Some dogs may be at risk for developing separation anxiety when their owners return to work
- A dog with separation anxiety experiences a panic attack when left alone, which may include barking, destruction, and accidents.
- Abrupt changes in routine like stay-at-home orders can trigger separation anxiety in dogs, especially when people begin to return to work or school.
- Setting up a routine, getting space from your dog, practicing absences, and increasing training and enrichment may help set a dog up for a successful return to being left home alone regularly.
- We spoke to veterinary behaviourist Dr. Karen Sueda, separation anxiety specialist Malena DeMartini-Price, and certified separation anxiety trainer Jennifer Pratt to get advice on how to prevent this disorder.
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Separation anxiety is one of the most challenging behaviour disorders for dogs - and their families - to overcome. Canine sufferers don't just dislike being away from their humans; they experience full-blown panic attacks when left alone. During an episode, a dog may bark or howl nonstop, destroy the home, have accidents, and exhibit a variety of other stress-induced behaviours.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, between 20% and 40% of dogs seen by animal behaviourists in North America are diagnosed with separation anxiety. The American Kennel Club reported that approximately 14% of all dogs may suffer from the disorder. Some are genetically predisposed to the problem, but separation anxiety can also be triggered later in a dog's life, often by a traumatic event such as ending up at a shelter or by a drastic, sudden change in routine.
Stay-at-home orders have led to significant changes in routine that can cause stress in dogs
With the coronavirus pandemic, millions of people are now home with their dogs all day long, and their dogs are sensitive to this. "Dogs thrive on consistency and predictability, as we all do, so anytime there's an abrupt change, it can cause stress," said Dr. Karen Sueda, a veterinary behaviourist at VCA West Los Angeles Animal Hospital.
Stay-at-home orders now require millions of dog owners to stay home, but when some version of normal life resumes and people return to work, dogs will return to long days alone. For some dogs, the transition will be taken in stride, but others, especially those who have suffered from anxiety in the past, will experience stress, fear, or even panic.
To understand how owners can set their dogs up for success when coronavirus quarantines end, I spoke to several experts on the subject. Veterinary behaviourist Sueda provided a clinical perspective on separation anxiety, and Malena DeMartini-Price, a separation anxiety specialist and the author of "Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs," shared insight from more than two decades of experience. I also spoke with certified separation anxiety trainer Jennifer Pratt, owner of Wag the Dog and Company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and have included observations from my own work over the last four years as a certified separation anxiety trainer.
It's important to establish a routine for your dog now so they are prepared when you return to work
While there is no silver bullet when it comes to preventing separation anxiety, there are things you can do now to prepare your dog for the most seamless return to your old routine as possible. According to Pratt, one of the most important things dog owners can do now is establish a routine that closely resembles the one they had in place before stay-at-home orders were issued.
"Allow your pet to have some alone time. You have your space, and they have theirs," said Sueda. Even if you don't have anywhere to go outside of the house, you can put your dog behind a pet gate or in a separate room.
You should leave your dog alone in the house on occasion, particularly if they historically have not struggled with separation anxiety. "I typically tell people that they are going to want to do an absence minimally three days a week and try to sprinkle in things like going to the mailbox [while leaving the dog inside]," said DeMartini-Price. Use the time out of the house to do essential shopping, take a walk, or sit outside with a book for an hour.
- If your dog has experienced anxiety or panic when left alone in the past, suddenly leaving three times a week is likely to be too stressful. In that case, it's especially important to determine how soon after you've walked out the door your dog's panic begins.
Do they bark or have an accident immediately after you've left the house? Are they relatively relaxed for several minutes before they display signs of anxiety? Using a security camera or webcam to observe your dog's behaviour when you step out can give a good sense of how they might be feeling.
If your dog shows anxiety when you briefly leave them, you can help improve their response
The good news is that, for any dog that does show signs of panic at this stage of the game, this is a great time to work on improving their response to being left alone. "It's a gradual process of using small absences that start to teach the dog that absences are safe," said DeMartini-Price.
The method, however, shouldn't just be reserved for dogs that are already likely candidates for panicking when left alone. DeMartini-Price believes dogs that have never shown separation anxiety in the past may be most at risk because there is less understanding of what may be happening when the dog is left alone.
While getting space from your dog during the day is important, it's equally as important not to withhold your affection when you are together. "Give your dogs love, give them attention, and don't think your dog has to ask for everything with a sit. None of that has to do with your dog getting separation anxiety," said Pratt. "I've actually seen dogs get worse [when their owners withhold their attention]. That's weird to them and that causes stress."
Use training, enrichment activities, and calming tools to set your dog up for success
Other forms of in-home training could help make your dog's transition to more frequent alone time easier. Sueda recommends reinforcing calm behaviours using a go-to-mat cue or capturing relaxed postures. This is also a great time to work on slow, incremental x-pen or crate training.
Increasing enrichment and your dog's familiarity with different forms of enrichment is also valuable. "Creating an environment where the dog really loves interactive feeding toys and enjoys playing the 'find the treats hidden in the house' game can be really powerful [because] when we go back to work we can give them something to do," said DeMartini-Price.
Before you return to work or school, Sueda recommends gradually building up the amount of time you are away, rather than jumping from zero to 10 hours a day. You can gradually increase your time away over a period of one to two weeks. During that time, observe your dog's reaction to your absence over a camera like the affordable Wyze Cam.
- Sueda said that dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP), white noise, and nutraceuticals like Zylkene or Anxiatane might also help reduce anxiety. But don't wait until the week you return to work to use them. Introduce them when you're at home so your dog doesn't only associate them with you leaving.
Be prepared to reach out for help if your dog shows distress
Establishing and maintaining a network of people to help your dog and family navigate going back to work and school will also make the transition easier. "I really feel like now is the time to pay your dog walker and pay your dog daycare provider," said DeMartini-Price. She also thinks it's crucial to make new neighbourhood connections so someone is available to care for your dog if they begin experiencing distress when you return to work.
"I suspect that there are going to be some dogs that just have a little bit of an adjustment period. That's probably going to be pretty normal," said DeMartini-Price. If your dog continues to experience anxiety after the transition, speak to a veterinarian or certified separation anxiety trainer.
However your dog reacts to your absence, don't blame yourself for their distress. "Whenever I have a chance, I always try to remind people that this is not their fault, and this situation in particular, with Covid-19, is chaotic for the world. This is just one other aspect of [the disruption]," said DeMartini-Price.
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