5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting A Separation Related Problem Journey

When I realized my pup, Griffey, was showing signs of a Separation Related Problem, I felt crushed. This was not what I agreed too. I agreed to give him the best life I could, to help him be successful, but THIS was not one of the things I considered before adoption.

I was committed to him, and helping him on this journey, but being tied to him felt isolating and suffocating.

I “just” wanted to go to the bathroom in peace.

I “just” wanted to go out to dinner with my friends.

I “just” wanted a “normal” dog.

As I look back on our journey (and a successful one at that!), these are the things I wish I knew when I started.

 

You feel alone, but you are far from alone.

Griffey needed me. I expected him to need me. I mean, I am the one with opposable thumbs and the money to buy food. Of course, he was going to need me! But I was not ready to be NEEDED. All. The. Time.

Knowing that he was miserable (and by miserable I mean: crying, scratching at the exit, barking, whale eye, frantic pacing) when I even tried to close the door to go to the bathroom broke my heart. I hated that he was so stressed, and I felt powerless to help him.

My partner and I immediately ceased all non-essential departures, and it felt isolating. We chose to take turns leaving the house for errands, so we could minimize his time alone. I had so many friends with “normal” (what is “normal” anyway?!) dogs. I received all sorts of well meaning, but also hurtful advice. They just did not “get it”.

Griffey was an anomaly, right? Turns out, research is finding Separation Related Problems in 22.3%-55% of the general dog population.

You are so far from alone. Which means, other people out there do “get it”, and can help support you on those days that feel so isolating. The amount of incredibly smart and creative management strategies, the celebrations of small successes, the vulnerability and relatability within the community can be invaluable.

 

Remember to see your whole dog.

We started seeing Griffey’s behaviors nearly as soon as we got him home. It was extremely easy to tunnel vision on separation being the goal and the area we needed to work on. We took to contacting colleagues, buying books, searching the internet. I was going to research this to death. We were going to build a plan for separation training. Hello, coping strategy!

Yes, we did need to find an appropriate protocol and plan for training. Yes, getting expert feedback was necessary. But Griffey’s behavior when we left was only a small part of him, even if it felt like a big part to us. He had other needs that also needed to be met. He just joined our family, we needed to build healthy relationships between us and our resident dog, Laika. He had to learn what living in our house was like, what noises he would encounter regularly, what our routine entailed, and how he could communicate with us. We had to learn what his physical and mental needs were so we could meet them.

Yes, we will need to train for separation, but remember the rest of your pup. Making sure their needs are fully met will help facilitate your training immeasurably.

 

Suspending absences will really make a world of difference.

This was the hardest part for me. How are we supposed to make sure he is never alone? We both work full time. He is uncomfortable around strangers, so pet sitters and dog walkers were not going to work. He is uncomfortable around other dogs, so we could not do dog daycare. We lived across the country from our families. We had some wonderful friends who took the time to build relationships with him and they helped us out from time to time. We adjusted our weekends.

While living in Florida, we were not able to fully suspend absences, and we made some progress, but were slogging along.

Fortunately, we ended up moving back to the Pacific Northwest, and my partner was able to stay home for a few months and work on the separation training. And HOLY SMOKES! We were not taking 2 steps back for every 1 step forward. We were able to commit to manage absences to a much greater degree and we saw tremendous progress.

Finding ways to manage absences is completely worth it. It may take some creativity, asking for help, and a village, but it will make a difference.

 

Track your progress.

We had our initial goal: 4-5 hours. We had our plan and protocol in place. It is great to have a goal but focusing on progress will keep you in the game.

Find a way that you enjoy tracking your progress. It can be a habit tracker and each successful step gets a box filled in with green. It can be a jar that you drop a coin in for each successful step. It can be a white board or clipboard where you can cross off each successful step. Watching your tracker or jar fill up will show you how much success you are having.

Frequent, visible wins are important. It is hard to feel like you are making progress when you just focus on how much farther you have to go, instead of how far you have come.

 

Getting started was harder than going through.

To say I was resistant would be an understatement. I looked at what I needed to change, and it felt overwhelming. Managing absences felt impossible with all his other big feelings. Which do I prioritize? I needed to take a minute to be honest with myself as to why I was so resistant. What if it did not work, what if I failed him? If I do not start, then I cannot fail. I needed to reframe my goals: helping him be more comfortable and embarking on a LEARNING journey for both of us. I was not in this to “fix it”, I was in this to grow.

Figuring out the management of departures, finding a system that was sustainable for the entire family felt like too much. Having a professional help you get started can take so much of that burden away. Once you start, it is one day at a time. One day at a time is doable. So, start, and go one day at a time.

 

Now what?

  • Do you suspect your pup has a Separation Related Problem? What leads you to think so? What behaviors do you see surrounding your departures, or separation? 
  • Check in with yourself. How are you feeling? Does any of my story sound familiar? Can you identify why you feel that way? Your training plan can include things that are important to you. If you need an hour to go to the beach alone, can a family member watch the dog? Can a pet sitter or a neighbor? Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint. Your needs are important too!
  • Discuss with your family (or yourself!) if you are ready to embark on this journey. If you are not sure, Allie recently discussed this in our blog. If “you have tried a program before, but….” Allie also has you covered.
  • If you are ready to embark on this journey, but going alone feels overwhelming, email us at [email protected] to set up a consultation so we can help you work on it or join us for our upcoming FREE workshop: Roadmap to Behavior Solutions

 – Ellen