Separation Anxiety, of the Human Form

By Alisa Johnson

In the dog-world, we always talk about “separation anxiety” referring to the dog. When the human leaves the house, the dog experiences separation anxiety. They may make an accident in the house, or chew up a piece of furniture, or dig insistently, or sit by the door and pout; all things that my Australian Shepherd, JD, has done. He gets terrible separation anxiety when I leave him, and the longer I’m gone, the worse it is. When I went to Officer Candidate School, Marine Corps’ boot camp for officers, I was gone for six weeks, and during that time JD didn’t eat, and behaved lethargic and sad. Whether I return from dinner, or from six weeks being apart, he greets me the same: a full throttled run, with a jump and spin, followed by frantic breathing, pathetic whining and kisses from a smiling face. My dog has separation anxiety, but maybe that’s because he is a reflection of me.

JD posing for Dogs on Deployment photos when we first founded… only he decided to jump into the lake first.

I call JD my “soul puppy,” and I’m not kidding when I say so. I love this dog. A kind of love that towers over all other beings, and I joke with my husband if I had to choose JD or him in a burning building, I’d always run for JD first (after all, he lacks opposable thumbs and the ability to open doors). Even though, as a “mom” (me, to pets only), you can’t pick favorites, I do, and its JD. Bar-none. I love my dog like you can’t imagine. It hurts my heart writing about how much I love him because he’s not here for me to give him loves. Because I am suffering from “dog separation anxiety.”

I can count the times I’ve been away from JD. First, when he was 10 weeks old, we were separated for a few weeks while my husband, who kept him, moved from Florida to me, in California. Then, when I went to OCS for six weeks. Again, in 2011, while I went to six months of Marine Corps training. But he lived with family 45 minutes from me, and I saw him every weekend. And now.

In the middle of my flight training, I relocated my dogs from Texas, where I’m stationed, to my husband, who is stationed in California. We did this for numerous reasons, practical reasons: I don’t have the necessary time for them in flight training, I need to concentrate on my studies, they hate the Texas heat and back home, they have a huge yard and house to play in and make their own (they as in JD and our second “child,” Jersey).

While practically this move made complete sense, emotionally, it tears me up. I may not see JD for five months. The last time I saw JD, looking at me with sad eyes because he saw me with my suitcase, may be the last time I see him until I move back home. Does he understand I’ll be back for him? Does he know I love him?

JD's personality shines through his expressions.
JD’s personality shines through his expressions.

Dogs, with their insatiable desire to please you, their unconditional and enduring love for you, their absolute awe and excitement just to be near you, is never tiring. They would love you for an eternity, even two eternities, if they could. There is no end to their love for their human, for their “mom.” Yet, they are not able to transcend eternities. And while our life time is limited to 100 years, they are sadly limited to a seventh of that. 15 years, if you’re lucky. 15 years. That’s it. And so spending five months away is grueling.

I find myself falling asleep at night with my legs bent to make the crook where JD would sleep. I wake in the morning and reach to touch his fur, but he’s not there. This saddens me. A piece of me is not there. Our dogs provide us comfort, loyalty and love. Without them there, its less comfortable, a little more lonely and you feel a little less loved.

I deal with this anxiety by looking at pictures of him on my phone. Even going to far as to send pictures of his smiling face instead of emoticon smiles *. And yes, I realize that’s crazy. I even looking at free ads on Craigslist looking for a dog that I could foster and find an actual loving home for (dog people understand free listings on Craigslist is not a good idea), and signing up to foster at a local rescue group. I don’t want another dog, I don’t want to replace JD, that is impossible. I just want some companionship, to feel needed.

Tasha posing pretty next to her puppy photo.
Tasha posing pretty next to her puppy photo.

Recently, I lost my childhood dog, Tasha. She was a red Queensland Heeler my mom got from a ranch in Arizona when I was 11 years old. When she was a puppy, her floppy ears wouldn’t stand up, so my mom taped them straight. She woke me on a weekend morning, saying, “Alisa! Look at Tasha’s ears!” And though I protested with the complaints of a preteen, when I opened my eyes and saw my floppy eared puppy with tape on her head, I couldn’t help but to smile. This is my favorite memory of Tasha; her pleasure in prancing around with tape on her ears, not even trying to remove it, because we were laughing. They eventually stood up on their own as she got older. I grew up, she grew into a dog. She accompanied me on my daily runs when I was on the cross country team in high school. She loved visiting the school, because she would always bring back a stolen soccer ball. She loved our family, and was loyal to us beyond measure, even standing up to a dog twice her size when my mom was threatened. I went to college, she stopped being able to jump into the back of the car. The last time I saw her she would still bark at the garden hose and try to attack it, even though she could barely see it. Everytime I went home, she acted like that little puppy again, happy to have tape on her head. She loved me with complete dedication, even if we hadn’t seen or talked to each other in years. And then one day, she let my mom know she was ready, and she fell asleep on our living room forever.

And so dog separation anxiety stems from this: separation from an animal that brings nothing but utter joy to your life, who is only in existence for a finite amount of time, requires every minute, every single second to count. Because one day, you’ll be stroking you’re old dog’s fur, reminiscing on the long hikes, camping trips, cross country moves, rivers crossed, and realize the next journey your dog takes will be without you. And then one day, you’ll have to exist without him; without that unconditional love from your “soul puppy.”

 Appreciate every second with that dog who rules your life, whom you reach down and pet every morning you wake up. Because one day they won’t be there, and its unfair, that such an amazing companion is in our lives for only 15 years.

JD cuddles with me on the couch, his favorite spot to be.
JD cuddles with me on the couch, his favorite spot to be.

2 Thoughts On Separation Anxiety, of the Human Form

  1. Am I the first one to comment, oh well. I sure have missed my dog and suffered from separation anxiety even more than him. It was back in the army days when I spent months away without seeing him. Since then I’ve treated both mine and my dog’s separation anxiety and started a small website to help people and their dogs struggling with similar issues. The website is http://puppy-separation-anxiety.com/

  2. I just joined the navy in may… going through schooling now and will be a little while before I hot the fleet. Me and my husband opted to get a puppy so he would have company while I was away on deployment…. however, as you put it I have found my “soul puppy”. I think he feels the same as days I am gone for duty, my husband is telling me how he’s moping around and barely eats. I feel the day when I am gone for months at a time… this article, I couldn’t have expressed that any better if I wrote it myself because you said it perfectly. Any advice, for the puppy (and myself?)

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