My dog has always been on the anxious side. As a young dog, he hated being left home alone, and I in turn felt neglectful every time I went out. Over those first few years, we did eventually get to the stage where I could leave him at home for five hours without returning to an anxious dog and messes on the kitchen floor. It took a lot of training and tough love, and I had hoped we were done forever with that phase of our life. Unfortunately, the pandemic has had a habit of turning best-laid plans on their head.
During the strictest part of the lockdown, my partner and I were home all the time and our dog got back into the habit of never being alone. At the time, I didn’t factor in that it would have helped to set aside times when he needed to be alone in a room, so he didn’t get out of the habit. When the lockdown was loosened and we started venturing out again, it turned out we couldn’t even shut the front door to leave without Rocky becoming an anxious, howling mess. We had regressed.
Speaking to fellow dog owners, it turns out we are far from alone in this. Many people are reporting an increase in separation anxiety in their pets at this time. I spoke to clinical veterinarian Zara Boland, host of The Pet Pod, to find out how separation anxiety is affecting dogs, and what you can do about it.
Zara, what is separation anxiety in dogs?
Separation anxiety can be defined as a range of distress behaviours that are exhibited by dogs who get anxious when they are left alone. It can manifest as one or more of a wide range of symptoms from excessive yawning, salivation, and vocalisation right through to destructive behaviours such as chewing on furniture, digging through carpets or soil and even trying to escape wherever they’re being contained, be that a room in the house or a back garden.
Why might owners being home most of the time due to COVID make it worse?
As many as one in five dogs have some sort of anxiety disorder, and while this can be a genetic predisposition, they are also adept at reading us humans. So, when we’re feeling anxious, this can significantly worsen a dog’s anxiety response and there’s no doubt that we’re all feeling a little more anxious since the advent of COVID-19.
When you add to this baseline general increased level of anxiety the fact that many more people are suddenly either working from home or spending significantly increased amounts of time in the house due to the pandemic, you’ve effectively created a perfect storm. Dogs are super sociable and they love spending time with us. For most, the fact that they’ve gotten to hang out with their human and spend all day together, plus enjoy extra dog walks and playtime has been like a little taste of paradise. However, for those dogs predisposed to anxiety disorders or whose only experience of having time with a human has been during lockdown (e.g. the rise of the ‘pandemic puppy’), when we suddenly return to our ‘normal’ lives and leave our dog alone, this can trigger a significant distress response.
What can you do to work on this with your dog?
We need to strip it right back to basics: Your dog needs to understand that it’s OK to spend time alone; we are going to return to home, and as much as they might want it, they can’t have our full attention all the time. In general, depending on the degree of separation anxiety that the dog is experiencing, you might want to consider one or all of the following tips:
- Teach your dog that even when you’re in the same room together he can’t demand your attention whenever he wants it. Create a signal for ‘time out’. This can be as simple as a piece of cardboard that you show him. As soon as the cardboard appears it’s ‘human time’. Don’t make eye contact or interact with your dog at all until the cardboard is put away again.
- Start small with this and consider doing it when you’re otherwise occupied (e.g. take one minute when you’re making the dinner or reading the paper). When the cardboard is in place your dog needs to learn that he can’t get your attention and it’s OK for him to be on his own. As soon as he’s calm and not trying to get your attention, remove the cardboard and reward him with a cuddle or simple verbal praise.
- Gradually increase the ‘time out’ period so that your dog is comfortable sharing the same room, but not demanding your attention. Once your dog understands that nothing bad will happen to him if you’re not interacting with him, it’s time to progress to the next stage.
- The same piece of cardboard or whatever marker you choose to use to signify ‘time out’ can continue to be used as you gradually intensify the training. The next step will be leaving your dog alone in a room for a short period of time and then gradually increasing the time alone and out of sight.
- Over time, and this can often mean months, you need to also consider disrupting predicted, anxiety-provoking routines. The classic routine here is when you get ready to leave the house. An anxious dog will know instantly that putting your coat on and collecting your handbag/wallet/keys signifies your imminent departure. Disrupt this routine by doing everything above, but then putting the kettle on and sitting down for a cup of tea. This breaks the pattern that your dog is used to and is an opportunity for learning that not every time you do the same routine it means that you’re about to leave him on his own.
- When you do leave your dog on his own, try to ensure that he can be cognitively and physically stimulated while you’re away. Consider a dog puzzle game feeder or a Kong stuffed with frozen food that will gradually defrost, but keep your dog busy until it does.
- Breaking established routines is also important for when you return home. The key with the return routine is to avoid all eye contact, verbal, and physical contact until your dog is calm and not demanding your attention. I suggest going straight to the kettle again and keeping yourself busy until your dog is calm. Then reward the calm behaviour with verbal praise or a cuddle.
There is sadly no quick fix for this increasingly common issue, but the key to successful treatment is consistency. Everybody in the household must be committed to helping decrease your dog’s anxiety and I would always recommend discussing appropriate behavioural modification therapy with a trained veterinary behaviourist. They will assess your individual dog and advise a long-term tailored program to suit their needs.