A Portrait of Separation Anxiety

Home/A Portrait of Separation Anxiety

by Margaret R. Pender, Owner, DogGone Right! Inc.

I have been around animals all my life and loved spending time with them: dogs, cats, turtles, budgies, and fish have all found a home with me. As a child my father used to joke he was going to put a sign on our front lawn saying “Pender Zoo – Admission 5 cents.”

As I walked down the aisles of the local shelter, many dogs greeted me gleefully, and I wanted to take them all home. Then at the end of a very long corridor I saw Angel. She was pressing herself up against the back of the pen, tail between her legs and head hung low, as if trying to blend into the wall. When she finally looked up what I saw brought tears to my eyes. The most beautiful dark eyes filled with tremendous pain and sadness.

In the adoption room, Angel crouched in a corner, making no eye contact but stealing glances. Eventually she made a small, tentative movement toward me. I knew I could not leave her there. Her fear of people was evident, but why? Was she just shy or was there some other reason for her fear? The shelter knew only that Angel was a German Shepherd cross, weighed about 45 pounds, had previously been at an OSPCA shelter, was approximately one year old, and while in their care had been spayed.

I took her home. She was wary and very tentative, constantly watching every movement I made and quiet, never making a sound, not even to let me know she needed to go outside or that someone was at the door.

Any quick movements by anyone, watching baseball on TV with all the exuberant yells associated with it or any strong, loud voice, doors closing loudly, and brooms would send her cowering, tail between her legs, ears back.

The next few weeks were a challenge to say the least. I started by leaving her in the house, having access only to the living room, dining room, and kitchen. She chewed the corner of the couch, two phones, pulled anything and everything off the kitchen counter, and defecated and urinated throughout the house. We made many trips to the vet, trying different herbal remedies to help her overcome her anxieties. But the day I came home and found she had wedged her way behind the television wall, pulling it out from the wall, and chewed on the electrical cords while they were still plugged in, I knew she had to be kept confined for her own safety.

I pulled the old metal dog crate out from the basement, cleaned it up and started leaving her in the crate when I was not at home, having a neighbour come in once or twice a day to take her out. One day I came home to find Angel had pulled on the metal crate doors so hard she had bent them in so far I had to use a hacksaw to open the crate to let her out.

I bought a new larger resin crate, put it in the kitchen with the door open, and had a door installed that would limit her to the kitchen. One day a friend came in to check on her and found her cowering in a corner of the kitchen counter. On another occasion she ate through the newly installed door and broke through the front window of the house to get to the neighbour standing in front of the house. Luckily she was okay. I replaced the window and was determined to find out more about separation anxiety. I read, read, and read more, but everything I tried did not seem to help.
Finally, one night I found Angel in her crate, very lethargic and covered in her own dirt and vomit. I rushed her to the emergency clinic. Twenty-four hours and $1,000 later, the diagnosis – dehydration. Angel was so panicked at being left alone and crated she had worked herself into a frenzy.
I was at my wits’ end. Angel could not be left alone or crated without panicking and becoming destructive. I could not take her everywhere, and the chances of finding another home where she would not be left alone were almost nil. My choices were limited.
It was not going to be an easy fix; she was not going to just “get over it” in time. A behaviour modification program seemed to be the only option and could take months or even years to get her to the point where she could be left alone without injuring herself or becoming destructive, but it was our best hope.
The program combined working on Angel’s anxiety triggers, doggy day care, and psychotropic drugs – and all the health implications involved. I did not like the idea of using drugs, but Angel’s separation anxiety was severe enough that trying to modify her behaviour without their use was not working.
It took just over a year from the time Angel came to share her life with me until she was able to be left alone without being destructive or hurting herself. She is still not happy about being home alone, but she tolerates it.
Angel came into my life for a reason. What we went through that first year was difficult, but life with Angel now is peaceful, for the most part. She is friendly with strangers, children, other dogs, and loves going to the DGR Training Centre and running around with her new dog Molly.