cortisol and other stress hormones constantly in the body 24/7 is unhealthy.
Reba’s brain was formed with stress and anxiety. She didn’t know any different and therefore her neural connections were not great. Brains need sleep to really develop, Reba missed this essential part.
Don’t return when they are barking/crying.
As well as affecting her physical development, and potentially making her more susceptible to health issues, the emotional damage could have been much worse. Imagine you are petrified, you cry out and no-one comes. The person you are supposed to trust with your life doesn’t help you. With human babies, we may let them cry a bit but if they are really going for it, we go to see if they need something – food, nappy change or comfort. They are communicating with us and we need to work out how to help. Puppies are the same. They need us.
One of the things that is ‘heard’ is that if you go to a barking/crying dog, then we ‘reinforce’ (i.e. encourage) the barking/crying. But what is the dog learning when you don’t come to their aid? They can’t trust us. This breaks down the basis of your relationship with your dog.
When we teach dogs, we reward them to make an action happen more often -paws on the floor means they get lots of attention so hopefully they will jump up less. But with emotions, comforting them helps the scary emotions dissipate. If someone hugs me whilst I’m fearful, it doesn’t mean I will be more fearful, but actually reassured that I have someone I can count on in times of my greatest need.
You can’t reinforce fear but you can build trust.
I didn’t do this for Reba. I left her to panic. We both became emotional wrecks. I have had a lot – and I mean a LOT – of bridge building to do with her. I had to rebuild that trust, and thankfully we have come out the other side. But…..she still doesn’t quite trust me when I go to leave and she has to stay home alone. She still follows me to the base of the stairs when I go up to use the bathroom, she won’t fully settle. It’s been 7 years and I doubt I will ever get to that stage of total trust, but we have found a workable solution for now.
Persevere with the crate
Being scared and confined is not a good combination. Imagine you are faced with your biggest fear or phobia, and you have no option to move away. This is stuff horror movies are made from.
With a puppy, you may want to restrict access to areas whilst they are at the chew anything/pee anywhere stage, but to get a dog happy with a crate takes more than one night. It can take weeks or longer. I was told ‘all dogs love dens’. Not true. Female dogs will go into a den to give birth, to keep the newborns safe. But most dogs are social sleepers, prefer company of others, and being raised up off the ground.
Keeping a scared dog in a crate, and put a blanket over is a recipe for claustrophobia! It is not cosy but a prison.
You have to do something when they arrive. If you need to restrict how far they can roam, then a pen is better as they have space. Or have them on the bed with you – you will know when they stir so you can take your puppy out for a midnight wee, and resettle them back with you on the bed. Or use a mattress on the floor if you are worried about them jumping off.
This may sound extreme, but a few months of compromise in what will be years of them happy and relaxed, sleeping and calmer as adult dogs is worth every compromise made at the start.
Start as you mean to go on
No, no and no! This is just being overstrict and unrealistic. We need to start with the premise that your dog arrives and doesn’t know you, can’t understand you, you can’t understand them, and in a really strange environment. We have to be adaptable to their needs and this may be that you have them with you close for the first weeks or months, or however long it takes. This won’t ruin them, but actually make your bond stronger. Quite often, it is these dogs who then feel such a secure attachment that they are happy to sleep elsewhere, and are easier to teach to be home alone.
Rather than have your expectations and rules be unobtainable, have a plan to be there for your dog now, and these can change in time. Not a few days, but months. You cannot put a time frame of when your dog will feel secure and more independent. Can you do that to a human? No. Same for dogs.
Be flexible, and prepared to change your plans and expectations. It will pay off more in the end, and you will have a super relationship with your dog built on trust.
For me, Reba is how she is and I can live with that. I can change my routines to suit her, and I am prepared to make huge sacrifices for her. But I have learnt my lessons the hard way. Next time, I won’t be making the same mistakes again.
Oh, and this is why I changed my career path so I can help others not go through what I did! Reba says yay, other dogs won’t go through what she did either!