The return to face-to-face school schedules is in full swing. For many, this also marks a return to in-person work schedules. There can be a mixed range of emotions on both fronts! We have used this quarantine season to build strong bonds with our furry companions. While this is fantastic, it’s important to make sure our pets continue to feel secure even when you can’t be by their side. Most of us anticipated these changes to occur eventually, but that doesn’t mean it is easy to adjust. One member of the family may feel this strain the hardest. That member is your pet! When we head back into society, our pets aren’t able to follow along. So how can you prevent or manage separation anxiety with our beloved animals? Let’s discuss what it is, what to look for, and 5 proven ways to prevent separation anxiety in dogs.
Separation distress (or anxiety) is a term used to explain feelings of anxiety or possibly panic that show up when an animal is left alone (or without its preferred people) for more extended than usual periods. The most common signs of a separation disorder in dogs include vocalizing (barking, whining, howling), destructive behavior, relieving indoors, not eating, self-harm such as excessive licking or chewing, trembling, and unusual panting, pacing or low mood. When my three kids first went back to school two weeks ago, our dog immediately began to lay by the front windows in a downcast, breathy, lethargic manner (which was very out of character for him). Charlie met any little noise he heard with eager anticipation that one of them had returned. He is less than two years old, so most of his life has been spent by their sides! After some research, I discovered preventing separation anxiety is mainly about strengthening a dog’s confidence. Creating a positive correlation between being away from those they love most and innate feelings of safety is key to success.
Dogs typically display the behaviors mentioned above when they notice their owner(s) preparing to leave home (i.e., brushing teeth, packing a bag, putting on shoes, etc.). One way you can reduce the stress associated with these departure cues is to implement them regularly! What does this look like? On non-work days, get yourself ready, pack a purse/backpack, or grab your keys and jiggle them around while you are just hanging at the house (with no intention of leaving). If you have kids who are back in the classroom, use the weekends to pack their lunches and hug them by the front door as if they are heading out. Then send them back to the couch to finish that Netflix show! The more you implement these practices, the more normalized they will begin to feel for your dog. Over time you can reach your goal of breaking the negative link.
If you suffer from anxiety or depression yourself, leaving your pet may be difficult for BOTH of you. When you have to say goodbye for the day, learning to recognize any overreactive tendencies on your part is a good idea. When you are about to leave, avoid strong emotions as much as possible. Try to remain calm, speak reassuringly in upbeat (not high-pitched) tones, and relaxed body language. If you appear sad, give lots of sudden extra attention around the time of leaving, and having a huge celebration when you get home, you may reinforce your pup’s anxiety about being alone. You don’t want that! When your dog is upset, chances are you will be too. Remind yourself that your separation is only temporary, and your amazing dog will continue to be amazing until you can return home for more snuggles.
Every dog should have a “place.” Their place should be a designated spot where they move when asked, when resting in your presence, or when they need an escape from too much stimulation. Our dog’s place is a large, cozy dog bed in an open corner of the living room. When we have family dinner and don’t want him to beg by our feet, we point to this area and say “place.” When the toddler is terrorizing our pup for a little too long, he will travel to this same spot as a signal that he needs a break. This special space is his safe zone. He has come to recognize it with respect to our authority as well as his comfort and sanctuary.
I began a helpful practice with Charlie in his designated place. Whenever we had to leave the house, I would ask him to go to his place. I would then give him a special treat or toy that he ONLY had when we left. His favorite treats are anything bacon, so I’d reserve those for these occasions. Right before he got the treats, I’d instruct him to stay. While he enjoyed them, we would exit the house. Why would I do this? I wanted him to connect being alone with something pleasant. If he had a distraction (or as I like to call it, “a sign of our love”) when we left, he was much less likely to react negatively.
Please note, some dogs might begin to associate the specific treats given with your attempts to leave. Offering them might then increase anxiety. If that’s the case, you’ll want to try one of my other tips. I haven’t met too many dogs who link bacon to bad, but it’s always possible! Every canine is different, so remember only to use what works for your furry friend.
Along the lines of special treats, chew toys are another great tool. Many dogs who deal with separation anxiety need an outlet for their nervous energy. They will be tempted to chew, dig, or behave erratically when experiencing feelings of anxiety. Providing select toys to chew on and play with during stressful moments will help lessen household destruction.
It is also essential to allow for plenty of outdoor exercises when you are together. Generally speaking, dogs need to get out their zoomies daily! If they are home by themselves more than usual, this serves multiple purposes. Dogs who have gotten sufficient exercise outside are more mellow inside. Fresh air and motion will meet their need for mental stimulation. Similarly, the more tuckered out pups are, the less they tend to focus on their surroundings. Well-exercised dogs won’t be as bored and probably won’t mind your absence quite as much.
From the time our dog was very young, we were told that “familiar items” would help him adjust to new situations. At 12 weeks old, when we took him from his mama and siblings, our breeder sent a little stuffed animal with him. This stuffy was kept in the area all the pups slept in and contained his family’s scent. It truly seemed to ease his nerves as he was learning to trust us! I remembered this tidbit of information recently as we all began another adjustment period. My dog is a sock eater, so we decided to keep the bedroom/laundry room doors closed whenever we leave him alone in the house. With more restricted access to roam, I didn’t want him to feel disoriented while the kids were in school. I asked my kids to choose a blanket or t-shirt for our pup to keep with him. Since the summer’s end, our sweet dog has cuddled with those items during the first five minutes of their daily departure. After that, he is generally good, but those items help reassure him enough to get over the initial hump.
In extreme cases, dogs will engage in self-harm when they become too stressed. No owner wants emotional OR physical suffering for their pet! One of the most beneficial natural tactics I have come across is the use of particular ambient sounds and music. Interestingly, dogs have shown to be quite responsive to classical music, soft rock, and reggae. How great is that? Cortisol levels (your dog’s stress hormones) were significantly reduced when shelter animals were exposed to particular musical selections. Music has long been a source of mental relief for humans. It only makes sense that our canine companions should benefit in similar ways! If you have considered keeping the TV on to entertain a lonely pup, you should try one of these musical alternatives instead.
There are times when owners have exhausted all available avenues to soothe their dog’s separation anxiety. If that is you, there is still help. Over-the-counter supplements are an acceptable option as you continue to work on building your pup’s confidence. Some dogs just need a little extra help to get started, and that’s ok! Before beginning anything new, you should always schedule a consultation with your veterinarian to discuss your current situation and receive their stamp of approval.
Remember to have patience. Your dog is not acting up due to intentional choice! Separation disorders are as real for animals as they are for humans. All dogs are different. The remedies that work for one may not work for another, and time frames for adjustment will also vary. These are challenging times, but together we can make it through.
I should point out that separation from your dog might not even be necessary at all. If you are suffering from a mental health disability, you could qualify for a Psychiatric Service Dog. With proper task training, your Service Dog will have public access rights. These rights mean that you can remain together no matter where your day takes you. Click the link below to see if you qualify.
Due to the new Department of Transportation (DOT) policy, Emotional Support Animals are NO longer allowed to fly in airplane cabins for free. However, Psychiatric Service Dogs are eligible.
The benefits of an Emotional Support Animal certification and a Psychiatric Service Dog certification are drastically different. Fortunately for you, American Service Pets’ network of active board certified doctors can help you find the right path to certification. To find out whether you need an ESA or PSD letter, take our easy, three-step Pet Owner Survey!
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