When Ardbeg died Lily’s bond with us got visibly stronger, she became more dependent on us to tell her what to do in new situations and she started displaying some signs of separation distress. I guess I am prone to it as well, I would have just wanted to stay with her all the time. But it would be damaging for both of us.
So that’s what we did:
We avoid repeating long rituals before we go out (looking for keys, getting anxious, putting the jacket on and looking for a bag, phone, wallet and so on).
We opt for short rituals: jacket on, keys in hand, ready to go out.
We use them to make sure Lily associates them with something ordinary, not scary: ‘people go out and ALWAYS come back’ so : 1. we pick up the keys -Lily shows no anxiety, we give her a cuddle 2. we pick up the keys, walk to the door- Lily shows no anxiety, we give her a cuddle 3. we pick up the keys, walk to the door, go out, go back after a second, praise non-anxious Lily using a neutral tone 4. we repeat all this extending the period when we’re out. We praise Lily, give her a cuddle, but all that is casual, unlike in trick teaching. We don’t want her to get excited because we always come back. We want her to understand it’s normal: we go out, we come back, nothing special. We never say good-bye before we leave, we say hello when we come back, but again: it’s nothing to get too excited about. She associates us being out with the positive outcome: she’ll see us again and she’ll get a cuddle-but she wouldn’t want to speed up our return because the reward is so special.
Lily’s never left on her own for long – four hours is probably the longest. But in case she got bored, she has her kongs and chewy toys. She also has access to the garden at all times. Our two cats keep her company. Her own ‘safe’ bed is in the corner of the landing, she feels secure there, isolated from any noises or disturbances.
At first I was leaving her my scarf and background noise on the laptop (there’s music and TV for dogs, but I think BBC4 on the radio works well for my dogs, possibly because I tend to have it on all the time when I’m home). But I don’t think Lily needs it. It’s been a month and now she shows absolutely no signs of separation anxiety when we go out. Don’t get me wrong: she probably isn’t happy about it, but she doesn’t seem to show any emotional distress at all. And it’s important because stress means suffering. We don’t do suffering in our house if we can help it.
Because Lily has never actually developed separation anxiety, our desensitisation process was more preventive than rehabilitative. Dogs with serious problems will need more work and patience. In extreme cases I would definitely recommend asking your vet for a behaviourist referral.