Have you been spending a lot more time with your dog, courtesy of coronavirus? As life slowly goes back to a “new normal” and you start to think about going back to work or school, you may be worried about how your dog will handle your absence. The internet is flooded with articles predicting an epidemic of dogs with separation anxiety when our canines have to become accustomed to being left home alone again. Are you ready for this?
What Is Dog Separation Anxiety?
Before we discuss whether or not you need to be concerned about this, let’s clear up some definitions. We’ve noticed that the more dogs with separation anxiety are discussed, the less precise the language surrounding the condition seems to become!
“Anxiety” is the anticipation of unknown or imagined future dangers. With separation anxiety, your dog anticipates bad things happening because you aren’t there. True canine separation anxiety presents as extremes of behavior: vocalization, destruction of household objects (especially door frames and confinement tools), self-injury, and sometimes soiling in the home by a previously well house-trained dog.
Separation anxiety is a bit of a misnomer for a lot of canine behavior that frequently gets tagged with the dreaded separation anxiety label. There are many canine behaviors that we find problematic that occur exclusively in the owner’s absence. If they do not seem to be anxiety-based and are relatively easy to manage and modify, we should call them separation-related behaviors. We’d consider true separation anxiety to be a subset of dog separation-related behaviors.
How Will Dogs React To Us Going Back To The Office
Not all dogs will erupt with separation-related behaviors if their owners suddenly go back to work. If your dog has always been comfortable being left alone, she’s likely to be just fine when you go back to work, especially if she’s reasonably confident and well-adjusted.
On the other hand, it’s possible that even if your dog never had separation-related behaviors before, she is now so accustomed to your constant proximity that your departure could trigger an unwanted response, whether it’s separation anxiety or the emergence of other separation-related behaviors. You want to start right now, addressing it sooner rather than later.
What Dogs Are At Greatest Risk For Separation Anxiety?
Puppies are at the greatest risk for separation-related behaviors when they are subjected to a sudden change to a home-alone lifestyle. While many new puppy owners take vacations or reduce their work hours in order to spend time with their new pups, we normally counsel new puppy owners to immediately begin a program of gradual separation to prevent separation anxiety. But right now, with so many new puppy owners staying home, they may have skipped this important part of a pup’s early learning. Fortunately, it’s not too late to put this program into action!
How To Identify The Behavior With today’s easy access to technology, it’s fairly simple to determine whether your dog or puppy gets upset when left alone. Set up a cellphone or laptop computer to record video – or, better yet, use an app to link a camera to your phone – so you can see what your dog does in your absence. (Note: If you already know your dog already has separation-related behaviors and you know for sure it’s separation anxiety, you don’t need to do this; proceed directly to management and modification sections below.)
Next, initiate your normal departure routine, whether this entails crating your dog, confining her in a room or section of the house, or leaving her loose with full access to the entire house. If she has full access, set up your camera where you think she’s most likely to hang out. (You can always do another trial later if you guessed wrong.)
Now leave the house, following your normal departure routine. You only have to go far enough away that your dog thinks you really left. Watch your dog on your camera (or view the recorded video after you return). If your dog wandered around, then settled on her bed (or the sofa) and dozed off, you’re probably home free – although she could wake up and get bored later.
If your dog didn’t settle in fairly quickly, watch for signs of anxiety (pacing, panting, whining, barking, howling, digging at doors or windows) or boredom (walking around with purpose, looking for things to get into or chew, such as garbage cans, shoes, pillows, table legs, etc., without any obvious signs of stress).
Keep this first “home alone” session short – separation anxiety, under 10 minutes. If you are using an app and can observe your dog via a live stream, return immediately if you can see that your dog is anxious; you don’t want to ramp up her stress levels.
If your livestream or video recording reveals that your dog is stressed about your absence, she does have some degree of separation anxiety, and you have work to do. If she’s doing inappropriate things but doesn’t really seem anxious, you also have work to do, on the easier end of the separation anxiety-related behaviors range.
How To Manage Canine Separation Anxiety
It’s much easier to use management for separation-related behaviors that are triggered by boredom or a lack of supervision than those caused by true separation anxiety. Both prognoses can improve immensely from increased enrichment and exercise. (A tired dog makes for a happy owner!)
Scent work is excellent for tiring most dogs – it’s very fulfilling and can easily be done indoors. (For more about teaching your dog games that utilize his nose, see “Everyone Nose That,” WDJ September 2019.)
Other options for indoor exercise and enrichment include playing with a flirt pole (kind of like a toy on a fishing pole), a ball pit, or snuffle mat (a textured mat with kibble or treats buried in the fabric, requiring the dog to sniff and lick to find and eat the food). Good games include round-robin recalls (where two or more people call the dog and reward her for each arrival), indoor fetch, or indoor parkour using household items such as laundry baskets to jump in and out of, broomsticks to jump over, and chairs to crawl under. (For more details, see “Winter Woes and Wags,” December 2019.)
Crating is appropriate for many separation anxiety-related behaviors – but not for separation anxiety. Most dogs with separation anxiety do not tolerate crating, and in fact crating can make their anxiety considerably worse. They often panic and can injure themselves badly – even die – in their desperate attempts to escape. If you hope to crate your dog at some point, you will likely need to work to resolve the separation anxiety before you can do so. If your dog displays anxious body language when you watch the video feed, the management program for your dog will likely need to include medication in addition to modification efforts.
Some veterinarians are unfamiliar with behavior-modification drugs and dosages. You can ask yours to do a phone consult with a veterinary behaviorist, or consult directly with a veterinary behaviorist yourself. You or your vet can find a list of certified veterinary behaviorists at dacvb.org/about/member-directory.
How To Help Your Dog Become Comfortable Being Home Alone
Here’s the goal: A dog who is just as relaxed and comfortable with being home alone as she is with humans in the house.
Whether you do or do not see evidence of separation anxiety during the video test, you can use the following procedure to increase the likelihood that your dog or puppy will be fine when you go back to work.
The more anxious your dog is about your departures or absence, the slower you need to take this process. If she starts to become stressed, continue working at that step until she can stay relaxed, or back up to a previous step and work there longer. Your goal is to help her be comfortable when she’s separated from you, whether or not you’re in the house.
- Start with your dog resting – on a bed (tethered if necessary), in a crate, in an exercise pen, or behind a baby gate, with you standing next to her.
- Tell her “wait,” count to five, feed her a treat.
- Tell her “wait,” take one step away, return, feed her a treat.
- Tell her “wait,” take two steps away, return, feed her a treat.
- Continue increasing the number of steps. Starting at five steps away, sit down in a chair within your dog’s sight and read a book or magazine for a minute or two, increasing the duration of your minutes away with each successful repetition. Continue to increase the duration of your time away from your dog (within her sight) up to 30 minutes, until she calmly rests while you read or talk or otherwise occupy yourself.
- Continue to increase the distance between you and your dog until you are able to step out of the room without a reaction from your dog. Pause briefly, then immediately return; initially, you will decrease the duration of the time you are away from your dog because you are now out of sight.
- Set up your camera again. Gradually increase the distance between you and your dog and the duration of your stay away from her until your dog stays calm even when you are away for longer periods of time. Add other “leaving cues” into the process, such as opening and closing doors, putting on coats, starting the car, etc. – watching her video the whole time. If she starts acting stressed or getting into “trouble” when you leave her, back up and slow down.
As long as your dog was not displaying signs of true separation anxiety, you can also leave her with any kind of enrichment and/or food-dispensing toys to help her stay happy and busy while you are gone. (To make sure these toys help improve your dog’s behavior, rather than increase her anxiety, see “Preventing Food-Toy Fails”) Incorporate these toys into your “separate in place” protocol once you are routinely staying out of her sight for more than several seconds.
Dogs with true separation anxiety tend to lose interest in food when they are stressed, so you may not be able to use food toys with them at first until you eventually get to the point that they are truly calm and relaxed when you are out of sight.
When it’s time for you to go back to work, remember that the more you continue enrichment activities, the easier it will be for your canine pal.
Now go hug your dog (if she likes being hugged) – and stay safe and well.