DESPERATE TO FIND A WAY TO HELP EMMA the anxious Beagle not have a meltdown every time I walked out the front door, I brought in multiple dog trainers, consulted four vets, cooked her food from scratch, gave her interactive food toys and played calming music. I even hired a doggie masseuse. Results?
Not only did Emma not stop barking, pacing, and urinating on the floor and couch every time I left, but she started chewing on the door frame. Her separation anxiety was getting worse, and I needed to find a solution, stat.
As it turned out, the answer had been with me all along: on my computer.
For 15 years, Malena DeMartini—a California-based dog trainer and graduate of the Academy for Dog Trainers under the guidance of Jean Donaldson —has focused solely on separation anxiety cases. Over time, she has become one of the leading experts (if not the leading expert) on the condition. By using technology (smartphones, tablets, laptops, apps), she is also transforming the way dogs in general are trained.
DeMartini and the 20-plus separation- anxiety trainers she has certified do not work with clients in person. Instead, they do the job from their computers: meet via apps such as Skype or FaceTime, create and share spreadsheets so clients know exactly how to train their dogs each day, and even review video footage with clients to teach them how to read their dogs’ body language.
“[DeMartini] has completely revolutionized the way we’re going to be training,” says DogTec business consultant Gina Phairas. “It’s a good glimpse into what training’s going to look like in another 10 years.”
While cumbersome and clunky in the early days, when DeMartini lugged camera equipment to her clients’ homes and then collected 8mm tapes at the end of each week, video is ideal for working with separation anxiety cases. And, thanks to smartphones, it’s never been easier to do. It also offsets the complication of bringing someone into the home when the goal is to help the dog handle time alone.
“As soon as a trainer walks through the door, the dog is like, Oh, we’re in training mode,” Phairas says.
DeMartini began using Skype in 2008, which not only saved her time and energy, but more importantly, allowed her to observe a dog in real time. Rather than review what went on after the fact, she could modify the training protocol as the behavior was in progress. There is also another benefit to remote training: DeMartini can now work with clients anywhere in the world, and she has. Her clients can be found throughout the U.S., in Canada, Australia, the UK, Switzerland, Germany, Spain and Saudi Arabia.
I live in Virginia, and feel incredibly fortunate to be able to work with one of DeMartini’s trainers, Caryn Liles, who lives in Toronto. Liles and I first met via Skype in June 2015 to assess Emma’s condition. I stacked books on a chair facing the front door and set my MacBook on top of the pile, and Liles observed Emma while I walked outside. Our tiny Beagle had a threshold of 10 seconds—meaning, Emma could only handle being alone in the house for 10 seconds. That was our starting point.
Until we complete the separation anxiety protocol, the only time Emma can be left in the house alone is during her training sessions. “The first goal is to teach the dog that Hey, you know what? You’re okay for a full second of being left alone, or three seconds or a quarter of a second,” DeMartini says. “And once they get to that point, they’re like, The sky didn’t fall! Amazing!” The training wouldn’t work if we then drove away and caught a two-hour movie. My husband and I have recruited friends and pet sitters—our own personal village— to keep Emma company when we’re both out. (For dogs who enjoy spending time with other pups, doggie daycare can be a great option; unfortunately Emma’s not a fan.)
The morning following that assessment meeting, I logged into Google Spreadsheets to find “Mission One,” a series of 12 exercises that started with the following:
Open front door one inch, close it, return.
Stand outside the front door for one second, return.
Open the door one inch, close it, return.
Stand outside for one second, return.
Turn door handle, return.