An upsetting condition in dogs that could occur when restrictions are lifted
Early in January, I saw a comic where a man was changing his calendar, breathing a sigh of relief because 2020 was over. The dog by his side had a thought bubble that said, "Well, it's going to be hard to beat that year!" This small cartoon made me stop and think; while 2020 and the continuing COVID-19 saga have definitely taken their toll on us humans, it has been quite the opposite for our canine friends. Apart from missing visits from family and friends, attending training classes, and competing in dog sports, most of our dogs have likely had the time of their lives with their “people pack” home all day, every day.
As we start to plan for lifting restrictions once the vaccine is distributed en masse, I can't help but wonder how our four-legged friends will fare. A big concern is how they react to being left alone while their family takes off to work and/or school.
While I am not a professional dog trainer, as an experienced dog owner, one of the most common topics I get asked is how to deal with separation anxiety. Even if you haven't experienced owning a dog with the condition first hand, you've likely seen videos on social media of an owner returning to a destroyed couch, or worse. It goes beyond ruined furniture, though. Separation anxiety is an expensive, annoying, dangerous, guilt-inducing, and heartbreaking condition that sadly leads many dogs to be left at shelters every year.
If you aren't familiar with the condition, separation anxiety is the canine equivalent of a severe panic attack a dog experiences when it is separated from its people. Symptoms that can regularly occur include:
The good news is that separation anxiety can often be remedied or at least managed. Most of the changes have to do with your own behavior and commitment to building your relationship with your dog.
- Excessive whining, barking or howling
- Excessive pacing
- Drooling and/or panting
- Destructive chewing and/or digging
- Dangerous attempts to escape confinement
- Bathroom accidents in the house from an otherwise housebroken dog
While the exercise itself won't stop separation anxiety, it will definitely drain some energy and make your dog calmer and more content. When I lived in "condo-land" (aka downtown Toronto), I was always saddened to see how many dog owners would take their dog out for a 4-minute bathroom break in the morning before putting them back inside right before they took off to work. The dog just slept for 8 hours and is now expected to calmly remain at home alone for another 8 hours? How unfair is that?!
Before leaving your home, plan to exercise your dog. Different breeds have different energy levels and thus activity needs, but all dogs benefit from exercise. On top of a walk, I find that playing a quick 10-minute game helps expend physical and mental energy. A game of fetch, practicing tricks, or find the hidden toy all work well.
I can never say enough good things about the advantages of having a crate-trained dog. Crates use a dog's natural denning instincts to provide them with a safe, comfortable space that is all their own AND keep your belongings safe while you are away from home.
Start by giving your dog a long-lasting treat when they are in their crate, and gradually have your dog stay in their crate for increased periods while you are still at home. This will help soften the surprise when you do leave them alone. It's important to let your dog bank positive experiences before you leave them for a significant amount of time. Start by giving your dog the long-lasting treat and leaving to go to another room. Once that goes calmly and smoothly, then go to another floor, then a short trip to the store, then longer. To learn more about crate training, read our blog on the topic here: https://www.ckc.ca/en/The-Dish/August-2018/Creating-Crate-Success.
I often find that a little distraction goes a long way. I mentioned a longer-lasting treat earlier when recommending using a crate. A safe, hardy toy that will keep your dog interested can also help redirect their energies. I like to use a hollow rubber toy stuffed with treats. Sometimes I’ll put biscuits and peanut butter (always making sure the peanut butter brand does not contain Xylitol) in it. Other times I'll use canned food with liver treats. Many dog owners even freeze these rubber toys to keep their dogs interested longer.
Leaving your dog with a fun, hardy toy, filled with goodies will make it easier for you to leave your dog by itself without a fuss because the dog's energy and focus will be on their exciting toy.
Your dog has had a full house of people working, kids playing, televisions, and computers on all day, every day for the past year. They've grown accustomed to this noise, and a suddenly silent house can be seen as a reason to panic. Leaving a radio on at a medium to low volume offers lots of different sounds from music to ads to disc jockeys talking. If you don't usually have a radio on at home, start to play it while you are already home and after you return. Keep in mind that dogs are very clever. If you only turn the radio on and off right when you leave or come home, they may start associating the radio with you leaving.
Maintain Calm Leadership
As mentioned at the start, a lot of the work needed to remedy separation anxiety need to come from you and your behavior. Dogs naturally form bonds with their pack, be it human, dog, or both. As owners, I believe that we must act as the leaders of our pack. Leading with positive energy, calmness, and consistency. You have to let your dog see you as the smartest, most experienced member of their group so that they look to you and follow your lead in all situations. If your dog is confused about their place in the pack, they could assume they are in charge, and since they are dogs living in a human world, this causes enormous problems.
In her book on dog communication, The Dog Listener, Jan Fennell explains how a dog who believes they are in charge of their pack thinks when you – their human leaves. “Instead of looking at a dog that was worrying “Where’s my mum or dad?” we had a dog worrying “Where’s my damned kids?”. 1 If you had a two-year-old and realized you didn’t know where it was, wouldn’t you be going insane with worry? 2
There are several ways to calmly and gently explain to your dog that you are their leader. The examples I employ are making my dogs sit while waiting for me to put their food down for them, asking them to wait while I leave the door to go outside ahead of them, and only giving affection when they are in a calm state.
It is essential to leave your home in the calm energy you wish to return to. This means no grand goodbyes when you leave. Put your dog in the appropriate spot (crate, exercise pen, room), give them their long-lasting treat, and take off. No excitement. Just leave.
When you return, the same coolness must be applied for about five minutes. When I come home, I walk in as though there are no dogs in the house. Quietly I take my coat and shoes off, get a glass of water, check my emails and when and only when my dogs are chilled do I acknowledge them, let them out to the backyard and then take them on a walk. If your dog is used to having you make a fuss upon your return, he will be confused, and you might have to ignore him for a bit longer until he calms down.
Never scold or try to punish a dog for displaying separation anxiety. Your dog is responding to a distress response and not trying to get back at you for leaving. Any scolding upon arrival will only worsen the situation.
Some people have asked me if I think they should get a second dog to keep the anxious dog company while they are away. Without the use of a glass ball, this is a hard question to answer. Sometimes bringing in a second dog works out wonderfully, and the anxious dog calms down because he is never alone. Other times the owners end up with two dogs with separation anxiety as one teaches the other by example. Double Trouble. While I love multi-dog households, I believe it’s safer to work on any behavioral issues with one dog before introducing another.
In some extreme cases, even with a dog behaviorist's help, a dog still has severe reactions to being left alone. Sometimes a dog requires training, behavioral modification from you and them, as well as medication. Talking with your veterinarian is a good idea as they can tell you if your dog's anxiety results from their current situation or if it is a deeper medical issue.
I would also consult your veterinarian if you have an older dog that suddenly begins showing signs of separation anxiety. Age-related anxiety affects older dogs and can be linked with cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS). 3 Dogs with this condition are experiencing memory, perception, learning, and awareness declines, and it's similar to what an adult experiences in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. Your vet can help in this situation. 4
While we are hopeful that our country will start to loosen restrictions sooner rather than later, we must consider how going back to our previous work and school schedules will affect our four-legged friends. Taking action now to assure your dog won't be shocked by a change in daily routine will make a huge difference and help you focus on work instead of worrying about your dog.
1. Fennell, J. (2000). The Dog Listener. William Morrow.
2. Ibid., Fennell
3. American Kennel Club, https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/treating-dog-anxiety/
4. Ibid., American Kennel Club