Preventing Separation Anxiety in Dogs During Covid-19 Lockdown

Dogs around the world couldn’t be happier right now. They are spending all day every day with their families and are lapping it up.

However, could being with your dog so much right now cause long lasting problems when we all go back to work after the Covid-19 pandemic is under control? How can we prevent separation anxiety in dogs from occurring?

Many owners might not think about the emotional effect that suddenly going from having everyone in the house to long hours of being alone could have on their dog(s). Some owners might know that problems could arise but are not sure what to do about it as the government has ordered us to stay indoors.

I have put together some tips and training that could help reduce any negative feelings or anxiety from developing when our lives go back to normal and our dogs need to full back into our routine. 

How Could Spending Time with Your Dog Be a Bad Thing?

Dogs are naturally pack animals. They live in family units until they are old enough to find a mate and produce their own family.

It would be highly unlikely to find a wild dog or wolf alone without a pack around them. Even street dogs that are not from the same bloodlines will adopt a pack of different strays and stay together.

It is a basic survival instinct. A lone dog is vulnerable to attack without a pack to protect it. A lone dog would struggle to hunt without a pack. And certainly a lone dog would not be able to reproduce. 

Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Separation anxiety in dogs has only recently been a recognised and diagnosed problem. It wasn’t that long ago when domesticated dogs were not left alone much at all, certainly not as much as they are today.

Working dogs tended to spend all day with the men farming, rescuing, hunting or removing vermin. Those that were brought into the home as pets stayed with the women and children whilst the men went out at work.

As society has moved on, so has the expectation that our dogs can be left alone for hours at a time. Giving that canine companionship is so inherent, we should be amazed at a dog’s adaptability to accept being left alone at all.

This is often due to conditioning them from puppyhood and/or getting them into a routine early. Dogs, like children, thrive on routine.

When we work with them to build trust that we will return home, provide adequate exercise throughout the day, and time attention when we are with them, they can adjust to our lifestyle. In almost all separation anxiety cases I have worked on, routine, exercise, and time and affection have been the key drivers in working through a dog’s anxiety. 

Even the most well-rounded dog that does not feel anxious at all when left alone can be affected by this sudden change in the home. If you have a nervous dog or a dog that shows mild signs of stress when left alone this could be a huge upheaval for them and lead to a distressing time when you go back to work. 

Recognising Separation Related Behaviours

It is important to know what you are looking for when it comes to separation related behavioural problems. Anxiety can be misdiagnosed easily.

Either being blamed for exercise-related boredom destruction or missed completely when owners think their dog just loves them a lot. Sadly, depression-related anxiety in dogs can go untreated as it is believed they are just “quiet” dogs.

Due to our change in lifestyles, separation anxiety in dogs is on the rise and is one of the most common factor in behavioural problems.

There are 4 types of responses to being left alone:

A content and happy dog will generally sleep when the family is not home, or play with a toy or chew a bone.

Dogs should sleep between 12-14hrs a day.

I am always more concerned when an owner tells me that their dog hardly ever sleeps and is always on the go.

This often means their dog is never fully relaxed.

Dogs, like humans, need sleep to function properly. 

A dog not getting enough sleep will be on edge, making any feelings of anxiousness ten times worse.

The obviously-distressed behaviours associated with separation anxiety or feeling anxious when left alone are barking, howling, digging or scratching at doors and windows, urinating or defecating inside – especially in areas that have a strong scent of person they are missing; beds being a top spot.

The not-so obvious behaviours of distress that owners might not see but are happening all the same include dogs being active the whole time they are alone. Running from room to room, going back and forth to look out different windows and doors, in a constant state of alert listening for their family to return.

The inactive anxious behaviours that are usually always unrecognised and often go missed. Dogs tend to remain sedentary and could look like they are sleeping, when in fact they are showing signs of anxiety.

They do not fully relax or actually sleep. They watch the door, whine quietly or pant. Lip-smacking or excessively licking parts of their bodies.

Modern Technology Enables Insights Into Your Dog's Feelings

Now all of these are behaviours that unless you film your dog while out, you might not know they are occurring. There are signs to look out for when you are home too.

Dogs that follow you from room to room. That jump up to move the minute you do. Seeming to always be active and never just settle. Whine and demand attention. Wanting to be close to you or sitting in a position where you are in their line of sight.

Going crazy when you return home or even from a different room. It might seem adorable to be loved that much by your dogs but it could mean that emotionally they are suffering.

As owners, we should always consider the well-being of our dogs and if we are doing everything we can to enable them to lead a happy and healthy life. 

The Good News

There are a lot of simple steps you can take to reduce these feelings of anxiety from developing. It is always better to prevent feelings of anxiety (and the consequent behavioural issues that occur from them) when left alone, than to deal with them after they have built up. 

Firstly, being able to identify that your dog is showing signs of anxiety when you leave is the first step. Set up a camera to film your dog while you leave the house for 5-10mins.

We are allowed to take exercise during these uncertain times but if you prefer to go to your garden (ensuring your dog cannot see you) or head to the apartment block’s courtyard that is fine. It just needs to be far enough away for your dog to truly believe he has been left on his own. 

When you return, watch the film back and see what your dog is doing while you are not there. As mentioned above, it might not be obvious they are distressed so really watch carefully. If you need a second opinion – feel free to contact me. I would be only too happy to take a look. 

Training Tips to Prevent Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Don’t overindulge your dog with company and attention. This maybe seem truly wicked of me to say but it is quite logical. The more time and attention you give them now, the more they will miss it, and more importantly, yearn for it when you are gone. By trying to keep a relatively normal routine of walks, play and cuddles they won’t notice it so much when you are gone. 

Create separation and distance. If you are working from home, where possible work in a different room to your dog and keep the door shut to them. They, of course, will still know you are in the house but you are maintaining the guidelines that this is work time and not time to be spent with your dog. Even working in the same room in close proximity without actively giving attention can have a negative effect on dogs and create anxiety when you are then gone again. 

Try to leave the house at least once a day. Most governments are allowing us outside to exercise, pick up groceries, or go for a walk as long as we adhere to social distancing rules. Leave the house at least once a day for at least ten minutes, longer would be much better. Dogs needs to remember that you leave and come back regularly.  It is normal and not something to feel anxious about.

Don’t make a fuss on returning. This again might seem harsh but when you encourage the crazy greetings you are fuelling their anxiety when you leave and their desire for you to come home. Teaching them that behaving calmly is rewarded with your attention is a great way to teach a dog how to control their impulses and keep down the cortisol levels.

Ensure they get plenty of mental stimulation. When it is time for play and attention, remember that to keep a dog happy and content is to tire them out both physically and mentally. Challenging your dog’s puzzle-solving skills is perfect for reducing anxiety; if they are tired they will often sleep rather than panic when alone. Introduce some new tricks to their repertoire or finally nail that ‘stay’ command. Exercise and mental stimulation is the key to a lot of behavioural problems. 

Don’t leave them in silence. When everyone is home the house can be quite noisy or just full of the daily sounds of the household going about their business. TV’s and music might be switched on. Talking on the telephone or on conference calls. General moving around, making coffee or lunch. Talking with each other. Lots of noises then suddenly disappear when the people do. Leaving on the TV or radio or Youtube’s relaxing dog music is a nice way for that silence not to feel sinister. 

 

Consider your dog’s feelings. Dogs have been man’s best friends for centuries and because they fit so easily into our lives, we can often forget that they could be struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic just as much as we are, more so when things get back to normal. If you really think about how the changes could affect your dog, you will undoubtedly behave differently with your new found understanding and focus on reducing separation anxiety in dogs.

 

Any questions? What are your thoughts?

If you have any questions about the information provided above please feel free to leave a comment or contact me directly. I always like to hear from my readers and post questions and answers that could be helpful to all. 

Us dog owners are all in this together, if you have suggestions or feedback on preventing separation anxiety in dogs during Covid-19 lockdown, please do comment below so we can all share our experiences and helpful remedies.

Stay safe everyone! 

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