Have you been sheltering in place with your dog, courtesy of coronavirus? There will come a time when life goes back to the “new normal” and you’ll go back to work or school, and if you have a dog, you may be worried about how your dog will handle this. The internet is already flooded with articles predicting an epidemic of canine separation anxiety when our dogs have to become accustomed to being left home alone again. Are you ready for this?
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 this issue is 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 (SA), your dog anticipates bad things happening because you aren’t there. True SA 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.
SA is a bit of a misnomer for a lot of canine behavior that frequently gets tagged with the dreaded SA 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 (SRBs). We’d consider true SA to be a subset of SRBs.
WHAT ARE THE ODDS?
Not all dogs will erupt with SA 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 SRBs before, she is now so accustomed to your constant proximity that your departure could trigger an unwanted response, whether it’s SA or the emergence of other SRBs. You want to start right now, addressing it sooner rather than later.
Puppies are at greatest risk for SRBs 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 SA. But right now, with so many new puppy owners sheltering in place, 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!
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 SRBs and you know for sure it’s SA, 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 – say, 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 SA, 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 SRB range.
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.)
Physical management for SRBs may include crates and exercise pens to keep your dog confined and out of trouble, or doors and baby gates to keep her confined to dog-proofed areas. Of course, if your dog or pup isn’t already accustomed to confinement, this means teaching her to love being in a crate or pen. (See “How to Crate-Train Your Puppy,” November 2014)
Once trained, keep crating times reasonable; a young pup can last only a couple of hours before needing a bathroom break, and adult dogs, even if they can go eight to 10 hours, should also get a break halfway through the day (see “Crate Problems and Great Solutions,” October 2017).
Dogs with true SA usually do not crate well. They often panic and can injure themselves badly – even die – in their desperate attempts to escape. 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.
MODIFICATION: HOW TO SEPARATE IN PLACE
Whether you do or do not see evidence of SRBs 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.
1. 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.
2. Tell her “wait,” count to five, feed her a treat.
3. Tell her “wait,” take one step away, return, feed her a treat.
4. Tell her “wait,” take two steps away, return, feed her a treat.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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,” on page 6.) 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 SA 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!
Author Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT‑KA, is WDJ’s Training Editor. She and her husband live in Fairplay, Maryland, site of her Peaceable Paws training center. Miller is also the author of many books about positive reinforcement training. See “Resources,” page 24, for information on her books and classes for dog owners and trainers.