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"Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole."

(Roger Caras)

Severe Separation Anxiety -
A Personal Experience
© Copyright 2003-2010, Donna D'Amico

Midnite, a Greyhound - Sweetness

© 1996-2010 Gay Currier

As I look back, the signs were there. Those sad brown eyes that touched my heart the first time that I saw them. The panic he displayed when we adopted his littermate, Toby, and left him behind. But fate stepped in and when his proposed adoption fell through we brought him home after all, a week later. And slowly but surely the trouble began.

There is a folder in my file cabinet that reads "Anxiety". In the folder are a number of articles: "The Dog That Cannot Be Left Alone", "Separation Anxiety in Dogs", "Diagnostic Criteria For Separation Anxiety in the Dog", "Dealing with Separation Anxiety", "Teaching Your Dog to Be Left Alone", "Stressful Solitude", "Departure Training", just to name a few. Over two years those articles were read again and again along with what would ultimately become my "bible", The Dog Who Loved Too Much by Dr. Nicholas Dodman.

But for all that, there were times when I was afraid we wouldn't make it. Times when I was almost overcome by despair and doubt. I believe in a lifetime committment to a dog, but was this really the right home for Midnite? Was I being fair to Midnite, or only trying to save myself the sorrow of letting him go? The adoption agency said they would take him back, but that it might be extremely difficult to place him elsewhere. I didn't want to give him back and was determined not to give up. But at the same time, was it really the best thing for the dog?

At first Midnite exhibited typical adaptation anxiety. He wanted to be with us all the time and would follow us from room to room, whimpering anxiously at the door if we should leave. Under the stress of his new living arrangements he might pace the floor and was sometimes reluctant to enter the crate. But he quickly housetrained and caught on easily to all the new rules. With his littermate for company he was never alone and soon seemed to adjust well.

It was after Midnite was with us for some time that problems began to develop. (I'm convinced it was after he began to bond with us and consider us his pack.) From the beginning he had been crated in a giant Vari-Kennel while I was at work (only 3 hours at a time), with his brother in a crate beside him. After a month or two he began shredding his bedding while we were gone. We noticed that he stopped eating the treat we left for him in the crate and he began to ignore as well the Kong toy that was stuffed with goodies and sealed with the beloved peanut butter and placed in his crate before I left for work.

These minor signals were quickly followed by others. He began to stalk me in the mornings, furtively watching me as I got ready for work, hiding if I turned to look at him. He would slink around the furniture, head down, ears flat, tail tucked, clearly depressed and refuse to enter the crate when it was time for me to leave.

It was about this time that he began to exhibit additional symptoms. Midnite had become quite attached to my husband. They made a good team. But all of a sudden if my husband left the house Midnite began to cruise the front windows, ripping at the blinds and the sills, crying all the while. One day I walked into a room and found him in mid-air as he threw himself at the window glass, trying to get to my husband. My scream distracted him so that he bounced off the glass rather than went through it but from that moment on we knew that whatever was troubling him, it was serious. In the months that followed Midnite went on to destroy doors, more window blinds, dog beds, rugs, personal effects and his crate. When put outside to go potty, if not accompanied by my husband or me, he would rip down the window screens in his panic to re-enter the house.

At the time of Midnite's adoption, already in residence were an English Shepherd, a Welsh Springer Spaniel and of course, Midnite's littermate Toby. My English Shepherd had been a real pistol to train and from the day of Midnite's arrival I had incorporated various behavior modification techniques as a matter of course in our household. All my dogs receive obedience training and agility training (to build their confidence). I routinely ignore all the dogs for 10 minutes before leaving the house and upon returning home and I always leave a special toy for each dog when I go to work. In addition, the TV is left on during the day and no one is ever alone, there is always another dog nearby.

My efforts seemed to result in some progress. I learned to gauge Midnite's stress level by the amount of dandruff he would throw and by the amount he would drool. I was greatly encouraged when, after many months, he quit stalking me, quit hiding behind the furniture and entered his crate without a problem. But suddenly one day I came home and he had destroyed the inside of the Vari-Kennel as though with an ax. I literally sat down and cried, thinking of the torment he must have experienced to do something so drastic.

But what could have happened to cause Midnite to act in such a manner? I wracked my brain for a week trying to figure out what I had done differently when I finally remembered that I had changed the dogs' food. A review of the label revealed the new food had a much higher protein content than the old. I immediately changed to a food lower in protein, and Midnite's behavior improved dramatically. Cause and effect? Seemed so to me.

After Midnite's frantic destruction of the crate, I simply couldn't bring myself to crate him again, so instead I put him in a covered ex-pen. Midnite seemed to tolerate the ex-pen better than the crate. He had more room to move around, could see everything and he seemed quite pleased with this arrangement. Until I came home from work one day to find he had broken out of the ex-pen and trashed the playroom. It was at this juncture that I began to wonder if I was helping or hurting this dog. I had talked with my veterinarian before about Midnite's behavior but because he was slowly but surely improving we thought I was on the right track. After the trashing of the playroom I contacted my vet again and she recommended a behavior modification specialist.

My first "meeting" with Dr. Cooper was an hour long telephone interview. A week after the initial telephone interview I took Midnite to a two hour appointment at her office. Midnite's entire history was explored and a copy of his file was made available by my vet for Dr. Cooper. We discussed additional behavior modification techniques (principally random departure training) and conducted a battery of tests to rule out any physical reasons for Midnite's condition. I went home armed with Rescue Remedy, a folder of information on separation anxiety and hope that we might get through this thing yet.

Several weeks later progress seemed minimal. My work schedule made random departure training difficult and I was feeling frustrated, though not yet ready to give up. Midnite was still very stressed, I was unable to leave him loose in the house and he had gotten worse again about being confined. The day he began to self-mutilate I reached for the phone and pleaded with Dr. Cooper for help. Considering all the things we had already done, she suggested we think about drug therapy. Dr. Cooper researched all the information she could find regarding the use of various drugs with Greyhounds. She finally found an antidepressant that she felt she could safely prescribe and we determined to start with a very low dose.

Dr. Cooper had warned me that it could take a month or more for the medication to kick in. At first we noticed no difference in Midnite's behavior. But slowly he seemed to relax a bit. After a few weeks my husband left Midnite on the couch when he went to the store (unthinkable previously). When he returned a half hour later, Midnite was still relaxed on the couch in his usual dead cockroach position. We then made the decision to leave him loose in the playroom while we were at work, with his turn out muzzle on. After a week or so of using the muzzle we finally decided to take the plunge. Midnite was no longer throwing dandruff, he was no longer drooling, hiding or crying. When I came home he was usually relaxed on the couch and there were no dramatic returns. Now was the time.

I was almost physically sick with worry that day at work. Would I find my house trashed again, my dog bleeding? I could barely stand to stay at the office until my time was up. I rushed home, afraid to open the door. But I had to face the inevitable. I unlocked the door and all was well. The room was in one piece and the dog was relaxed and in great shape. It had worked! We had won. I dissolved in tears of relief. After more than a year Midnite had finally found peace at home.

Is drug therapy the only solution for a dog suffering from severe separation anxiety? No. Is it the ideal solution? No, again. But it is one that many people refuse to consider (it took me a while to come around to the idea) and it may make a tremendous difference to your dog. All I know is that I can now leave home and not have to wonder if my dog is suffering emotionally or if my house is being trashed. It's a compromise, but then so is life.

Is Midnite now cured? No. His anxiety is simply under control. Recently after two weeks at home I went back to work. The first week after my return to work I noticed that when I came home at night, Midnite was throwing dandruff-his first sign of stress. But he handled that stress and did no damage to himself or to the house. Each day I was at work, the dandruff was less. I continued to use the behavior modification techniques and Midnite continued to improve until he was back to normal.

So what's next? Drug therapy has not changed Midnite's personality. He is full of energy, playful, affectionate. His periodic blood tests to monitor any effect of the medication have all come back normal. All appears to be well. Still, it is my hope that I will gradually be able to reduce the level of Midnite's medication and that some day he will no longer be on antidepressants. When will that happen? When he is ready. When will that be? I wish I knew. But after all we've been through together, when the time comes I think I will know and I think it will be soon.

UPDATE: After 15 months of drug therapy, Midnite's medication was decreased by 1/3. After an additional 15 months his medication was reduced again, this time by one half. Midnite stabilized on 1/3 of his initial dose of medication and I am happy to report that he developed new behavior patterns for dealing with anxiety and the decrease in medication has been a success.

Update - 2004: A small cut. That was all it was. A small cut on Midnite's ankle but one that required stitches. He never came home. While under the anesthetic he had an allergic reaction and 48 hours later his heart stopped. We thought for a while that he was going to make it and his future looked rosy. But fate intervened and I lost the sweet and gentle soul who touched my heart so many years ago.

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Last revised: 11/2009