Buster – 4 year old Jack Russell x Dachshund
This is an ongoing case study, and is a good example of what it means when you hear that separation anxiety is not a quick road.
Buster has never been comfortable being left home alone, and his lovely Dad Martin has previously done some work with another behaviourist as well as doing some work on it himself, but unfortunately although he was able to leave Buster for 10 or 15 minutes occasionally, and on once for slightly longer, it was never consistent and these were very much “one offs”.
This is Buster below – isn’t he cute!
I started working with lovely Buster on 20th April 2022, and during our initial assessment Buster showed signs of anxiety as soon as he realised Martin looked like he might be leaving, and this escalated when he picked up keys and put shoes on, with Buster following and whimpering. When the front door closed Buster started barking at 5 seconds, and while there were gaps in the barking his behaviour escalated and he started wagging his tail slightly (a tail wagging is not always a happy dog – a wagging tail simply means the dog is feeling something….in this case it is anxiety), and jumping slightly off his front paws.
I will add that during our initial assessment, the aim of it is to get information regarding how long the dog can cope with before they start to get uncomfortable, and at what time do they start to feel anxious and then escalate. Some dogs escalate very quickly, giving barely any warnings (they are a 0-60 dog!), whilst some dogs are more of a slow burn, showing a variety of body language signals to indicate they are feeling more anxious. It is important to know what category Buster fitted into. The video from Buster’s initial assessment is below (please be aware there are sounds of barking and whining):-
The first week
Buster showed significant improvement in the first week of the programme. I ask my clients to do 5 days a week of training exercises, and one of those is a live session with me. I write clients training plans on a daily basis, following notes on how the dog did the previous day, and for the 4 sessions where I am not watching, I set a specified duration for the final step….with our weekly live reassessment, I ask the client to go out during the final step and I text them to return when the dog starts to feel slightly “itchy” or is totally comfortable, so the person comes back in before they feel anxious and I can get an idea of how their threshold is changing.
Martin is great at sending me videos of the final step of their training session. I love that as it mean alongside his notes of how Buster has done (which are always great) I can see Buster myself and maybe notice some small nuances of behaviour that may go unnoticed because they are so subtle (such as ear position or lip licks). Below is a video of Buster’s 4th session after our live reassessment (a final step duration of 15 seconds) where he stayed on the sofa the ENTIRE time! And also a video from our first reassessment where Buster remained on the sofa for 2 minutes and 3 seconds (looking around, ears slightly back) and then got off the sofa and slowly wandered to the front door. This is the point I texted Martin to come back in because at that stage, Buster getting off the sofa was a sign he was starting to get ever so slightly concerned. But 5 seconds to 2 minutes and 11 seconds (which was when the front door opened, and Buster was still totally fine!) is amazing progress in one week.
The first month
During Buster’s first month on the programme, he has made gradual and quite significant progress! In our second reassessment (video below) Buster did get off the sofa 18 seconds after Martin shut the front door, and slowly wandered to the front door (going to the front door is fine, as long as no anxiety is shown when they are there), and then he LAY DOWN at 3 minutes! Because this was the first time he had lay down and shown relaxed behaviour at the front door when alone, I texted Martin to come back and the front door opened 2 seconds later!
In Buster’s 3rd week on the programme, in our reassessment he again started on the sofa, and got off and went to the front door after 19 seconds, then lay down at the front door at 3 minutes 34 seconds. He then lay there, relaxed, shifted weight onto the opposite hip at 6 minutes and 3 seconds, and then did a very tiny little whine at 8 minutes 30 seconds, so I texted Martin who came in immediately. In his 4th week reassessment, he did amazingly, and remained on the sofa with his head up looking around, then rested his head down on the sofa and fully relaxed after 2 minutes and 8 seconds! He then got off the sofa at 9 minutes 15 seconds and slowly wandered to the front door and sat down. I called Martin back at 10 minutes 33 because i did not want to push it and Buster was doing great!
I will add as well that during this first month we have successfully incorporate various pre-departure cues – the keys being picked up and coats being put on do not bother Buster at all now, and although sometimes Buster looks interested when Martin puts shoes on, it is more of a “am i coming?” response rather than anxiety.
I have not attached these videos because they are obviously at a longer duration, but below is a photo of Buster during his 4 week reassessment – chilling out on the sofa!
I find it really helpful to put a graph together to easily show each dog’s progress as we go along. Training never goes in a linear pattern, and the same is the case in separation anxiety. Regressions and plateaus are not only common, they are normal and to be expected. Buster has, so far, progressed at a fairly consistent and steady rate which is great, but not so commonl! This graph is of Buster’s progress during his first month on the programme. You can see there is a general upward trend, which is what we are looking for. There will always be ups and downs in this line!
Time of day has an impact
Martin usually does his training plans during the day because he works evenings and works long hours. The day after our 4 week reassessment he did Buster’s training session during the evening, which is rare. One prior session has been during the evening, but it was early on in the programme when Buster was working at a much lower duration of absence. During this evening session Buster struggled more, and jumped off the sofa when Martin put his shoes on and started whimpering – something he has not done since our very first reassessment. In the first 2 steps (at this stage he is down to 4 or 5 total steps) he followed to the front door and waited, following Martin back to the sofa in the breaks. He remained on the sofa for the third step, but during the final step (which is always the significant one) he got off the sofa 30 seconds after the front door closed and came to the door, did a very small whimper 1 minute after the front door shut, and then another small whimper at 2 minutes 30 seconds…..because this was a session where I was not watching Martin made the very sensible and correct choice to come back in at that stage. This is why it is SO important to have eyes on your dog when you are working through your training plans!
Buster’s session the next day was done in the morning and, once again, he aced it – staying on the sofa and remaining very relaxed. So therefore it became clear that Buster finds it harder to cope with absences during the evening, and this is important information to have! So I have now implemented a “two-tiered protocol” whereby Martin will now have 2 training plans to choose from each day – one if he does Buster’s session prior to 7pm, and one if he works on it after 7pm. The criteria for the evening session will be much lower for the time being than the daytime session, so Buster can build up his confidence during the evening, while also building more duration during the daytimes.
The second month
In the fifth week on the programme, Buster did really well during the week, doing beautifully for all the controlled absences, even the one during the evening. Then on our weekly reassessment in week 5, Buster struggled a bit more. He was more unsettled than normal during the warm up steps and wanted to be sitting right on his Dad during the breaks, which isnt normal for him, and I noticed a couple of yawns (stress sign). In the final step he came to the door after 11 seconds and sat down, but his ears were back, and then he let out a few tiny whines at 5 minutes 51 seconds, so i called his dad back in. So he still did great with how he coped and a decent duration, but he was less settled and more clingy. When we chatted afterwards, it came to light that Buster had also been more reactive to noises on his walk that morning, and there had also been thunder the day before. Bingo! We have our reason!
The following week I lowered criteria to allow for the cortisol that would have been in his body and the fact that more anxiety elsewhere in life will bleed into his ability to cope with absences, and Buster did really well again, with a couple of days where he did some alert barking at some noises outside, which he does normally anyway, then came to the front door, and on one occasion he did a little whine at the front door so his Dad came in early (really glad he does this and wont push Buster!).
In our week 6 reassessment Buster nailed it!!! He stayed on the back of the sofa for an absence of 14 MINUTES 42 SECONDS! Huge! And Buster’s dad’s first mini goal was to be able to leave for 15 minutes so he can go for a run! We are very close to that – just need to make sure Buster is consistently comfortable at that duration!
Here is a photo of Buster during his 6 week reassessment, watching tv, where he stayed for the entire duration!
A Eureka moment!
The day after our week 6 reassessment, Buster’s Dad’s heart sank initially as after he exited the front door, there was quite a lot of activity going on (being the first day of the 4 day Jubilee Bank Holiday long weekend!), and Buster, as he usually does, went to the window and barked at the potential intruders! He then trotted to the back door, barked, and came to the front door and stood for a short while at about 1 minute into the absence. Now we had a chat about exactly this situation in our reassessment yesterday, and I suggested that if Buster does bark at outside noises, to leave it and see if he settles himself afterwards…and this is exactly what he did!! he stood at the front door for a while, then lay down and stayed laying down relaxed for the remaining 7 minutes!! A big breakthrough for little Buster! Below is a video – for some reason there is a bit of a mismatch between sound and image, and you can hear him trotting the back door even though to shows him at the front door, but you get the idea!
In our week 7 reassessment, Buster was really chilled out and resting on “his spot” on the back of the sofa until 6 minutes 55 seconds after the front door closed, at which point he heard some activity outside the house and stood on the sofa alert barking (I know it is alert barking for many reasons, partly because we know he always barks at outside activity when it is close to the house even when his Dad is there, and also largely due to his body language). He then slowly wandered to the door at 8 minutes 6 seconds, once the danger had passed (!), and stood by the front door. He then did a couple of tiny whines (again, I only continued the absence at this point because it is a bit of a pattern of his that if he barks at outside activity, he then goes to the front door and does a couple of whines, but that is where it ends. Of course if it escalated even a tiny bit I would have ended it).
At 8 minutes 36 seconds he sat at the front door, then at 9 minutes 45 seconds he lay down! He remained there, no stress signs, until at 18 minutes 5 seconds, he shifted his weight slightly so he was more directly facing the front door, and I think I heard a very very tiny whine, so I texted his Dad to come back, and the front door opened at 18 minutes 47 seconds! Buster’s personal best and he absolutely aced it!!
Below are some photos from the Week 7 reassessment – firstly on the sofa in his spot, and secondly when he had gone and settled by the front door. Dogs going to the front door and lying there is totally fine, as long as they are not showing any stress or anxiety while they are there.
The third month
Although Buster has been doing really well, we have discussed medication a few times through the last couple of months, and Buster’s dad decided it would be worth speaking to the vet about meds, as he has been unable to leave Buster for 5 years and if there was anything that could help his beloved boy feel more secure it was worth it. I agreed. So on 17th June 2022 he started some medication. Meds are not a magic wand and are absolutely not a “lazy choice”. Medication will make no difference on its own, but alongside behaviour modification work it can really help.
Evening absences no longer a problem!
When Buster’s third month on the programme commenced, Buster’s dad did a couple of his sessions during the evening – a time when Buster previously has struggled. But Buster knocked it out of the park, remaining on the sofa for 7 minutes on the first session, and 13 minutes the day after! And the day after that (a morning session) Buster remained on the sofa for the whole 20 minute absence!!
Half an hour target reached!!
On 10th July, the day before Martin went on a much deserved holiday, Buster absolutely aced an absence of 30 MINUTES! For the first 7 minutes he lay on the sofa, and then he slowly ambled to the front door, stood there for a minute and then lay down completely chilled for the remaining time! This was the first time Martin had been able to do something constructive during an absence, and he went to the SHOP! At this stage we absolutely knew Buster would be fine for 15-20 minutes, so Martin watched Buster and was able to nip to the shop! He said it felt “strange but fantastic”!
Videos below (the first video of him relaxing on the sofa, and the second video is when he wandered to the front door):
Below is a graph to show Buster’s progress up until 10th July. Please be reminded that there are peaks and troughs because learning is never a linear process, and because of the fact we never increase duration of absence each time, and always include “easy wins”. What we look for is a gradual incline, which is absolutely what can be seen here.
The fourth month – several milestones achieved!
In Buster’s fourth month he went from strength to strength. All pre-departure cues are incorporated, and in our reassessment on 27th July 2022 he comfortably coped with an absence of 35 minutes 50 seconds…..and in the following reassessment on 10th August (there was a gap due to Buster’s dad going away for a well deserved break) Buster absolutely smashed an amazing absence of 55 MINUTES! He was mainly lying in his favourite spot on the back of the sofa, before briefly barking at some potential intruders outside (another favourite past-time!), before settling back on the sofa again!
Below is a video mid way through. – not a lot to see here I’m afraid!
Four days after this, Buster’s dad sent me the following message:
“Morning! Well today was a HUGE milestone! Not only did Buster absolutely smash his alone time, but I managed to go for a run! I had the camera on all the time so I could hear the audio in my ear and I was checking the picture every minute or so….he was quiet the entire time! I feel such a sense of achievement today as this was the first time I’ve ever managed to do this in four and a half years! Couldn’t be prouder”!
And four days after this, in our weekly reassessment, Buster coped magnificently for an absence of 1 HOUR 1 MINUTE!!! A huge milestone!!
Months 5 – 6
I always say regressions and plateaus are normal…..
…and here is Buster’s!
A week or so after Buster’s 1 hour absence, he started finding absences harder – following to the door immediately, not being able to relax on the sofa for long after the front door closed, coping with less time and doing small whines occasionally. Buster had hit a regression, and to start with was able to cope with absences between about 4 and 8 minutes, and over a couple of weeks this increased again to between 10 and 15 minutes. Then Buster plateaued around this level until, on our reassessment on 17th October, he coped really well with an absence of just over 36 MINUTES! Now he wasn’t as relaxed as he previously had been, so for the following week I kept his daily training plans mostly with short absences that he would find easy, with the very occasional slightly longer one. The result being that in our reassessment on 28th October, he not only aced an absence of 31 MINUTES 16 seconds, but more importantly than the duration (because he could have done longer) is that he remained relaxed on the back of the sofa for 25 MINUTES of that! He only really got off because he barked at some noises outside and that caused him to go and sit by the front door!
This is a short clip from the reassessment on 28th October – its not exciting but it is to me! This was 24 minutes into the absence:
And the week after this his daily sessions were much more consistent, and during our reassessment on 2nd November he remained relaxed on the back of the sofa, as above, for 35 minutes, before getting off and wandering to the front door, at which point I called his Dad back in.
Regressions and plateaus are SO normal, but it doesn’t stop them being incredibly frustrating and disappointing. It is simply that dog’s way of saying that although they were ready for the longer absences at that point, they’re not quite ready for them consistently – YET! And Buster is now working his way consistently out of his regression and plateau 🙂
Moving on up!
In Buster’s reassessment on 16th November he remained curled up on the sofa until 18 minutes when he bravely defended the house from a potential intruder outside the window! Then he wandered to the door and sat down….he stayed here quietly until just under 36 minutes and he then went BACK to the sofa and got onto his favourite spot on the back of the sofa (see video below)!!! I then ended the absence because this was just such an amazing result from the boy, he had been able to make some perfect choices and I wanted it to end when he was totally comfortable….and the front door opened at 41 minutes 09 seconds!!!
As is very common when working through separation anxiety, a week or so later Buster took a little step back in the length of time he could cope with (this was just Buster telling us that he wasnt ready for the longer absences consistently – YET), and then for the next month or so he plateaued around the 20 – 30 minutes mark. Then the week before christmas he showed signs that he is feeling more comfortable, with him remaining on the sofa for the whole reassessment today (20 December) for 25 minutes and I ended the session at that time because he yawned (a sign he is uncomfortable).
On our reassessment on 27th December Buster did his BEST EVER – coping beautifully with an absence of 49 MINUTES 25 SECONDS, just getting off the sofa and wandering to the door at 26 minutes, before immediately going back to the sofa!
Then in our reassessment on 13th January, Buster aced an absence of 57 MINUTES 45 SECONDS! He remained on the sofa, looking around, alternating between his head being rested down and lifting his head up, for nearly 46 minutes, when he wandered to the font door, and lay down. After a couple of tiny whines just after 56 minutes, thats when I called Martin back.
After 14th January, due to some work going on at the house, we put a pin in Buster’s separation anxiety work for a few weeks, because there would be workman there every day, and it would not be an environment conducive to setting Buster up to succeed. Since starting back in early February, Buster hasnt quite felt comfortable enough to be alone for near an hour, but he is doing really well at remaining comfortable for 20 – 30 minutes consistently at the moment, which is great. A break can mean that the dog loses momentum (for want of a better word) so it is common after a break to find we need to build back up to where the dog was before the break.
The second half of 2023
Throughout this half of the year, when the work was done in the house, we worked slightly differently. Martin is very competent at writing Buster’s plans to work through but we agreed that regular assessments would be helpful and would mean I can guage where he is at, and give Martin a plan of action for the next week or two before we have our next assessment. Buster did consistently well for the first few months around the 20 minute mark, and then due to hectic work commitments Martin wasnt able to do many sessions with Buster during September and October (although he was still working on the crossover times between when his dog sitter left in the evening and when he came home from work).
However, when we did our two weekly Zoom assessments, Buster showed great improvement and showed he was remaining comfortable consistently for longer durations. In fact in our assessment on 25th October 2023, Buster was rather alert at the start due to the doorbell going and neighbours having a shopping delivery, but he smashed it! He barked at something outside after about 10 minutes, but then at 16 minutes 45 seconds he resettled himself back on the back of his sofa (his favourite resting spot!). I then ended the absence at 45 MINUTES 41 SECONDS because he did a small lip lick and then a yawn. He then remained on the sofa when Martin came in instead of rushing to the door to greet him which is another great sign that he is feeling more comfortable!
See video below:
This is one of my favourite case studies because it gives a true indication of how working through a separation anxiety protocol can go in reality. It can be a long process, it never moves in a linear fashion (which is the same with any learning) and there are peaks and troughs along the way.
I will be adding to this case study as we go along!
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