After over a year of having you all to themselves, it can be a painful transition to post lockdown living. While some dogs may take to the change easily, others are bound to struggle with it.
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety occurs when a dog is isolated from his or her bonded humans or other animals, causing distress. This can cause the dog to act out in undesirable ways such as:
- Excessive vocalization. Nonstop barking, howling or whining while you’re away.
- Intensive destruction. They may tear or chew on furniture, destroy carpet, doorways and more.
- Inappropriate elimination. Peeing or pooping in the home while you’re away isn’t necessarily a lack of house training or an inability to “hold it”.
- Salivation. Your dog may express his or her anxiety by pacing and drooling. This behavior may begin as soon as your dog is aware you’re leaving, like when you grab your keys or coat.
While these behaviors can be frustrating (and sometimes expensive), it’s important to know that separation anxiety can be treated. It might be a long journey and depending on the severity, you may want to enlist the help of a certified dog trainer or behaviorist.
Here are 10 things to work on that may to try to help lessen your dog’s separation anxiety:
Understand that your dog isn’t being “bad”. Oftentimes, dog parents wrongfully conclude that their dog is having accidents in the house or ripping up furniture, décor or clothing as a way to “punish” them for leaving. The root of the anxiety is an intense fear of abandonment, which is why rescues are more prone to suffer from separation anxiety than dogs that have enjoyed the same home since puppyhood. Breed, temperament, and individual personality of the dog are also determining factors. The manifestations of separation anxiety are simply basic ways your dog copes their overwhelming fears.
Never punish your dog upon discovering accidents or destroyed items. Any kind of discipline that occurs after the fact is lost on them and will only increase their anxiety because they don’t know what made mom or dad so mad.
Always start with your veterinarian. There may be other causes for your dog’s behavior like food intolerances, hidden medical problems, etc. Your vet will also be a great resource for training ideas, behaviorist referrals, dietary supplements and in some cases, medication.
Create a safe zone in your home. This can be accomplished several different ways. Identify one room of the house that your dog can feel comfortable in, complete with bed, water bowl, toys and if feasible, a place to potty. A large bathroom, laundry or mudroom situated with a Porch Potty is perfect. It’s recommended to use pet gates (one stacked above another if needed) rather than a closed door as a closed door may feel more confining to your dog. Pictured above is @misslulutheyorkie's safe zone complete with Porch Potty!
A note about crate training: Crate training is also useful as a safe zone if they are already crate trained. If not, you may want to hold off on crate training for now. Tackling several things at once can add to some dogs' stress. You may want to consult with a dog trainer that can asses your dog’s temperament.
The right kind of toys. Food-dispensing toys, rubber toys stuffed with frozen peanut butter, or other safe toys that will keep them occupied for a good while are great to have on hand. Get your dog used to their safe zone and toys while you’re still home. Start by playing with them in their safe zone with their toys once or twice a day. As they start looking forward to this time, you can eventually leave the safe zone and be in the next room. Slowly introduce time and distance while your dog stays behind and plays.
Make sure your dog has enough exercise when you are home. A good brisk 40–60-minute walk/jog in the morning will do both of you a ton of good. Activities that provide mental stimulation will also help.
Jam some tunes. Scientists have discovered that dogs respond to music much in the same way as humans. Again, get your dog used to music when you’re home, otherwise they may equate music with your imminent departure. This can cause your dog to be triggered by the music instead of relaxed by it. Fun fact: dogs seem to prefer reggae or soft rock.
Introduce short absences. If you know your schedule will be changing to require more time away from home, you can start by slowly introducing separations. Take quick trips to the grocery store or a quiet walk without your dog. When you return, don’t make a huge fuss. In fact, do not let them out of their safe zone and ignore them completely until they calm down. When you do let them out, act casual as if you never left.
Normalize their triggers. Your dog will notice things you do before you leave and that will condition them to expect your departure, causing their anxiety to spike. Think of your departure ritual and do those things several times a day without leaving. Grab your keys, walk around jingling them, then place them back down. Put your coat on, walk around, then hang it back it. Open the door, walk out, close it, then come back in immediately with no acknowledgement of your dog. Don’t lavish kisses on them before you leave, goodbyes should be kept pretty short and minimal if acknowledged at all just like your return.
- Supplements and medications. There are a host of over-the-counter supplements that can help your dog manage his or her anxiety. As always, consult your veterinarian for brand and dosage recommendations. Not all supplements and dog medications are created equal, you’ll want to make sure what you get is effective and safe.
With time, consistency and compassion, separation anxiety can be treated. Your dog doesn’t have to spend his or her moments apart from you agonizing over your return and you don’t have to always wonder what destruction you’ll come home to.