Lockdowns are ending, but there’s an unfortunate downside for your pup when it actually ends. When we abruptly go back to work one day and our dogs are left home alone, the sudden change will be stressful for them. This stress may cause the development of separation anxiety, especially in pets that were adopted during COVID-19 and do not understand what our normal routines are at all.
What does separation anxiety look like?
Separation anxiety develops in dogs that are not used to being alone. It can be any negative response your pet has to you leaving or being out of sight. Some dog will display unwanted behaviors that can be destructive and dangerous for both your home and your dog, such as whining, barking, destructive behaviors, inappropriate elimination, escapism, and even self-inflicted injuries. Separation anxiety is a panic response – and operating in panic mode is harmful to your dog’s overall wellbeing. We want to help.
What can you do to help your dog avoid separation anxiety?
The basis of preventing or reducing separation anxiety is desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS/CC). This means that we are aiming to desensitize the pet to something that is uncomfortable to them (i.e. you leaving), and counter-condition them to have a positive feeling about it instead (i.e. “This is great – my alone time is fun!”). It is critical to avoid punishment techniques as these will only make your dog more anxious and will hinder your ability to create the positive response that is necessary for counter-conditioning. Schedule a private assessment with a LECA trainer to learn more about dealing with anxiety and how our enrichment program can help.
To avoid separation anxiety as we return back to more normal lifestyles, we want to provide you with some helpful tips to support a gradual re-adjustment for your dog.
Reconditioning Your Dog to Your Departure
Your dog is extremely attuned to what you do. In fact, starting 5-10 minutes before we walk out the door our dogs often pick up cues that we are planning on leaving. Varying the order and steps of your routine may help avoid this worried wind-up your dog experiences. You should also practice leaving in short intervals, but be wary you don’t leave for longer than your dog can handle without becoming anxious (just an hour, a few minutes, or a few seconds in extreme cases). You may need professional advice on desensitization and counterconditioning techniques for this.
Creating a Canine Retreat Your Dog Will Love
Creating the canine retreat is the best way to prevent separation anxiety. It is helpful to have a specific place in the home where your dog is particularly comfortable and at ease. For example, a specific room, cozy corner, or a large, open crate can serve as a restful den. This retreat should never be a place of punishment or forced confinement. Instead, it’s a place your dog can go to relax. You can build this positive association by leaving a special treat or beloved toy in the space so your dog is rewarded when he or she chooses to use it for some alone time.
Enriching Your Dog’s Alone Time
Let’s face it, it would be pretty boring waiting for your people all day, and boredom (or the associated anxiety) can lead to unwanted outcomes. You can give long-lasting treat toys to keep your dog mentally and physically busy when you leave. Examples include KONGs or puzzle toys that can be stuffed with treats or kibble. Better yet, you can hide several around the house and your pup will spend the day on a mission to find them (just make sure the toys are safe to leave for unsupervised use, and don’t forget that these calories add up in your dog’s daily diet!).
Everyday Healthy Habits
Keeping your dog happy and healthy both mentally and physically requires ongoing training, engagement, and exercise. Make sure your dog has enough outlets for his or her energy via walks, playtime, training, socializing, etc. Sufficient exercise leaves your pup tired and with less excess energy for anxiety problems to crop up. In regards to training, practicing the command “stay” is particularly helpful. You can gradually increase the use of “stay” until you can exit the room for several minutes at a time (thus getting your dog used to you leaving and coming back).
Desensitizing is to change the meaning of a cue or action. Sometimes what we do before leaving causes the anxiety in your dog. We have to change the meaning of these cues for the dog. For example, pick up your keys, carry them into the kitchen and put them down, instead of leaving the house. This small step is one way to start to change what the sound and motion of you picking up the keys means to your dog. Desensitization takes lots of time and patience, but goes a long way toward helping your dog become calm when you leave.
To learn more about dealing with separation anxiety, download this article from one of our colleagues at IAABC.
Need more help?
You can always contact us for more information and help with your pup. However, if you are still having trouble managing a more severe case of separation anxiety, you should consult your trainer or veterinarian – he or she can assess which behavior modification techniques and/or drug therapy will help alleviate your dog’s anxiety.