Have you been sheltering in place with your dog, courtesy of coronavirus? There will come a time when life goes back to the “new normal” and you’ll go back to work or school, and if you have a dog, you may be worried about how your dog will handle this. The internet is already flooded with articles predicting an epidemic of canine separation anxiety when our dogs have to become accustomed to being left home alone again. Are you ready for this?
Before we discuss whether or not you need to be concerned about this, let’s clear up some definitions. We’ve noticed that the more this issue is discussed, the less precise the language surrounding the condition seems to become!
“Anxiety” is the anticipation of unknown or imagined future dangers. With separation anxiety (SA), your dog anticipates bad things happening because you aren’t there. True SA presents as extremes of behavior: vocalization, destruction of household objects (especially door frames and confinement tools), self-injury, and sometimes soiling in the home by a previously well house-trained dog.
SA is a bit of a misnomer for a lot of canine behavior that frequently gets tagged with the dreaded SA label. There are many canine behaviors that we find problematic that occur exclusively in the owner’s absence. If they do not seem to be anxiety-based, and are relatively easy to manage and modify, we should call them separation-related behaviors (SRBs). We’d consider true SA to be a subset of SRBs.
WHAT ARE THE ODDS?
Not all dogs will erupt with SA behaviors if their owners suddenly go back to work. If your dog has always been comfortable being left alone, she’s likely to be just fine when you go back to work, especially if she’s reasonably confident and well-adjusted.
On the other hand, it’s possible that even if your dog never had SRBs before, she is now so accustomed to your constant proximity that your departure could trigger an unwanted response, whether it’s SA or the emergence of other SRBs. You want to start right now, addressing it sooner rather than later.
Puppies are at greatest risk for SRBs when they are subjected to a sudden change to a home-alone lifestyle. While many new puppy owners take vacations or reduce their work hours in order to spend time with their new pups, we normally counsel new puppy owners to immediately begin a program of gradual separation to prevent SA. But right now, with so many new puppy owners sheltering in place, they may have skipped this important part of a pup’s early learning. Fortunately, it’s not too late to put this program into action!
IDENTIFY THE BEHAVIOR
With today’s easy access to technology, it’s fairly simple to determine whether your dog or puppy gets upset when left alone. Set up a cellphone or laptop computer to record video – or, better yet, use an app to link a camera to your phone – so you can see what your dog does in your absence. (Note: If you already know your dog already has SRBs and you know for sure it’s SA, you don’t need to do this; proceed directly to management and modification sections below.)
Next, initiate your normal departure routine, whether this entails crating your dog, confining her in a room or section of the house, or leaving her loose with full access to the entire house. If she has full access, set up your camera where you think she’s most likely to hang out. (You can always do another trial later if you guessed wrong.)
Now leave the house, following your normal departure routine. You only have to go far enough away that your dog thinks you really left. Watch your dog on your camera (or view the recorded video after you return). If your dog wandered around, then settled on her bed (or the sofa) and dozed off, you’re probably home free – although she could wake up and get bored later.
If your dog didn’t settle in fairly quickly, watch for signs of anxiety (pacing, panting, whining, barking, howling, digging at doors or windows) or boredom (walking around with purpose, looking for things to get into or chew, such as garbage cans, shoes, pillows, table legs, etc., without any obvious signs of stress).
Keep this first “home alone” session short – say, under 10 minutes. If you are using an app and can observe your dog via a live stream, return immediately if you can see that your dog is anxious; you don’t want to ramp up her stress levels.
If your livestream or video recording reveals that your dog is stressed about your absence, she does have some degree of SA, and you have work to do. If she’s doing inappropriate things but doesn’t really seem anxious, you also have work to do, on the easier end of the SRB range.
It’s much easier to use management for separation-related behaviors that are triggered by boredom or a lack of supervision than those caused by true separation anxiety. Both prognoses can improve immensely from increased enrichment and exercise. (A tired dog makes for a happy owner!)
Scent work is excellent for tiring most dogs – it’s very fulfilling and can easily be done indoors. (For more about teaching your dog games that utilize his nose, see “Everyone Nose That,” WDJ September 2019.)
Other options for indoor exercise and enrichment include playing with a flirt pole (kind of like a toy on a fishing pole), a ball pit, or snuffle mat (a textured mat with kibble or treats buried in the fabric, requiring the dog to sniff and lick to find and eat the food). Good games include round-robin recalls (where two or more people call the dog and reward her for each arrival), indoor fetch, or indoor parkour using household items such as laundry baskets to jump in and out of, broomsticks to jump over, and chairs to crawl under. (For more details, see “Winter Woes and Wags,” December 2019.)
Physical management for SRBs may include crates and exercise pens to keep your dog confined and out of trouble, or doors and baby gates to keep her confined to dog-proofed areas. Of course, if your dog or pup isn’t already accustomed to confinement, this means teaching her to love being in a crate or pen. (See “How to Crate-Train Your Puppy,” November 2014)
Once trained, keep crating times reasonable; a young pup can last only a couple of hours before needing a bathroom break, and adult dogs, even if they can go eight to 10 hours, should also get a break halfway through the day (see “Crate Problems and Great Solutions,” October 2017).
Dogs with true SA usually do not crate well. They often panic and can injure themselves badly – even die – in their desperate attempts to escape. If your dog displays anxious body language when you watch the video feed, the management program for your dog will likely need to include medication in addition to modification efforts.
Some veterinarians are unfamiliar with behavior-modification drugs and dosages. You can ask yours to do a phone consult with a veterinary behaviorist, or consult directly with a veterinary behaviorist yourself. You or your vet can find a list of certified veterinary behaviorists at dacvb.org/about/member-directory.