How to Give Your Dog Separation Anxiety and Maybe Also Fix It
On Wednesday, March 11, 2020, my fiancé Aaron and I officially adopted our dog Honey.
I went to work that morning and had a series of increasingly important meetings. I had a bit of a cold/cough thing going on, but I made myself go in because that’s the kind of thing you did before a pandemic hit. After work, we made dinner at home and then drove down to the rescue we’d fostered Honey through to sign the official paperwork. Later that night, we cuddled on the couch with our newly adopted family member when the NBA announced they were suspending the rest of the season because someone tested positive for COVID. And then Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced they both had it. And then everybody I knew started panicking.
Over the last few months, I’ve vacillated between feeling extremely grateful for all the ways in which my life has remained enormously fine and extremely worried about my own mortality and that of people I love in a deeply visceral way. Many nights in March, April, and May, I’d lie in bed spooning Aaron and thinking this is what his breath feels like when his lungs are normal and healthy, this is what my breath feels like when my lungs are normal and healthy. I was so ready for us and the people we loved to become sick, to go to the hospital, to end up on a ventilator, to maybe never come home.
In the first few weeks of the pandemic, while I sat at my computer at the kitchen table and tried to work while actually just refreshing the New York Times homepage in a doomsday-induced panic, Honey slept at my feet. Taking a moment to coo over how cute she looked while snoozing peacefully helped disrupt my cycle of self-induced news terror. Animals’ sheer ignorance of major political events has always been a soothing balm on my anxiety. I remember waking up the morning after the 2016 election and staring at my cat Mushroom, stretched out peacefully at the end of our bed, thinking in a bit of disbelief, You have no idea the world is falling apart…
After months and months of sleeping at my feet, Honey started developing separation anxiety. While we were still fostering her pre-quarantine, I’d leave her at home for eight hours a day while we were at work with little problem. She had a habit of destroying dog beds when we first brought her home but had quickly found a routine that kept everyone happy (featuring a frozen peanut butter Kong and streaming CBC radio all day from my Google Home).
In June, Aaron’s grandma died. It was very sad but also peaceful (and, thankfully, unrelated to COVID). We went to be with a small circle of family members at the nursing home as soon as we got the news. It was the first time we had to leave the apartment together for an extended period of time since March 12. We left Honey in her crate, thinking things would be fine. When we came home, the bars of her crate were bent and the floor beneath her was dotted in little pools of blood. She’d cut her mouth trying to chew her way out.
Looking back, this is somewhat to be expected from dogs who have spent every waking (and sleeping) moment with you for several months. Having read up on plenty of dog separation anxiety internet literature by now, I know that since dogs are pack animals, making a dog separate from their pack is unnatural and vulnerable for them. Every part of their DNA tells them that alone is a dangerous place to be. They manifest that fear in an assortment of ways. Honey’s anxiety externalization of choice is to destroy stuff.
I wish I could say that her separation anxiety was only caused by the bizarre occurrence of us being more or less confined to our home for several months, but there was plenty I did to make it worse. During quarantine, I perfected the art of keeping Honey especially close to me. Instead of letting her sleep on her dog bed during the day, I’d call her over and have her lay on the rug beneath me so I could have her next to me while I worked. Instead of allowing her to retire to her crate at the end of the night, I had her hop up on the couch so we could cuddle with her. These things, I have since learned, are big separation anxiety no-nos. They attach your dog even more closely to you and make it even harder when you leave. Being next to Honey brought me some calm and joyful moments in a sad and scary time. But they made it worse for her when regular human life beckoned and I had to leave her alone again.
The good news is that Honey’s separation anxiety is getting better relatively quickly. We did something called subthreshold training, where you only leave your dog alone for as long as they are comfortable with. We started leaving her alone for 5 minutes, then 10, then 15, and worked our way up to 45, then 90, then 120. (By relatively quickly I mean about a month or two, but what is time really now anyway?) In what feels like a gross application of the most overused technology of our times, we actually set up Zoom calls during these exercises (with us on mute and video turned off) so we can watch Honey and see how she’s holding up. I’m proud to report that the other weekend we left her alone for six hours while we went on a long bike ride with friends. She did great.
We did a few other things that helped. When pets have separation anxiety, it’s often because they’re attached to one human in the household more than the others. Balance the connection out a bit and it creates a happier environment for everyone. With that in mind, I try to draw up some firmer boundaries with Honey and Aaron works to maintain a strong bond with her. She’s not allowed to sleep at my feet all day while I’m working, and if she starts following me around the house I tell her to go lay down. Aaron trains her on new commands to help her burn some mental energy and help build a strong relationship between them.
In addition to helping Honey with her separation anxiety, I’ve also been tending to my regular ol’ human anxiety. In *~* these weird times *~*, it’s often hard to find the time or energy to tap into some of the things that help keep my anxiety in check. My desire to write is usually a pretty good barometer for the contentedness in my brain. And I have not wanted to write anything in quite a while.
How-tos are usually my go-to format if I’m in the mood to write something quick and fun. I’ve written about how to negotiate your salary and how to buy groceries with your significant other and how to feel less burned out. Usually, when I’m itching to write something and trying to think of a good topic, I can lie in bed and think of 3–4 things I feel somewhat qualified to share advice on before I fall asleep. Then I hone in on the one that sounds the most interesting to me and I share it.
Now when I lie in bed, I’m not reverently counting every healthy breath Aaron and I take as if it may be our last (progress?) but I’m certainly not ready to shift into creative gear. I feel wrung out like a damp rag, the illusion of any semblance of authority and much of my creativity drained from me over the past several months of worrying and confusion and turbulence. The desire to write is still there. But the idea of positioning myself as an expert on anything or coming up with something else creative at the moment seems fake, cringey, full of unearned optimism.
And so this is where I am, tucking a few tips on curing my dog's separation anxiety (that I also had a large hand is causing) between several other reflections on my own human distress.
Maybe it’s better this way. I’ve never aspired to be a highly polished person in my internet presence, but I do usually try to get to the other side of a feeling before publishing a piece of writing about it. Having the perspective of seeing a feeling or experience all the way through gives me some kind of perception of control over the narrative — the confidence that I can tell you exactly how things ended.
Right now, I’m in the middle of this feeling of wrung-outtedness and persistent worry. I think we are all feeling a little stuck in the middle of this thing nowadays, no? It might be good to just be humbled for now. To let my writing reflect that my light is a little dimmer, that the answers are uncertain, that I am no expert at all. To admit that me and my dog are both still trudging along just like the rest of the world in this moment, doing what we can to keep our anxieties at bay.