Many people are welcoming dogs into their homes during the pandemic, and they are spending much more time with their current dogs too. While this is a great time to train and spend time with your dog, you may be wondering what will happen when you go back to work, and your dog experiences separation anxiety. How do you avoid separation anxiety in your dog post COVID-19?
There is reason to be concerned, but there is also a lot we can do right now to ensure our dogs will be okay when we go back to work and we are not at home all day, every day.
1. Reduce the number of daily walks
The dogs that have been adopted during this pandemic or were not used to you being home are now in a routine that is their normal day-to-day experience. Long walks or multiple walks a day is what they know. You are home, spending so much time with them and in the foreseeable future, this is all going to change.
To avoid separation anxiety in your dog post COVID-19, your dog is going to need to adapt to a new reality of you not being home. Start now by reducing the number of walks you are giving your dog. Do what you are going to be able to do when you are back at work.
As much as it’s fun right now, you don’t want to set your dog up for a significant life change when things do get back to normal unless you’re considering getting a dog walker to keep it up.
You may also want to consider a kennel that’s going to be fun and positive training for your dog. You can start doing some research to find a kennel or even a dog walker that can become a part of your dog’s routine. It is another way to integrate a dog into the routine that is going to be changing.
2. Take note of any behavioural changes.
You may need to assess any underlying anxiety issues your dog currently or previously had as this may trigger a setback because we aren’t practicing exits as much anymore. And our daily routines have completely changed – and the dogs have noticed.
Dogs thrive with routine. That’s what they do. They look at us, and they crave patterns and routine, and that’s reassuring to them. And so, to help them for when our patterns and routines change again, we need to start recreating that pattern of leaving the house and getting them used to us leaving.
3. Get your dog used to you leaving.
Get your dog used to you leaving by leaving the house regularly. Put your shoes on, get your coat on, sit in the car, turn on the car, and back out of the driveway. Then come back in to see how the dog is doing (you could also use a camera). If all is going well, try to stay away for more extended periods. The more we can start incorporating being away and it being a regular part of the routine, the less of a shock it’s going to be when we return to our daily work routines.
Also, while you are home, leave your dog in its crate or safe area and walk away. Build upon the duration of time you are separated so that your dog learns that it’s okay to be alone while you are not in the room or near the area/crate.
4. Recognize the signs of separation anxiety
Separation anxiety might differ from one dog to the next, but if we’re going to generalize, separation anxiety in dogs is a panic disorder. It can happen at any time. You don’t necessarily have to leave the house for the dog to start panicking. Sometimes the dog owner can be collecting their things, or they’re putting on their socks and shoes, and that’s when the dog starts having an emotional reaction, realizing that their person is leaving or their people are going to leave.
They are having feelings of anxiety, and different dogs will react in different ways. You will see that some dogs can become destructive, and usually, the destruction happens near the exits because they’re trying to get out. Window frames, door frames, the floor, that’s where you may see a lot of destruction. Furniture may also be what is chewed as the dog tries to soothe its anxiety by chewing, a natural instinct in dogs.
Sometimes people don’t even realize their dog has separation or isolation distress until the neighbour mentions it because it is barking or whining all day.
It’s normal for dogs to bark. And it’s normal for dogs to whine. But this is at a different level. It’s nonstop, and there’s a certain quality of whining as it escalates. You might see pacing, you’ll possibly see drooling, and some dogs will toilet in the house.
As well, dogs typically don’t eat when they’re stressed. The last thing they are thinking about is eating as their stress levels are high and the desire to eat is no longer present.
5. Crate train your dog (if possible)
Most of the time, it is better not to crate a dog with underlying anxiety because when you’re crating the dog, you’re confining them. And that extra confinement can increase their level of anxiety. There are exceptions when a dog has been trained to build a positive association to their crate but it does take skill and time to do so.
Many dog owners with a dog that has separation anxiety have chosen not to crate their dogs because there’s significantly less anxiety when the dog has the freedom to move about. Dog owners will create a safe area which we will discuss below.
If you have a dog who finds their crate to be a safe place or you have a puppy who can be trained, then the crate is an amazing tool. It should never be used as punishment. It should always be a safe place for your dog.
Having a crate is also handy when you need to bring your dog to the vet. It’s less stressful for the dog if they’re already pre-trained and comfortable in the crate, so when a vet needs to place them in one, they feel safe. But if your dog hates the crate, on top of going through a stressful experience, you’re adding another layer of stress.
Your dog needs to think the crate is a delicious, comfortable and stress-free place for them. And if you’re wanting to introduce the crate because you haven’t before, there are strategies to follow to ensure that the crate does not become a place that brings negative feelings to your dog. That’s not what you want the crate to be. You want that crate to be an association of, “Oh, I love going in my crate. I feel comfortable in my crate. I feel safe in my crate. I love my crate!” The dog that can fall asleep in the crate is fantastic. The dog has figured out how to have a nap and how to self-soothe and be happy in the crate with your help.
6. Know what to do if crate training is not an option
If crate training is not an option, try a penned off or a cordoned-off area in your home. You want to make it a pup-safe area where your dog can sleep, move around, and have toys to chew and play with.
You want to make it a safe zone and make it super fun for the dog to be there. You don’t just throw the dog in the pen and say, “Hey, I’ve got to go,” and you’re out for hours. Again, you want to build a very positive experience and a positive association with that area. Just like crate training, you want to feed your pup in that area, praise your dog profusely for being quiet in that area, and give your pup this area as an area where they won’t be bothered and can sleep.
You want to see your dog being able to relax, self-soothe, and settle. And the crate or a cordoned off area is an excellent tool for that.
7. Know how long your dog can be alone
How long can your dog hold it before they have to go to the bathroom? Knowing this is a good guideline for how long they can be crated or left alone. Adult dogs can typically hold it for several hours, but if you’re unsure, start on a gradual schedule.
Make small trips to the grocery store. Set up a camera to see how it goes while you’re gone. Did your dog bite at the crate or try to escape their safe area? Or did he/she settle? Gradually build on these experiences ensuring that your pup has a positive experience in their crate or safe zone.
Also, while you are home, leave your dog in its crate and safe area. Build upon the duration of time you are separated so that your dog learns that it’s okay to be alone while you are not in the room or near the area/crate.
8. Reach out for assistance
If you are concerned about separation anxiety, or your dog reacting negatively as you begin to leave him/her alone for longer periods of time, reach out and get some help. If it is separation anxiety, then it’s not going to go away on its own. It’s a panic disorder. It’s like that person who’s terrified of flying. You’re not going to say, “Well, it’s okay. I got your tickets to go to Hawaii. Let’s go.” That person just can’t get on a plane. Dogs have different levels of stress. Some dogs are very subtle, and other dogs are over the top with their expression of it. A trained professional can help you and your pup.
Separation anxiety left untreated, will get worse over time because now any sign that you’re leaving will trigger the stress. The sooner you look into getting help for you and your pup, the better. And maybe you’ll realize that it’s just a training issue, or you need to make small adjustments to their area or crate by changing its position or leaving music on while you are away.
There’s never any shame in asking for help. There are many great things that you can do with the right guidance. And what you learn for one behaviour will be a new tool in your toolkit that you can transfer to another behaviour.
A full toolkit of effective and positive ways to help your pup will mean a happy and healthy home for all.
Discover what is possible for you and your pup. We are here to help!
Thank you to Chantal Mills, founder of the Ottawa Canine Schoool, professional dog trainer and a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer for sharing her expertise during our recent interview that you can watch here on Facebook or below on YouTube.
For help with your dog’s separation anxiety, feel free to reach out to Chantal or Pierrette “Pete” for additional support. We are here to help!