How I Got Through My Puppy’s Separation Anxiety Days
And survived the yowling, chewing, scratching, etc.
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We found Gus on Craigslist, back when you could peddle living things alongside couches and hubcaps on the classifieds site. People were moving and couldn’t take him with them. He was six months old and all head. But what a cute, giant head it was, with spiky white hair and the deepest, darkest eyes that reached right through my iBook screen and into my heart. Chris, my boyfriend (now husband), was on a work trip in LA at the time, but one look at that picture, and he was sold. Which, now that I think about it, was crazy, considering we hadn’t technically moved in together yet and hadn’t really discussed the fact that getting a dog together was a big commitment.
Chris and I both grew up with dogs — I had a Golden Retriever, Shandy, and a Westie, Falafel; he had a Bulldog, Molly. We were used to having them around, but we had never raised one on our own and certainly hadn’t considered what it would be like having one in a small New York City apartment. I have no recollection of my mom potty training Falafel or teaching Shandy to heel. They slept through the night, didn’t howl or bark incessantly — or at least the neighbors in our small Kentucky town never complained.
The Learning Curve With Gus
One week with Gus, and we knew we had our work cut out for us. Yes, the potty training was all encompassing and the early jump-on-the-bed-and-take-me-for-a-walk-right-this-second wakeups took some getting used to. But that was nothing compared to what we dealt with when we left Gus alone. Puppies, we soon learned, often suffer from separation anxiety — especially a puppy like Gus, whose life had been uprooted and who suddenly had completely different owners, owners who issued commands in a different language and who gave him a new name. (We couldn’t let him go by Snowball — he would have been bullied at the dog run!).
Chris worked from home, so the separation anxiety didn’t present itself for a few days. But the first time we left him alone for a night out, we came home to find that he had ripped the internet cable cords out of the wall by the front door (possibly trying to dig his way out?). The second time, I found a leather scrap trail leading to the tattered remains of my new sandals. The third? A complaint from our neighbor that a terrifying wailing was keeping her up. But Gus didn’t cry, we protested! To prove ourselves right, the next time we went out, we turned on a tape recorder.
When we pushed play, we were shocked — horrified, really — by what we heard. First, pacing. Then scratching and whimpering at the door. Then a full-throated bellow that crescendoed into a gurgling cough-sob. It was heartbreaking (and, I’ll admit, also hilarious — who knew a dog could make such a sound?). What’s more is that this unnatural, tortured yowl filled the whole tape. For two hours. We had to do something.
How to Overcome the Separation Anxiety Hurdle
Dog Training For Dummies by Wendy Volhard and Mary Ann Rombold-Zeigenfuse and Paul Loeb’s Smarter Than You Think became our new Bibles. We put our social life on a pause for a few weeks and only left him alone for brief moments (two minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minutes…) so we could return before his anxiety set in. We tried to limit our ‘pre-departure cues’ by wearing our shoes around the house. We bought a Kong and filled it with peanut butter and only let him have it when we went out. I remember tossing it like a grenade and running for the door.
It all was going really well until he somehow opened the kitchen cabinet with all the cleaning supplies and ingested a heaping helping of Ajax and had to have his stomach pumped. That was fun. But eventually, things started to get easier, and we could leave the apartment without worrying about what we’d come back to (yes, we bought a child-proof lock for that cabinet). He learned to trust us and, I think on some level, knew we’d always return. Although I’m sure that if a total stranger came in he would have welcomed them with open paws: “Thank God you’re here! They left me all alone! I thought I was going to die!”
One thing Gus never outgrew? Giving us the biggest, butt-wiggling, kiss-filled welcome home ever — whether we were out for four hours or four minutes. Which always reminded me that, no matter how much work it took to raise him, it was totally worth it.
Does your dog freak out when you head for the door? Here’s some advice.
How to cope with dog anxiety — from training to medication.
Ellen Carpenter is the editor in chief of Hemispheres, the inflight magazine for United Airlines. She previously worked for Nylon, Spin, and Rolling Stone and has written for The New York Times, InStyle, Marie Claire, and New York. She lives with her husband and son who all recently decided they’re ready to adopt a new dog, after 15 awesome years with their Westie Gus.