We’ve followed the rules… 1.5m apart, no jogging, no socialising and no walking your dog. Alright, we’ve survived for the most part. Life for humans has pretty much been turned upside down, and while it’s been challenging, one benefit is that we’ve had our dogs at our side 24/7.
Let’s get real, our dogs are in literal heaven and have lapped up the inexplicable rise in attention and presence of their owners. What does that mean for life after lockdown? Separation anxiety post-lockdown is a real concern for most dog owners.
By the end of it, we’d have spent the good part of 5 weeks (not counting the informal social distancing weeks) consistently sharing the same space with our dogs. We’ve spent these weeks doing our best to entertain them mentally and physically without leaving the sanctuary of our homes.
How are they going to handle our lives returning to normal? Morning cuddles will be rushed, lunchtimes will be lonelier and activities will be fewer as humans reintegrate into post-lockdown life. Some degree of separation anxiety is bound to form, even in unsuspecting dogs.
So, what is separation anxiety exactly?
FULL DISCLOSURE, I’m not an expert on this subject so I’ve asked dog trainer, Michaela Lendowsky, from Dogwarts School of Training and Trickery (and mom to Titan the Rottie) for her professional advice. With her help and expertise, I have compiled some vital information to help you prepare your dog for post-lockdown life.
Michaela explains, “separation anxiety is equivalent to a panic attack in humans and it often occurs in high functioning dogs who battle to be apart from their owners, siblings or certain comforts. New studies have shown that separation anxiety is actually a frustration-based problem and if we can help dogs with their frustration, then their anxiety should calm down. It sounds a lot like how humans deal with their anxiety.”
What are the symptoms?
- Anxious behaviour like howling, barking, or whining excessively
- Have indoor accidents even though they’re potty trained
- Destructive behaviour like chewing things up, digging holes, scratching at windows and doors
- Excessive drooling, panting, or salivating
- Obsessive pacing
- Desperate attempts at escaping
- Compulsively licking
What are the causes?
- Being left alone after getting used to being in the company of other people and dogs
- Change of ownership or household
- Moving from a shelter to a home
- Change in family routine or schedule
- Loss of a family member
- History of abandonment
How can you prevent it?
“We have a choice, we can either prevent it by using the tools below, or we let our dogs suffer when we’re away and have no other choice but to manage their separation anxiety when it’s crippling them.”
PHASE 1: PREPARING FOR POST-LOCKDOWN
1. Independence Training
Now this is the one that will be hardest for humans, and that is training your dog to be alone.
1. a. Leave them alone
- Start with 5 minutes outside when feeding. Close the door so they can’t see you. Increase the time each day. Be sure to leave them with a treat or toy so your absence is associated with something good.
1. b. Work in a separate room
- As tempting as it is, aim to keep your dog in a separate room or section of the house for at least half of your work day. Start with a few hours a day and work your way up to a full day apart with cuddle breaks in between.
1. c. Crate train your dog
- If you can’t keep your dog in a separate room, try crate training them. This gives them the alone time they need in a safe and controlled space without the freedom to go to you for comfort. Please note that crate training should only be done for a few hours at a time. They should never be left unsupervised or alone in a crate for an entire work day.
1. d. Design a Doggie Disneyland®
- The Do No Harm™ book encourages you to make a Doggie Disneyland® play pen for your dog. Their crate can be this space if they are used to sleeping in there, otherwise their bed in a sectioned area or room will do. In the Doggie Disneyland they should have some Kongs, Nylon chews like this and this, puzzles, self-tug toys, a comfort item such as a fluffy blanket or durable teddy bear. This is an amazing place to leave your dog when you’re out since they still have a bit of freedom but they aren’t completely confined to a very small area such as their crate.
1. e. Rotate toys
- Don’t leave all their toys out at once. Rotate toys and keep the really fun and stuffable ones for times when you’re away. Whip out the good toys like Kongs, stuffed toys, special teddies, special squeaky toys etc. when they’re alone. Be sure that these toys are durable and safe to be left unattended. You don’t want your dog anxiously dismantling a teddy and getting a bowel obstruction in the process. If your dog is outside you can build them a little sandpit in a plastic shell and bury their toys in the sand so they can go and find their toys.
1. f. Sleep and pee alone
- Yip, we’ve all done it… gone to the toilet with our dog at our feet. It’s not like we have much choice in the matter. However, now is the time to go to the bathroom alone. These are the daily little things your dog has been getting used to during lockdown. This includes sleeping alone too. That means not sharing your bed with your dog. They can sleep right next to your bed, and make sure their bed is nice, warm and comfy. You can also leave a few treats and a special bedtime teddy on their bed so that they start associating their bed with positive feelings. This doesn’t mean that your dog isn’t allowed on your bed, they are! And you can cuddle them as much as you want on your bed, but when you go to sleep, they must sleep on their own bed.
2. Stay/wait training
This ties in with practicing your leaving routine as well as making your dog comfortable being alone on their bed. *Difference between stay and wait:
Stay: You don’t release your dog, your dog doesn’t move until you get back.
Wait: Your dog is waiting for you to call him or tell him to fetch something.
Teach your dog how to stay and add both distance and duration. Put them in a stay in their bed or on a mat, and walk to another room. Each time you leave to another room, you say “stay, I’ll be back” and walk away. When you get back to them, you say “I’m back” in a nice calm tone and reward them for staying. Another thing you can do is also put your dog on their bed or mat, ask them to wait. Sprinkle some treats on the floor and as you are about to leave and close the door, say “yes go fetch”, and walk away. This will keep them busy while you’re out the room.
3. Put your shoes on
The simple act of putting shoes on in our household entices excitement, even more so now during lockdown. The aim is to normalise and desensitise simple acts attached to leaving the house. Repeated exposure can help reduce anxiety when the real deal first day back at work happens. Put your shoes on calmly and go back to your desk. Pick up the car keys and sit on the couch. Do this a few times a day without acknowledging excited behaviour in your dog. Eventually they will start to feel less anxious about these actions.
PHASE 2: PREVENTING SEPARATION ANXIETY
1. Increase the mental stimulation
- Since new research says that separation anxiety is frustration-based we need to decrease their level of frustration. Positive reinforcement training is a great place to start. This can include the following: enrolling in a basic obedience class, teaching your dog tricks, basic agility, and leash manners.
- Scent work is also encouraged. Taking your dog for a walk before you leave for work or a night out not only physically tires them but mentally spends energy too. Plan enough time to let your dog sniff on these walks. Sniffing produces endorphins in a dog’s brain which makes them happier and more relaxed.
- Ditch the food bowl. Explore opportunities to feed your dog in anything other than a food bowl. Kongs, Dog’s Life, Rogz or any durable stuff-able toy will do. Mix their food up with some plain unsweetened yoghurt and freeze it to make their meal last longer. You can put their food in puzzles or even lick mats like this one found at Checkers. A nice and easy way to make their food last longer is by sprinkling their pellets in the grass, a scrunched up towel, a slow feeder, or a snuffle mat so that they have to sniff their food out. By making them work for their food, they get more stimulated and less frustrated. These methods are also great if your dog guzzles their food down.
2. Make arrivals and departures boring
Michaela and I are both guilty of this! By hyping up your dogs when you get home, you can over-arouse them which makes homecoming an event in itself. Dogs battle to distinguish excitement from anxiety so we need to avoid this at all costs. It’s important to make entering and leaving the house a non-event.
- When you leave, in a nice calm tone say, “I’ll be back”. Be sure to leave them with safe and stimulating items.
- When you get back, in a nice calm tone say: “I’m back, hello babies” and keep walking. Greet them properly when they calm down with lots of praise and attention. Only calm behaviour gets rewarded.
3. Exercise, exercise, exercise!
A tired dog is a calm dog. This is a surefire way to ensure your dog has a lot less energy to spend worrying about when you’re coming home. Ensuring you exercise your dog before you head to work is so important. Throwing the ball in the garden, a brisk walk or jog all count as exercise. Work this 20 – 30 mins into your morning routine and stick to it every day.
4. Calming music
Research shows that simple on instrument music, especially piano, is very soothing to dogs.
- Put the radio on. Classic FM and 702 are great examples of radio stations to leave on as they are usually very calm, don’t play loud fast songs and have monotonous voices.
- Put the TV on. Don’t leave action movies on, but rather leave it on a music channel. If you have a smart TV, put YouTube on and play a calming playlist like this one.
- Make sure the volume isn’t too loud for them.
5. Oils, Diffusers and Other Remedies
Here is a list of natural remedies to calm your pet. If your dog is on any chronic medication or supplements, please consult your veterinarian before introducing any additional remedies to their schedule. It is also important to note that while these remedies do help anxiety, it is always preferable to treat the cause and not the symptom. *Please note that while essential oils provide many benefits, some are toxic to pets and can lead to illness or death. Here is a list of safe essential oils for your pets.
- Lavender oil has a nice relaxing fragrance to it and this is because it contains a terpene called linalool which promotes relaxation and calmness. This can be used in a diffuser or room spray.
- CBD oil is also a great way to manage your dog’s anxiety and I have recommended it to a lot of my clients who have all said they have seen a drastic difference in their pets. CBD can be ingested with drops or treats. It is recommended that you start treating your dog with CBD now so that the positive effects have had time to build up before lockdown ends. Please make sure that you get a proper 100% CBD oil that contains no THC. THC is the psychedelic component in marijuana and has been known to enhance anxious thoughts and feelings in humans and will definitely be noticed in animals as well. Michaela recommends oils from The Green Gals as theirs is affordable and high quality.
- Valerian Root is great for both dogs and cats. It is a herbal supplement that promotes relaxation and alleviates stress and anxiety.
- Regal Stress & Anxiety Remedy is a herbal nerve tonic for dogs prone to separation anxiety and problem behaviours. It can be added to their food or given directly. It is recommended that you start treating your dog with Regal Stress & Anxiety now so that the positive effects have had time to build up before lockdown ends.
- Compression Vests are a great alternative treatment. Regal Pet Health sells a Thunder Vest which is a unique dog anxiety wrap, designed to provide gentle, constant pressure to your dog’s body, resulting in a calming effect.
- CalmEze is a beef flavoured tablet used to control mild anxiety related disorders. It is a mixture of vitamins and amino acids, and can be used for up to 3 months at a time.
6. Get a nanny cam
If you’re struggling to get used to leaving your dog alone, or have neighbours who tend to complain about barking dogs, invest in a nanny cam. This is the one I (Megan) use and I love it because it has two-way audio and the night vision is super clear. However there are many cheaper and just as effective models out there. The two-way audio lets me interrupt any howling or barking.
Chronic or prescribed medication should only to be used as a last resort. Antidepressants and SSRI’s for pets do exist but a process of elimination should occur before putting your dog on heavy meds. Ask your vet for a full body check-up as underlying health conditions can also cause pain and anxiety. In addition, seek professional advice from a behaviourist first so they can see if there are any under lying behavioural issues going on.
8. Manage your own anxiety
This method isn’t spoken about a lot because people underestimate a dog’s emotional intelligence. In many cases, dogs who suffer from anxiety tend to have anxious owners. Dogs are emotionally intelligent beings, and when it comes to humans they care a lot about, they tend to transfer and take on their emotional baggage at their own expense. By ensuring that you’re calm when you enter or leave the house means that your dog knows it’s ok to be calm.
9. Be patient
Separation anxiety and training in general takes time. Use this as an opportunity to learn about your dog and build confidence within your household. Don’t give up if you have a setback. Keep going and focus on what you have achieved, not what has gone wrong.
Thank you to Michaela from Dogwarts for your help in writing this article!