The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused changes to our daily routines. Many of us have taken the opportunity to add pets to our families during this time, and our reduced social schedules have allowed for more quality time with our family and pets. Although our cats may have mixed emotions about this change, our dogs have quickly and happily become accustomed to extra company, more attention, and longer and more frequent walks.
However, with the eventual resolution of the pandemic, some of us may be returning to our offices full time. Therefore, it’s important to be aware of the effects that this may have on our pets. Dogs that have become accustomed to being walked multiple times per day may find it unsettling to have fewer walks and less quality time with their owners. Dogs are creatures of habit, and an abrupt change in their family’s schedule may be upsetting to them and can cause disruptive behavioral problems.
While everything may quickly return to normal as your dog becomes accustomed to the new schedule, some dogs could suffer from separation anxiety. It’s a condition in which a dog exhibits excessive distress and anxious behavior when it is separated from its owner. This type of behavior often starts within minutes of the owner’s departure. It isn’t fully understood why some dogs suffer from separation anxiety and others don’t, though there may be a past learned experience or even a genetic tendency in some dogs that predispose them to this type of behavior.
It’s important to understand that separation anxiety can sometimes be secondary to an underlying medical condition. Anytime your dog starts to exhibit unusual or excessive behavior, have them checked by your veterinarian as soon as possible to rule out any underlying medical issues.
Dogs exhibiting separation anxiety may bark and howl excessively when left alone, or dig, chew or destroy furniture or walls in a frantic attempt to escape. A dog who may be otherwise well-trained or housebroken may urinate or defecate in the house. When these types of problems are accompanied by other distressful behaviors, such as drooling and pacing when his owners leave the house, this is evidence that the issue isn’t just improper training but that the dog is suffering from separation anxiety. In these instances, dogs can not only cause damage to your home but also to themselves.
Not all dogs that have some of these signs have true separation anxiety. Many dogs may just need mental stimulation, and some can become disruptive when left alone because they’re bored and looking for something to do. These dogs usually don’t otherwise appear anxious or stressed.
Providing physical and mental stimulation is a vital part of treating many behavioral problems, especially those involving anxiety. Additionally, a physically and mentally tired dog doesn’t have much excess energy to expend when he’s left alone.
• Consider giving your dog at least 30 minutes of quality aerobic activity every day such as vigorous walks or play time. Signing up for a program such as AKC Fit Dog encourages regular exercise to keep you and your dog healthy.
• Try to exercise your dog right before you leave him by himself. This might help him relax while you’re gone.
• Take different routes and visit new places as often as possible so that he can experience novel smells and sights.
• Provide safe food puzzle toys. You can feed your dog his meals in these toys or stuff them with a little peanut butter, cheese or yogurt.
• Get involved in dog sports, such as agility, freestyle dancing or flyball with your dog.
• Enroll in a training class such as AKC Canine Good Citizen to increase your dog’s mental stimulation and enhance the bond between you and your dog. Hire a certified professional dog trainer for group or private classes that can give you and your dog lots of great skills to learn and games to play together.
• If feasible, hire a dog walker to take your dog out every four to six hours when you are not at home.
Don’t wait until your schedule changes to get your dog accustomed to being alone. Start now by leaving your dog alone for brief periods of time. It’s always a good idea to give your dog a treat or toy to keep him occupied for the first several minutes after you leave. That is a good distraction for your dog.
If your dog has actual separation anxiety, partner with your veterinarian to address the issue. Your veterinarian may be able to prescribe medication or recommend other items that can help ease your dog’s anxiety while it learns to be comfortable being left alone.
After you have talked with your veterinarian, consult with a certified applied animal behaviorist or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. If you can’t find a behaviorist, you can opt for a certified professional dog trainer. Make sure they are qualified and have experience in treating fear with desensitization and counter-conditioning. Make sure whoever you work with uses only positive reinforcement to retrain your dog. Negative or harsh training techniques can lead to long-term problems.
Do not scold or punish your dog. Anxious behaviors are not the result of disobedience or spite. They are distress responses. Your dog displays anxious behaviors when left alone because he’s upset and trying to cope with a great deal of stress. If you punish him, he may become even more upset and the problem could get worse. Stay calm and patient.