When We Return To Work: Separation Anxiety and the Pandemic
An increasing number of clients have expressed concern about what will happen to their dog upon their return to work. Common scenarios include “We’ve been home all the time; she’s not used to being left.”, “He cries when we try to leave.”, “My neighbors complain about the incessant barking.”. Separation anxiety is a problem many dog owners face and it is certainly a stressful one. How we approach treatment depends on diagnosis, with the general classifications being: mild, moderate or severe.
Mild cases often display pacing, whining, intermittent barking and chewing. These are the dogs that often get misdiagnosed as “naughty”. Owners can misinterpret these symptoms as either a bored dog or one who needs more exercise before they leave them home alone. However, if the dog is getting sufficient exercise and mental stimulation, then we need to look elsewhere. Some of the symptoms can be subtle and can simply be missed by an unfamiliar eye.
Moderate cases can show anorexia, near-constant barking/howling, panting, and uptick in anxiety as owner is getting ready to leave. I have found this is the one most often correctly identified by the owner as separation anxiety, however, most owners feel helpless and overwhelmed, not knowing where to begin when it comes to helping their 4-legged family member.
On the extreme end, Severe cases are dogs who self-mutilate, excessively shed fur, drool all over themselves, drink up the entire bowl of water, become severely depressed and can even become aggressive. These are the most heartbreaking cases and often require medication and careful management.
Dependent on into which category they fall, treatment will vary, however, in most cases we begin slowly, and progress based on the feedback from the individual dog. Categorizing the dog gives us a starting point, but the severity does not necessarily determine the length of treatment. Each owner’s commitment to the training plan and each individual dog’s response will determine how long the path to a resolution may be.
How do we help our furry friends?
A dog suffering from separation anxiety will need to learn some new skills. I coach all new puppy clients on these foundation skills to avoid issues such as this, but it is never too late to teach a dog these tricks. Every dog needs to learn how to constructively self-sooth and how to relax, sounds simple enough, right? These seemingly- simple skills take some time to master.
There are several components to treatment; they include management, tools (such as creative feeding equipment), training, and, yes, sometimes medication. Each dog is an individual and each will need a different mixture of these components, but these are the general ingredients for treatment.
Firstly, management is a huge component in accomplishing most any training, but this is especially true for dogs suffering with anxiety-based issues. Management itself does not teach the dog anything, it simply prevents us from compounding this issue further during treatment. Learning takes time and if a pup can only stay alone for 30 minutes at this point, then leaving them for longer will move us farther away from our goals. This would be a situation where, if the owner had to be gone longer than 30 minutes, then they would need to have someone come babysit the dog until they return. If proper management is not implemented, then we are working against ourselves because any progress made will be undone soon after.
Tobey learning to love his crate (a form of management) to help him with his separation anxiety.
Having the right tools is another key to setting our dogs up for success. In all the separation anxiety cases on which I have worked, I have had the owners implement creative feeding. That is simply feeding the dog using kongs and other puzzle feeders to make mealtime more enriching/mentally stimulating. Using these tools to feed your dog does several things for them: provides mental stimulation, which can take the edge off of a nervous dog; teaches them to self-soothe, a vital skill for anxious dogs; provides a constructive outlet for normal behaviors such as chewing; licking releases endorphins so it can calm them further than simply distracting them for a bit; and it pairs the absence of their owner with something positive. Eating is often extremely challenging for moderate to severe cases when they are left alone, so this is something I have owners make sure their dogs practice while they are still home which increases chances of success when they ultimately do have to leave.
Training is of course the crux of treatment and we ease separation anxiety by slowly desensitizing them to their owner’s absence. The key to success with this is that it is gradual; we want to avoid shocking a dog with a lengthy absence before they are comfortable and possibly sabotaging any trust that was built.
Puzzle feeders provide mental stimulation, teach them to self-soothe, provide an outlet for normal behaviors and it pair the absence of their owner with something positive.
The final common component to treatment is one that no owner wants to consider, and in fairness, it should only be considered once other options have been thoroughly explored. However, if needed, medication may be just what the dog needs to get a foothold in their anxiety, enabling them to absorb the other parts of treatment. Some dogs are so triggered by the owners absence, or have a round-the-clock elevated level of anxiety that needs to be addressed before they can be expected to have any capacity to focus on the things we are trying to teach them. Anxiety clouds the brain; imagine if you were almost hit by a car crossing the street. Immediately after, with your heart pounding and palms sweating, you may find it difficult to remember what you were headed to do. It’s a similar situation for our furry friends who don’t like being left alone. They may need medication to retrain their nervous system and to enable them to focus, in the moment, on the things we are trying to teach them, like how to self-soothe.
Separation anxiety is a complex and stressful problem for both dog and owner, but the right tools do exist and it is just a matter of knowing what kind of help your pup needs and how to give it to them.