They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. They, whoever they are, should come see my front door. My absence means very real separation anxiety for my dog, and does nothing but terrorize Ruby, who is slowly and surely digging her way out, Shawshank Redemption-style while I’m at work.
Over the last six months, her escapist desires have worsened: There are now piles of drywall to greet me at the front door, housed in a frame that looks like it’s been hacked with a weed-whacker at knee level.
Dogs are highly human-dependent creatures, unlike independent cats, and that’s probably the reason dog-people are so enamoured. But new research has revealed just how much canines respond to human presence and their potential for love and attachment.
Neuroscientist and dog lover Gregory Berns at Emory University in Atlanta wrote about his surprising research – watching doggie brainwaves in a MRI machine as they respond to human cues – in a New York Times op-ed last month.
“Dogs seem to have emotions just like us,” he wrote. “The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child.”
So my Ruby, a little four-legged toddler then, will never understand that I’m simply at work, across the street, and earning a paycheque that allows her to eat fancy food. She’ll never understand that while I’m gone, I’ll be back in time for dinner.
I searched for help among my dog-owning friends, but no one had answers – just horror stories about dog separation. My friend Bailey was heartbroken after giving her German short-haired pointer Bruce over for rehabilitation, after he’d eaten his way through his crate and destroyed the living room.
My friend Nick was a mess at the dog park, recalling how his great dane Riley literally ate his queen-sized bed – box-spring included.
“I don’t have any answers for you,” he said, with sad, tired eyes early one morning. “I have to totally exhaust him at the park before I go to work. Even then, there’s never any guarantees of what I’ll come home to.”
How could owners fix a problem that only happens when we’re not there?
“It’s the worst problem to have in a dog,” says Caryn Liles, trainer and owner of Whatta Pup! in Toronto. She tells me this happens when dogs – natural pack-animals, lovers of humans – suffer extreme stress by being left alone. With the emotional and intellectual understanding of a toddler, they can howl for hours, pee everywhere or eat your matress – signs of separation-induced stress. “I lived in a cage of my own for 10 years,” she tells me of her own experience, the days when her Shepherd Husky mix actually tore her door down while she was at work.
All of a sudden my patchy door frame looks pretty nice.
Liles walks me through a number of tips: Practice gradual departures (leave and come back five minutes later, then 10 minutes, etc.); take my keys with me to the bathroom to throw off the usual cues that I’m leaving; add sweet potato to her diet in the morning (who doesn’t feel a little more relaxed after some carbs?).
This all sounds doable. But then she unleashes some hard truths.
“But before we start any of this…” She pauses. “We have to work on your attachment issues. You are constantly seeking Ruby’s attention.”
And then the bombshell: “I’m guessing you don’t close the bathroom door.” I say nothing. It’s true, Ruby follows me everywhere.
“Can you believe you’re a grown adult and the biggest problem you have is that you can’t pee alone?”
I avert my eyes.
“We have to teach her that just because you’ve shut the door, it doesn’t mean you’ve left her.”
Before she leaves, she suggests I set up a Skype account on my laptop at home that auto-answers, so I can video-chat with Ruby while I’m at work and check how she’s doing.
First, I must record Ruby’s entire day on a video application “to get a baseline of what we’re dealing with,” Liles instructs. I come home the next evening and watch in horror at just how stressed my dog is. She makes a heart-wrenching noise as she appears to be searching for me – from my bed, to my door, to the kitchen, the couch, then to the door. And repeat. It’s relentless for the entire eight hours I’m gone.
“Stress in dogs, just as in humans, shortens a lifespan,” I hear Liles telling me.
I begin to shut the bathroom door. I begin to take my keys to the garbage chute, put my shoes on and go nowhere, and try as hard as I can to leave Ruby be when she’s content sitting on the floor.
Something amazing happens: It works.
The drywall bits have disappeared, and most times I Skype with her – which happens more often than I should admit – she’s sleeping peacefully on my bed.
I hope she’s dreaming of our beautiful reunion.
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