Preventing Separation Anxiety After Lockdown
Updated: May 16, 2020
“Dogs can’t cope with what they don’t understand. Dogs will cope with what they do understand.”- Professor Daniel Mills
We have spent the last 6 weeks stuck in our homes, with our dogs as our new work colleagues. As you read this now, your dog is probably stuck to your side like Velcro. You may even struggle to go to the bathroom alone!
We have been so overwhelmed with how our lives have changed, we may have forgotten how much our dog’s lives have changed too. They have gone from seeing us in the early hours and evening, to every hour of every day! If you have children, your dog’s days are likely noisier and more active than usual. Humans are creatures of habit and as a result our dogs are too. They likely have their own routine, but due to COVID-19 their life has changed drastically, and they have never spent so much time with us two leggeds before. (to quote Pluto Living)
While spending quality time at home with our dogs is one of the few silver linings to lockdown, it may have inadvertently made our dogs more needy. They have easily become accustomed to us being home at all hours and only going out to go for a dog walk. Our routine, in conjunction with our dogs, may have changed too. We may provide meals at different times and we may be walking the dog at different times of the day and for longer durations, because let’s face it, we have the time. What does this mean for our dogs?
Our dog’s expectations have now changed, as they don’t realise that this change in routine is only temporary. Thus, when we all return to work and get back into a normal routine, it is going to be a shock to our dog’s system. There will likely be a surge in separation anxiety, as well as symptoms of this, such as excessive barking, attention seeking and destructive behaviours. Just because some dogs have never had these issues before, doesn’t mean they won’t be affected by them now. In fact, a huge 80% of dogs already suffer with separation anxiety!
The rules surrounding lock down may gradually ease up over the next few weeks, therefore, now is the time to slowly wean our dogs off our constant presence and attention, before we all return to our normal routine, but how can we do that?
What Changes Should We Make?
Well we need to compare what our dog’s routine was before lockdown and what it’s like now. The biggest hurdle to overcome, is the amount of time we are currently spending with our dog(s), even if our dog is just sleeping in the same room. Some dogs will follow their owners round all day and sit with them while they work from home and then cuddle up to them in the evening. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this, your dog could gradually lose his independence and he will likely become anxious when he no longer receives the same kind of attention. On the other end of the spectrum, some dogs are really struggling with the constant presence of their owner and try to find somewhere in the home to escape.
Either way, we need some time away from our dogs and they need time away from us, so in order to accomplish this, we need to start leaving them on their own for a couple of minutes, several times a day.
Now obviously you can’t really leave the house much, however, if you have several rooms, you can just shut yourself in a dog free room for a few minutes. You don’t want to be doing this for long periods of time to begin with, otherwise your dog will definitely become anxious and will likely cry and bark at the door. Just go to a room and sit in there for 2 minutes and then come back out. You can build on this time gradually until you are able to spend at least an hour or 2 away from them.
Although we can’t leave the home as much as we would like, we can go for a walk without the dog to help them grow accustomed to our absence gradually. Again, we would want to start small and build up the time, so we could start by just standing out of sight on the doorstep or in the front garden and then eventually build up to a walk. Once we are able to leave for a good amount of time, we should alternate times, so our dog doesn’t expect us to return after a specific duration. For example, you could leave for 5 minutes, come back and then leave for 2 minutes, then come back and leave for 10 minutes etc. This gets your dog accustomed to the fact that you may be gone for varying amounts of time, but regardless of the duration, you always return.
Since most of you likely work full time, you probably walked your dog(s) in the morning before work and in the evening after work, for 30 minutes or so. Therefore, your dog anticipated a walk everyday at these times and then entertained themselves or rested during the day. Some of you may have returned on your lunch break to provide a quick toilet break or you hired your pet sitter to perform visits at a regular time. Now you may walk your dog in the afternoon for over an hour, but you obviously won’t be able to continue to do this once you are back at work. Thus, it’s recommended that you gradually work your way back towards the time you would usually walk your dog.
For instance, if you are now walking your dog at 12pm, gradually go for a walk 30 minutes to an hour earlier each day until you reach your pre-lockdown walk time. That way, you will gradually get your dog back into his original routine. If you don’t do this, your dog may become frustrated and anxious when he’s anticipating a walk at 12pm and you are not even home.
Also ask yourself if you usually walk your dog every day. If work commitments sometimes prevent daily walks, then by all means give your dog a day off from walking. Some may say it is wrong not to walk your dog every day, however, a day off can be advantageous for your dog, especially if they have anxiety or reactivity. If I or another dog walker, walked your dog regularly before lockdown, it may also be beneficial to start walking your dog at these times, ready for when your dog walker returns to work.
Even though having different mealtimes for our dogs may seem unimportant, it could affect your dog’s toileting routine. For instance, if we used to feed our dogs in the early morning but we are now feeding them at lunch time, they may get into the routine of needing to toilet in the afternoon, whilst we are stuck in the office. So, for some dogs, particularly toy breeds or puppies, it is recommended that you gradually revert to the usual mealtimes so you can predict when they will need a toilet break.
What Kind of Training Will Prevent Separation Anxiety?
As well as leaving our dogs for varied amounts of time, it helps to introduce and strengthen impulse control to encourage independence. For example, we could teach and practice the cue “wait” (please note this is not the same as stay. For ‘stay’ we introduce a release cue, whereas with ‘wait’ we return to the dog) If we have never done this before, its important to start small, by saying the cue and then just leaning on your back leg and then rewarding them for not following. We can gradually build this up to taking one step back and then going back to reward them etc. Once they are happy to wait as you walk away, you can practice using a boundary, such as a doorway. When we leave a room, our dogs usually follow us like a shadow, so practicing getting them to a wait at a doorway will build up their resilience.
It may also be beneficial to teach our dogs boundary games to encourage distance and rest in the home. Boundary games involve designating a mat, a new bed (make sure the boundary is new and doesn’t have a negative association, such as the bed or crate) or even just a blanket or towel, as an area to go to when cued. This can be used for a number of situations, such as when someone knocks at the door or when you are trying to work and need distance from your dog.
To begin this training, you feed treats to the mat to gain your dog’s interest. You then mark and reward interaction with the mat, such as 2 paws on the mat and build on this until your dog understands all 4 paws on the boundary results in a treat. At this stage you are not looking for a particular position, as long as the dog is on the boundary. Once you have had several sessions of this, you can introduce a release cue, which tells your dog they can leave that boundary. To do this you throw a treat away from the mat and add your release cue word, such as “ok” or “free” as you do this. If you have practiced enough, your dog will naturally choose to go back to the boundary after eating the treat because they have learnt this is a great place to be.
In order to find out more about how to teach boundary games and build duration, I recommend checking out Absolute Dogs website as well as their YouTube videos. (https://absolute-dogs.com/) If you need help, I do use some concept training and have used boundary games in the past, so I am happy to advise.
We can also set up puzzles and enrichment games for our dogs, to encourage them to be more independent while we are at home. Treats can be hidden around the garden for them to sniff out and find. Kongs are also great toys to fill with a tasty treat that provide hours of fun, especially if you put them in the freezer. Licky mats and snuffle mats are also fun enrichment activities that will entertain your dog. They are easily purchased on Amazon and can provide great mental stimulation. These activities will also keep your dog calm and occupied when you do finally return to work.
Some of you may feel like this is a lot of work and you can’t be bothered, however, preventing separation anxiety is so important to your dog’s emotional and physiological welfare. Neglecting your dog’s needs will cause them to become anxious, confused and frustrated and problem behaviours are more than likely to develop as a result. Excessive barking and destructive behaviours are 2 of the main reasons dogs are left in shelters and there’s bound to be a surge in the number of dogs abandoned.
There has also been a 120% increase in puppy litter enquiries in the UK because people are stuck in and would like the distraction of a puppy. Whilst there is nothing wrong with getting a puppy, some are not researching the needs of the breed or how this dog will be cared for adequately when they return to work.
Dog charities are pleading with people to remember that "puppies aren’t just for lock down, they are for life!"
So, if you are thinking about getting a puppy during lock down, please thoroughly research the needs of the breed and if you will be able to fulfill these needs outside of lockdown. Also remember that puppies easily develop separation anxiety and so the above advice should also be applied the moment you bring them home. That way, you avoid needing to address excessive barking and destructive chewing.
Finally, dogs are not the only ones that suffer with anxiety. We humans are anxious too, especially now! So, we need to ensure we are keeping ourselves healthy mentally, because as mentioned in a previous post, our emotions have a huge impact on our dog’s emotions. Some of us may have actually become emotionally dependent on our dogs! Maybe it’s us that will suffer with separation anxiety when we go back to work! Now there’s a thought!
Hopefully, we will all be able to return to our normal lives soon, but the process may be gradual, so it’s the perfect time to help our dogs to return to their normal routine!
If you need help and/or advice you know where to find me.