Preventing Separation Anxiety After COVID-19
Honeybee, now Rho, adopted in May and living her best life in the Berkshires.
Many dog lovers have added a new member to their family recently, especially if they’ve been working from home (or not working); if that’s you, congratulations! It truly seems like the perfect time to bring a pup into your life—you’re home all the time (like, all the time!), spring is in full bloom, and doggie snuggles are the perfect way to push the COVID blues away! However, things will return to “normal” at some point...then what happens?
Our canine companions will miss us when we suddenly start leaving our homes again. Understandable, right? But for some dogs, separation anxiety is more than just missing their human counterparts—it can lead to destructive, and even dangerous, behaviors associated with separation anxiety.
What is separation anxiety?
Simply put, separation anxiety is a state of panic and anxiety when the dog's primary attachment figure(s) leaves. “It truly is similar to panic disorder in humans,” said Laurel Silvia, (CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, UW-AAB), “and the dog’s response is out of their control.” Silvia further clarified that if your dog simply hates being alone, it may be isolation distress. “If any old warm body will do to keep the dog comfortable, the term generally used is isolation distress,” she said.
Dogs are creatures of routine, and their routine is entirely based on ours. With that being said, it’s to be expected that our dogs will quickly realize when we start partaking in our getting ready/going out/leaving the house rituals. Many dogs will only experience mild stress, but some of our beloved pups will display full-blown separation anxiety behaviors.
Symptoms of separation anxiety
Having “accidents” (sometimes accompanied by Coprophagia, the consumption of their excrement)
Barking and howling
Chewing, digging, destroying furniture or household items, etc.
It’s important to note that these behavioral symptoms typically only suggest separation anxiety is present if your dog never or rarely engages in these behaviors when you’re home with them.
How can you prevent separation anxiety when we return to “normalcy?”
There are many steps you can take to help set your dog up for success (comfort and calmness) when you start leaving your house more frequently and for longer periods of time. These are our top tips:
Training "place" or "retreat"
For moderate to severe separation anxiety, our Rescue Inc. experts recommend training “place” or “retreat” and desensitizing your dog to your getting ready routine. “Place” is an extremely valuable behavior—regardless of separation anxiety. In her book, Happy Kids, Happy Dogs: Building a Friendship Right from the Start, Barbara Shumannfang explains that every dog needs an indoor space where they can be alone and undisturbed (and not disturb their human family). “Place” or “retreat” should never be used as a punishment—it is meant to be their safe, happy place.
Choose a room or location in the house to confine your dog so they can still hear household activities, but are separated from it—like a hallway, mudroom, laundry room, etc.
To train your dog to go to their “place” or retreat”, take the following steps:
Cue your dog to follow you to their place. Stand there together, holding your dog in a sit/stay.
Toss a treat into/onto their place.
Pause and then release them using a verbal cue like “Place!” or “Retreat!”. If they have a release cue (like “OK!”), you can cue them with something like, “OK, place!”
If you’re using a clicker, click when they are just about to get the treat.
Do this ~5 times in quick succession.
Continue this training sequence for several days. Then, try switching to first saying your verbal cue for place, then treat once they’re in/on it. Again, if you’re using a clicker, make sure to click to mark the desired behavior.
Cue your dog to go to their place at least once a day.
In her book, Changing People, Changing Dogs: Positive Solutions for Difficult Dogs, Dee Ganley explains that many of our dogs will recognize our normal cues for leaving them when our routines begin to return to normal. In order to prevent any anxiety associated with our “getting ready to leave” cues, we can try changing the sequence of behaviors or cues you give before you actually leave. How? These steps break it down:
Begin your “getting ready to leave” sequence. For most of us, this looks like getting dressed and ready, packing a lunch or putting items in a bag, putting shoes on, etc.
If and when your dog displays an anxiety response (e.g., pacing or whining), do something not normally in this sequence. For example, sit down and play with your phone.
When your dog has calmed down, begin the getting-ready-to leave sequence again. Repeat step two if the anxiety behavior starts up again. Insert a new calm, quiet behavior (activity) into the sequence until your dog is relaxed again.
Repeat steps 1, 2, and 3 until you’ve made it to the door, keys and personal items in hand.
The first time you make it to the door, begin to open it—then turn around and return to another calm activity inside the house.
If your dog is calm at this point, the next time you get to the door, walk outside. Spend a few moments outside (preferably out of view from your dog), then return inside. You’re both doing great, so keep at it!
Once you can go out and return quickly with no adverse behavior from your dog, you can begin to extend your time outside. Start short, then get longer, but vary the amounts of time you’re away.
When you return home, make sure your dog is calm (four on the floor!) before greeting and engaging with them.
Finally, complete your sequence—but go out with your dog. It could be just a ride in the car, to a dog-friendly trail for a walk, or anything else that is pleasant (read: rewarding) for your pup.
Alternate between bringing your dog with you and going out alone, increasing the amount of time you leave the house each day.
But my dog’s never had separation anxiety before...
The absence of separation anxiety in the past does not suggest your dog will not display behavioral symptoms in the future. Whether or not your dog ends up having separation anxiety post-COVID-19, desensitization holds enormous value for you and your dog. A disruption in routine can be confusing, so preparing them for the shift is a kindness.
Plus, our team at Rescue Inc. loves to hear about our well-trained alumni. Why train beyond “basic obedience”? Here are just a few reasons:
Training=bonding. For most dogs, they want nothing more than to spend time with their human families, especially if they’re pleasing them (and getting treats and praise for it!).
Training=exercise and mental stimulation. Just like us, our dogs need to exercise their bodies and minds. With training, they can do both!
Training=safety. Though we don’t like to imagine the worst case scenarios for our dogs, they often happen when we least expect it—especially if they don’t have safety-driven behaviors in their repertoire. For example:
A new person coming into your home unexpectedly may startle or excite your dog ; if they are trained to go their place, you can prevent them from barking or jumping on the person. Calm introductions are the best kind!
A tasty piece of garbage on the sidewalk could be an obstruction for your dog. Training them to “leave it” could save your wallet (or their life).
Dog parks or recreational areas are all fun and games until someone gets hurt. Training recall, sit, down, and stay are all helpful for safe off-leash activities.
What not to do
Here at Rescue Inc., we’re huge fans of positive reinforcement training. We’re not so keen on aversive conditioning and tools. Never punish your dog for anxious behaviors of any kind. Separation anxiety has no relation to training or obedience, and punishment or aversive methods will only exacerbate their stress (and yours!).
If you’ve tried every trick in the book and your dog is still suffering from debilitating separation anxiety, reach out for help. Just get in touch with us and we can assist you!
Abby Leigh Curtis is a freelance writer and former animal welfare professional on the Rescue Inc. team. Laurel Silvia (CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, UW-AAB) is our fabulous volunteer behaviorist, who assisted and provided input on this post.