No matter how much you love and cherish every member of your household (furry and otherwise), the prospect of returning to a life outside the home after months of pandemic quarantines and lockdowns is something to celebrate.
But whether you’re looking forward to returning to a workplace or anyplace outside your own four walls, keep in mind that some members of your quarantine crew — namely, pets — may not be as thrilled about the change as you are.
For many pets, returning to a more “normal” routine after months of extended togetherness may feel like a drastic shift. And for “pandemic puppies” who have never been left alone before, that shift could be even greater. This life change may trigger separation anxiety in dogs.
What is separation anxiety in dogs?
Dogs are social creatures. That’s primarily because they evolved from wolves, a pack animal with strong social tendencies. But it’s also because, for thousands of years, they have been bred to assist humans with all sorts of tasks. And over that time, they have become part of our human family.
Dogs instinctively want to be around us 24/7. And if they aren’t properly trained to understand that alone-time is good and people always return, they learn to fear being left home without their family.
In dogs, separation anxiety is an extreme fear of being alone that’s triggered when a pet parent or caregiver leaves and the dog thinks they’ve been abandoned.
Signs of separation anxiety
There are many levels of severity of separation anxiety. On the less-severe end of the spectrum, a dog with separation anxiety might refuse to eat unless there are people around. At the extreme end, dogs with severe separation anxiety may destroy crates, chew at door frames, and even break windows to try and get out of the house to find their family.
Signs of separation anxiety in dogs vary but may include excessive vocalization, drooling, and house soiling when left alone. Sometimes, dogs will lick a particular spot on their body until they cause a wound. Anxious dogs may follow people from room to room when they are home, never wanting to be separated by even a few feet.
Dogs who have one type of anxiety, such as storm phobias, are more likely to be anxious in other stressful situations, including separation. Breeds whose job is to follow people around, like herding dogs, are more likely to develop separation anxiety than dogs bred for property protection or other solo work.
Separation anxiety is different from barrier frustration (being crated or locked indoors) and the typical whining puppies do for the first few minutes they are left alone. However, the more your dog experiences these other stressors, the more likely they are to develop separation anxiety.
If your dog’s signs are severe or you are worried they might hurt themselves trying to escape, see your veterinarian right away. Some medical issues come with symptoms that can be easily confused with signs of separation anxiety, so it is best to get your veterinarian involved early to make sure you are treating the right thing.
How to help your dog with separation anxiety
When it comes to helping your dog with separation anxiety, the first piece of advice is to start addressing the problem early so your pet has plenty of time to adapt. Whether you recently adopted a new dog or your longtime companion has simply grown accustomed to your pandemic routine, any change will be difficult unless you properly prepare them.
Also, remember that baby steps (or puppy steps) are best. If you can tell your training efforts are causing your pet even more stress, it’s okay to pause or take a step back so your pet has more time to adjust. The idea is that you are training your dog to be comfortable alone and that takes time.
Here are eight ways to help you treat your dog’s separation anxiety:
1. Positive reinforcement
Set aside time each day to practice a departure and return routine with your dog. Not only does this help get your dog used to seeing you come and go, but it’s also a way to shift the focus from you to some other reward.
When you return, don’t make it a special event. If you’re crate training, take your shoes off, have a drink of water, and then let your dog out of their crate. As hard as it may be, ignore your dog until they calm down and then reward them with some attention, a walk outside, or playtime with a special toy.
The idea here is to teach your dog that your return is not the exciting part. The exciting thing or positive reinforcement comes after your dog is calm. That way, the focus isn’t on your absence or return, but their ability to calm and soothe themselves.
2. Crate training
Crate training is one of the best things you can do for any dog. And it can play a huge role in helping dogs with separation anxiety, too. When setting up your dog’s crate, make sure it’s a comfortable, relaxing environment. Never force your dog into the crate, especially not as a form of punishment. Your dog should view their crate as a safe, appealing refuge. To reinforce that feeling, you can start crate training by offering your pet a long-lasting treat, like a peanut butter-stuffed chew toy — but only when they’re in their crate. You can also feed your dog meals in their crate as a form of positive reinforcement. Over time, your dog will start to associate their crate with rest, sleeping, eating, and positive nurturing care, so you can crate your dog to soothe any anxiety they feel when you’re away.
3. Independence training
Practice short departures, like leaving your dog in the bedroom while you use the bathroom (with the door closed). It is good for dogs to have regular breaks where they are in their crate or a different room while you do things in the house. They can still hear you and know you are present, they just can’t get to you and will learn that is okay. Gradually increase the duration of time you’re away to allow for normal household activities — like showering, cooking dinner, or being in a zoom meeting.
Next, practice short departures where you leave the house. Take the trash out, get the mail, mow the lawn while your dog is resting in their crate with a long-lasting treat or favorite toy. Then take a walk around the block. Your dog won’t be able to hear or see you and that could be scary, so this is a big step. Once they are okay with that, take a short drive around the neighborhood so your dog gets used to the sound of your car departing...and eventually returning. Over time, you can run longer errands and eventually be away for the whole workday without your dog becoming anxious.
Keep in mind, dogs are very good at noticing patterns. Once you settle into your post-pandemic routine, your dog might start to get anxious before you even leave the house because they know you are preparing to go. So mix it up whenever you can. Shower the night before or put your bag and shoes in the car before you get dressed to keep your dog guessing.
4. Activity and entertainment
While the old adage ’A tired dog is a good dog‘ isn’t always true, keeping your dog physically and mentally engaged is a great way to help reduce separation anxiety.
If you can work it into your schedule, take your dog for a long walk or play fetch for at least 20-30 minutes before you leave the house. While you’re gone, leave your dog with a challenging puzzle toy that dispenses food or treats to stimulate your dog’s brain and distract from your absence. Or leave the radio or television on while you’re away from home if your pet finds that comforting. Just make sure the station isn’t going to air scary or violent movies with sounds that could make your dog feel even more anxious.
After-work exercise is just as important. If your dog was home alone for a full workday, they’re sure to have plenty of energy they need to release. When the weather is nice, a long walk can help soothe both of you. But even in bad weather, a game of tug-of-war or an intense game of hide-and-seek can help stimulate your dog’s body and mind.
5. Two-way camera
If you’re really concerned about your dog’s behaviour while you’re away, a pet cam could provide you with peace of mind — and may even help soothe your dog’s separation anxiety, as well. Look for a model with two-way features that would allow your dog to see and hear you, too. For some dogs, this will be helpful but for others, being able to hear you but not knowing where you are could make their anxiety worse.
6. Dog walker or daycare
If your dog can handle short separations, like when you go to the grocery store or the gym, but not a full workday, a dog walker may be helpful. While there are many websites you can visit to find dog walkers, the best recommendations always come from friends. Ask other pet parents you know and trust for names of dog walkers. If that doesn’t offer any leads, ask on your neighbourhood message board or social media group. Schedule an interview so you can see how the dog walker interacts with your dog before you plan any visits.
For high-energy dogs who suffer from separation anxiety, doggy daycare or daytime boarding at your veterinary clinic may be appropriate. You can also use daycare as a temporary bridge if you need to head back to work before your dog is fully comfortable with long periods alone. Just be sure to research your options to find the right solution and fit for your pup.
7. Flex schedule
If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that many jobs can be performed just as well (and sometimes even better) from home. So if your pet is struggling with your transition back to work, consider talking to your supervisor about the possibility of working a temporary, flexible schedule that will make your departures shorter or less predictable, to help your pet adjust. Ideally, this temporary measure will make you a more productive employee because you won’t be worrying about your dog all day, every day.
8. Veterinarian-approved calming supplements
If, despite your efforts, your dog continues to show signs of debilitating anxiety or destructive behaviours any time you leave your home, talk to your veterinarian about whether calming supplements or medication would help.
Based on your dog’s age, overall health history, and severity of symptoms, your veterinarian may recommend a supplement specially formulated to help anxious pets or prescribe medication to reduce your dog’s anxiety.
But even these remedies require time and planning. Some need to be administered well before you leave the house to have any impact. Others require several weeks to be fully effective.
Most pet parents don’t like the idea of their dog requiring medication for the rest of their life. But these anti-anxiety solutions can be used as short-term solutions while you continue to train your pet how to feel more comfortable alone.
When it comes to most dog behavioural issues, there are no quick fixes. And separation anxiety is no exception. Having a dog is a big commitment and you need to be just as committed to preventing or helping your dog overcome separation anxiety. So be sure to give your dog (and yourself!) plenty of time to prepare for your return to post-pandemic “normalcy.”
You may also find that you are feeling anxious about being away from your dog for long stretches. So be sure to plan soothing and replenishing activities the two of you can enjoy together, such as hiking or doggy play dates, so you can both ease back into the swing of a safe and active social life.
Create a positive environment for you and your pet. Never punish your dog for anything they do when you’re not there. As hard as it may be, try to respond to the situation calmly. Your dog knows when you are upset or anxious and that only makes things harder for both of you.
And, as always, talk to your veterinarian for additional guidance about how to treat your dog’s separation anxiety. Whether you’re dealing with a temporary bump in the road or severe behavioural issues, they can help you develop a plan, or even recommend a veterinary behaviour specialist or certified animal trainer who can address your dog’s specific needs.
Dr. Hanie Elfenbein is a veterinarian whose medical philosophy centres around the pet as part of the family and working within that relationship to resolve medical issues and strengthen the human-animal bond. She shares her home with Loki, a "Heinz 57" dog she adopted in 2017. Loki goes to work with Dr. Elfenbein at her veterinary clinic, where he sits on anyone's lap who sits down (he's 50 pounds) and is the official taste-tester of all lunches.