2009 - The Year Of Empathy

I am very lucky to have a wonderful bunch of dogs that are all friendly, biddable, low maintenance and easy to manage. Of course they weren’t born like that, but having raised them I have been able to “practice what I preach” – the end result being really nice dogs.


I recently gave a home to an 80kg rescue dog with issues. Wow. What an eye opener. I have found it very tiresome to cope with him despite his massive progress over the last week. It has made me wonder how utterly horrible this situation must be for a person with less experience.


The dog has severe separation anxiety, which considering the turmoil of the last couple of months of his life is not surprising. The good news is that we are making great strides. Doing all the right things and giving him some time is working really well. He can now quietly and calmly remain in another room. Being out in the garden without me is still difficult for him, but we’re getting there. Baby steps are a marvelous thing.


Last night I realized just how difficult it must be for novices dealing with dogs with separation anxiety issues. For whatever reason the dog regressed and he was barking up a storm. My patience ran out and I shouted at him. The poor dog hit the deck. He was absolutely petrified. I left him, waited a while and then spent some time with him. He was quiet and settled for the rest of the evening. But boy, did I feel bad!


All I wanted to do was hold this giant lad and assure him that life is going to be good. I wanted to let him know that I felt horrible for frightening him, but that I only have so much patience. I know that this is counter-productive in this case, but even so it was really difficult to resist the temptation. All I want to do is comfort him, but if I spend too much time with him it’s only going to make his over bonding worse. If it’s hard for me I can only imagine how tough it must be for the novice.


It’s so easy for us to advise owners to “cool the relationship”, “don’t reinforce undesired behaviours” etc. However being in this situation is really tough. As trainers and behaviourists we should never loose sight of just how traumatic it can be to deal with separation anxiety.


Earlier this year I gave a home to a rescue donkey and received a lesson in feeling helpless and overwhelmed. All is now well with madam donkey, but it seems that 2009’s lesson plan of empathy is not yet complete.