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Separation Anxiety after COVID

I hope you are doing well and my heart goes out to everyone affected by COVID-19. Although a few animals around the world have become infected with COVID-19, they have recovered and we believe most exposed animals will not get ill. Thankfully, there is no evidence to suggest your pet can spread the virus to you. Remember, our pets are our family members and should be protected against the virus in the same way you are protecting your children and other loved ones.

“Shelter-at-home” orders have given people more time with their dogs. What is going to happen when things get back to whatever the new normal is and you are no longer home with your furry child all day? There will inevitably be behavioral changes, such as separation anxiety.

What is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety describes dogs that are overly attached or dependent on family members. They become extremely anxious and show distress behaviors such as vocalization, destruction, or house soiling when separated from the owners. Most dogs with separation anxiety try to remain physically close to their owners, follow them from room to room and rarely spend time outdoors alone. They often begin to display anxiety as soon as the owners prepare to leave. Many, but not all, crave a great deal of physical contact and attention from their owners. Additionally, they may be restless, shiver, salivate, refuse to eat, or become quiet and withdrawn when separated.

thundershirt for dogs
Happy smiling young golden retriever dog under light gray plaid. Pet warms under a blanket in cold winter weather. Pets friendly and care concept.

The behavior typically occurs every time the owner leaves. In some cases it may only happen on selected departures, such as workday departures, or when the owner leaves again after coming home from work. Dogs with separation anxiety are often overly excited when the human returns.

Misconceptions

People may assume the dog is “spiteful” and was “getting back” at their owner for leaving. This is simply NOT TRUE!! Dogs who suffer from separation anxiety are emotionally distressed and anxious when their person leaves, even for short periods. Emotional distress is difficult on your pup. It is very important to work with your veterinarian to make certain your pup doesn’t have any underlying medical problems.

Be Proactive

The most important first step is making certain your dog is independent and relaxed in your presence. Teaching your dog independent behaviors can help develop coping skills when you leave. This begins by giving your dog a task to do in another room. For example, give your dog a food-filled puzzle toy in the office, while you sit in the bedroom. After a few minutes, reunite with your dog. As training advances, leave him alone for longer and longer until he gradually becomes more comfortable with separation.

dog anxiety

Set a routine by scheduling daily play sessions. Follow these sessions with gradually longer periods of inattention (for napping or playing with toys). Your dog should get used to this routine so you can depart while he is calm. During the times when you are interacting with your dog, make sure you are meeting all his needs for social interactions. You should initiate enough play, exercise, elimination and attention time so your dog is prepared to settle down and relax afterwards.

Getting Ready to Leave

Before any lengthy departure, provide an energetic play or exercise time. This helps tire her out and provides a period of attention.

For the last 15 to 30 minutes prior to departure, ignore your dog. It would be optimal to take her to a rest and relaxation area with radio, TV, or video playing. Then, prepare to leave while your dog is out of sight and earshot. The key is to avoid as many of the departure cues as possible. Brushing teeth, changing into work clothes, and collecting keys are all routines that should be done out of sight.

Use distraction devices when you leave. Dogs that are highly stimulated by food may become so intensively occupied by a peanut butter coated toy, they may not notice you leave. The distraction devices should last long enough so  your dog continues to occupy herself until you are long gone.

Frozen treats, toys tightly stuffed with goodies and toys designed to require work to get the food reward are a few suggestions. You can find these many of these aids at your local Petland store.

Disassociation

Start with fake-departures identical to the training exercises above. Instead of leaving the room for a few minutes, leave the house. The first absences should be just long enough to leave and return without any signs of anxiety or destructiveness. This may be a few seconds to a couple  minutes. Make sure your dog is calm and distracted. The hardest and most critical part might be getting out the door without your dog becoming anxious.

Gradually but randomly increase the time. Your dog must always be relaxed when you begin. Departures must be as similar to real departures as possible. Include  activities associated with departure; opening and closing the car door and returning, turning the car on and off, opening and closing the garage door or pulling the car out of the driveway and returning. The goal is for your dog to learn that departures are short and you return quickly. You must only increase the time you are gone if your dog remains relaxed when you leave.

It May Take Time

These are just a few suggestions to help you train your dog so you will not have to suddenly deal with separation anxiety once you return to work. The best method is preventing the behavioral problem before it becomes a real issue.

Much of the information used to prepare this article came from the American Association of Veterinary Behaviorists. These veterinarians work with individual pet owners, other animal professionals such as your veterinarian or favorite pet store, and facilities that care for animals to manage behavior problems and improve the wellbeing of animals. To find a veterinary behavioral specialist in your area go to their web page https://www.dacvb.org/

Stay Safe!!

Meet Petland’s Consulting Veterinarian, Dr. Thomas Edling, DVM, MSpVM, MPH:
Dr. Edling received his BS in Industrial Engineering from Texas A&M University in 1981 and his degree in Veterinary Medicine (DVM) from Colorado State University. He previously served as Vice President of Veterinary Medicine for Petco and was on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. In addition, Dr. Edling completed the American Board of Veterinary Practitioner’s residency program for Companion and Wild Avian Medicine and Surgery, at North Carolina State University, where he also received his Master in Specialized Veterinary Medicine (MSpVM) in 2001. In 2011, Dr. Edling completed the Master of Public Health (MPH) program at Johns Hopkins University. As a veterinarian, Dr. Edling works closely with the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians (NASPHV).

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