Aging and Separation Anxiety: Older Dogs Need Sympathy, Too

Meet Riptide, a twelve-year-old unaltered Jack Russell terrier who arrived at my training studio riding shotgun on the center console of his owner’s Chevy truck.  Dan emerged from the driver’s seat, whistling his aging comrade forth, and then yelling loudly as he wandered across the street and into the neighbor’s yard.

A few things were clear from the outset: Riptide was not an average student, and Dan was not my typical leash-in-hand client.

The issue that brought these two to my doorstep?  Separation anxiety—peeing style. Though the issue began in November, it had grown increasingly more regular until Dan could not leave Riptide alone.

My initial concern was how to get a read on either of them. Riptide came in and stood guard at my sliding glass doors,  oblivious to his surroundings and unimpressed with my efforts to engage him.

Dan took charge of the session, giving me the highlights of their twelve year relationship. These two had survived a number of moves, a couple of marriages…interesting stuff but I wasn’t getting much information about the current situation. Separation anxiety is a uncommon issue, but this one challenged me. From what little I knew of this Riptide’s experience, I stretched to interpret his behavior. Finally, I narrowed my focus and asked a series of detailed questions to get to the heart of the matter.

“Does Riptide respond to your voice instantly as he used too?’  “No”, was the answer. “There is often a delay.”

“Does he seem disoriented at times?”  “Yes…especially at dawn and around dusk.”

“Does he cling to you more when you’re home?”  “Now that I think of it, he does,” came the answer.

These three questions confirmed what I initially suspected as I watched Riptide wander from Dan’s side as they arrived at the appointment.  Riptide’s physical compass was off: he was, in a word, aging.  His senses and faculties were diminishing and because of this, he needed Dan in ways he hadn’t.  The world was outpacing this spunky, on-your-toes little dog.

Next, I pushed for a detailed account of what Dan did when he came home and found “evidence.” Dan admitted to a mounting fury.  Frustrated at his dog’s incapacities, he turned on Riptide, routinely admonished in ways he admittedly never condoned.  “Now Riptide hides in the closet every time I open the door.” My heart ached at this vision.

I had all the information I needed. I took a breath and channeled Riptide, throwing my usual client decorum to the wind and putting words to his fear and confusion:

“I am home alone, anxious and disoriented because nothing feels the same to me anymore. I long for you.  I worry and pace and I pee on the door because I forget where I am—and I can’t find you to reassure me. Then I hear you! I’m overjoyed and run to you–but the man I love and trust is filled with rage and unrecognizable to me. Where is Dan? I need my buddy Dan, not this angry yelling man! Then the storm passes and Dan is back…sheepish and kind. Whew! But I can’t shake my anxieties…the confusion of loneliness, the fear of the Dan impersonator…the disorientation of my reduced capacities. Please try to understand my pain.”

Two things fascinated me as I struggled through this emotional tirade. First, Riptide abandoned his perch by the doors, circled to my left side and sat. He watched Dan intently as if to say “Yeah–what she said!”

Then I looked at Dan. His face was ashen. He stared slack-jawed, his eyes glazed. Dan looked to Riptide and said in a soft and heartbreakingly sincere voice, “I’m so sorry boy. You are truly my best friend. I won’t ever hurt you again.” Seemingly satisfied, Riptide sat next to me for a few moments then stretched Sphinx-style. Then he and Dan got up to leave…together.

My job never ceases to amaze me.