How To Help Your Dog Overcome Separation Anxiety

The past 21 months has been a whirlwind of unprecedented changes and events. For many, it has meant that more time is spent in the house than usual, which your pets may have become accustomed too. Or, perhaps you recently rescued or bought a new dog or puppy due to your new-found time at home and ability to provide them with the care and attention that they deserve and need.

However, as life slowly begins to return to normal, you may be worried about how your dog will cope with longer stints of time on their own.

Speaking to the Huffington Post, Candace Croney, a professor of animal behaviour and well-being at Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, explained that it can vary as to how your dog will react to absences. “Many [dogs] will probably adjust relatively quickly and well. Some may actually enjoy having quiet time if they have been overstimulated due to their families being around constantly.”

“Others may have a harder time, particularly if they were inclined toward separation anxiety prior to stay-at-home orders going into effect. Dogs adopted from shelters who have had no experience in the home beyond what they experienced during the pandemic may need additional support.”

Separation anxiety refers to the separation-related behaviour dogs convey only when they are separated from their owner. In many cases, it is a sign that the dog is in distress. According to the RSPCA, an animal welfare charity, “research suggests that eight out of 10 of dogs will find it hard to cope when left alone, but half of these won’t show any obvious signs, so it can be very easy for owners to miss.” However, RSPCA explained that separation anxiety is preventable.

The signs of separation anxiety in dogs includes destructive behaviour — such as chewing, destroying furniture — howling and barking, toileting, or other signs of agitation. More subtle signs can also include trembling, whining, pacing, excessive salivation, self-mutilation, repetitive behaviour, escaping and vomiting. You may find that setting up a camera in your home can help you spot some odd behaviours in your dog as you are away. 

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It is not clear why dogs develop separation anxiety, but according to the ASPCA, it can be triggered by numerous actions like a change of guardian or family, change in schedule, change in residence, and a change in household membership.

If your dog is showing signs of separation anxiety, you may want to rule out any other issues such as medication issues or incontinence problems. You may also want to speak to a dog specialist or trainer, as their training may be insufficient causing them to engage in destructive behaviours or urinating inside. They could also be in need of mental stimulation. 

If you are worried that your pet could develop separation anxiety due to an upcoming change, there are preventative measures. “Animals thrive when they have consistent, predictable routines,” Croney explained.

“So if feeding, play, rest and exercise times are going to change when people head back to work, those changes should be introduced well in advance of the back-to-work date. Gradually shifting over the course of a few weeks to the new schedule and sticking with it should help ease the transition.”

Croney suggested practicing short independence exercises while you are at home, using high-value treats. “During what remains of the work-from-home period, have the dog relax in a room away from their people while keeping them well-occupied with favourite toys and treats that will hold their attention for that time period.” 

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After sometime, this can be practiced as you leave the home for shorts periods of time — like five-to-ten minutes — and can be gradually increased. “As your dog learns to associate your departures with good things and feels safe because you come back before he shows even subtle signs of stress, you can start to increase the time slowly and at a rate that is comfortable for him,” Croney said. “The goal is that your dog has a positive experience and is not stressed during these exercises.”

Other methods include desensitising dogs to departure cues, such as picking up your keys and coat to leave. This means getting ready to leave without actually leaving. You should also stop making a fuss about hellos and goodbyes, as dogs can pick up on your energy – which can heighten their anxiety. Instead, opt to fuss your dog at times where they are not seeking your attention and calm. 

This method can also be used as “counter conditioning” when a dog already has mild separation anxiety, the ASPCA states.  However, for more severe cases, it is probably best to seek a behavioural expert as any mistakes can worsen the dog’s anxiety. More information can be found on the ASPCA website