Bob Ryder, CSAT, PMCT-4, CPDT-KA
As Covid vaccines become available and public health restrictions begin to ease, people are returning to work/school. I spoke with Dana Volmer of WGLT about how that might impact our dogs.
Stay-at-home orders, working from home, and school closures changed dogs’ daily lives. So they will certainly feel the impact again as things begin to reopen. Dogs are likely to experience sudden changes to a routine they’ve become accustomed to (such as family members being home all day, every day). One of those stressors when family members return to work and school might be, “Oh my gosh, I’m home all by myself, I’m uncomfortable with this!”
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is when a dog has the canine equivalent of a panic attack when they’re by themselves. It’s a specific condition that’s becoming better understood. There are a certain number of dogs with a genetic predisposition to the condition. For a dog in this category, you would expect to see the symptoms happen the first time the dog was left alone for any significant amount of time.
Dogs also can develop separation anxiety when they experience dramatic changes — like a new home or guardian. An abrupt change in schedule can contribute to the problem too. Some dogs do better with that kind of change than others.
There are any number of factors that contribute to separation anxiety. Whether a dog is well-bonded with their families and have an enriched environment, versus if they are generally stressed out and have lots of difficulties. That stress can probably make the dog more susceptible to (anxiety) when there’s a sudden change.
How to help your dog adjust
One of the best ways to avoid stressing out your dog is to practice alone time before returning to the office / school full time. Start in small increments. Go out, just for a few minutes — maybe even for a quick walk up and down the block — and give your dog a chance to have a very brief period of alone time and see how they do. It could even be shorter than that. You might just walk out the door, be gone for 30 seconds and come back in. Gradually, you can build those increments over time.
You can also work to desensitize dogs to signals you’re leaving by practicing things like putting on their coat and shoes or jostling their car keys without actually leaving the house.
To assess the severity of the anxiety, it may be helpful to find a way to watch the dog while left alone. Set up a video stream on a smartphone or home security system. Watch if your dog tends to be comfortable and relaxed, or if they start to show some signs of stress. Are they pacing, panting, drooling, soiling, or engaging in destructive behavior. These could be an early sign that the dog is saying, “Hey, I’m not cool with being all by myself. I feel really vulnerable, I’m scared.” If there’s any opportunity to start helping the dog with that before the absences occur, they’ve got that buffer.
There is help for your dog
Addressing separation anxiety can be a slow process, but don’t get discouraged. The condition is treatable — in extreme cases with the help of a vet who can diagnose separation anxiety and potentially prescribe medication.
If the symptoms are long lasting or especially severe — if the dog is hurting themselves, trying to dig through the edge of the door, trying to break through the windows to get out and find their person, or injuring themselves trying to get out of a kennel — it’s definitely a great first step to contact your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist, along with a trainer who specializes in separation anxiety.
As luck would have it, I am a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer who can help your dog learn to feel safe and calm being left home alone. Contact us if for more information.