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.
At the start of each exercise, I grabbed my keys and purse from the kitchen and then put them back upon my return. I was instructed to wait 60 to 90 seconds between each exercise, at which time I would type into the spreadsheet a description of Emma’s behavior during my absence and what her recovery looked like.
While outside, I watch Emma on my iPhone through a surveillance camera mounted above the fireplace. For those of us with multiple smartphones or tablets, another option is to use a free mobile app that turns one device into a video camera and allows us to watch on another. (The list of surveillance tools, both hardware and software, is expanding daily; a little research will help you figure out what works best for you.)
Each day, Liles reviews the previous mission and then creates a new one based on the results. We repeated Mission One for seven days before graduating to five whole seconds out the door in Mission Two.
“I teach a dog to be relaxed in incredibly small increments,” DeMartini says about her training protocol. “People initially have a sort of pushback, if you will, like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re starting with one second or a quarter of a second? What? This is crazy! It’s gonna be the year 2027 before I ever leave my dog!’”
Thankfully, it doesn’t take a decade to desensitize a dog to being alone, although some dogs need medication to help them relax enough to succeed, and some, unfortunately, can never get past their fear. Most of DeMartini’s clients complete training somewhere in the three- to six-month range (meaning the dog can handle being alone for four or five hours). DeMartini hesitates to give time estimates, however. Each dog is different, and anxiety level does not necessarily predict speed. Six months into her training, Emma, who falls somewhere in the mild to moderate range of separation anxiety, was only able to handle being alone for a handful of minutes. At seven months, she’s made it to 15 minutes, so we’re progressing faster.
Another one of Liles’ clients, Wally, a Lab-Weimaraner mix, only needed a few months of training, which surprised me because his anxiety seemed much more severe than Emma’s. While his guardian, Katie Rose McGauhey, was out to dinner with her mom one night, Wally escaped through the top of his wire crate, scraping up one side of his body in the process. He then ripped up the carpet and scratched the door, clawing his nails down to the quick. That was the night McGauhey’s friend-of-a-friend-of-a dog-trainer connected her with DeMartini.
“It was like a horror movie,” says McGauhey of the scene she returned to. “There was blood everywhere. Wally was terrified and traumatized.” And yet, within one month of training, he could stay home alone for 40 minutes.
How do I survive wondering how crazed Emma will become if I leave for 30 seconds to grab the mail, or knowing that I still can’t hop on my bike when the clouds suddenly part, because I hadn’t arranged for an Emma-sitter? That Google spreadsheet. It’s my lifeline.
Every day, I know exactly what I need to do, and, if my resolve falters, I can look back at earlier missions to see how much Emma really has improved. Liles agrees: “I love Google Spreadsheets. I’m totally over the moon with it,” she says. As the owner of the Toronto Centre for Canine Education, Liles now also uses it to give homework to her non-separation-anxiety clients.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, social media also offers a great deal of support. DeMartini has built a community of more than 1,700 members on her Facebook group page, “Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs.” She also contributes to another Facebook group, “Fearful Dogs,” which was created in 2013 and now has more than 6,700 members.
Participants in these groups can watch educational videos, ask questions, share stories, and take away this affirmation: “I’m not in it alone, this really is happening and I haven’t lost my mind for wanting to keep the dog,” says Phairas of DogTec.
Some of our friends and family members roll their eyes or scoff when we explain that Emma has a babysitter. So, yes, it does help tremendously knowing there are many others out there in the same sort of pickle.
In fact, the Fearful Dogs group has become so active that while the content is open for all to read, those who want to participate have to demonstrate a basic level of knowledge about living with and training dogs with phobias and anxiety. The group’s founder, Debbie Jacobs, a certified dog trainer in rural Vermont, does most of her client consultations over the phone or on Skype. If people who have not worked with her want to join the group, Jacobs offers both on-demand and real-time webinars to watch.
When I look at these groups and see thousands of people reaching out to help their terrified pups, then glance over at Emma, flopped on her side napping peacefully in a sun patch on the rug, I know that we’re making progress … albeit slowly.
“It’s never just one thing,” Jacobs says about dogs living with anxiety. “If you can alleviate the stress in the dog’s life in one area, it can help in other areas.” I see that with Emma. By not losing it every time the front door creaks open, Emma has gained confidence overall. She no longer cocks an ear and furrows her brow when a construction crew bangs outside or televised gunshots ring out in surround sound. And rather than shake in terror in the car, Emma now sticks her nose to the window opening and lets her ears flap in the wind.
My husband I continue on our path of, let’s say, puppy steps—each day pushing Emma’s fear threshold a wee bit further.
“It’s a real kindness,” Jacobs says. “It’s amazing what people are willing to do.”