By Sharon Wachsler CPDT-KA, KPACTP
If you have been doing stay-at-home due to the pandemic, now is the time to make sure your dog is able to cope with you returning to work. Make sure your dog is not developing separation anxiety, or if she is, start to turn it around.
I speak from firsthand experience. When I first brought home my poodle puppy a year ago, I noticed that Kismet was clingy and had a tendency toward isolation distress. He always wanted to be lying on my feet and would bark or whine if I moved out of sight. I did some training then to prevent separation distress, and he was fine with my departures for many months.
Then, when he was nine months old, I moved to a new home. He had more trouble adjusting to the change than my older dog. Just two weeks later, before he had adjusted, the pandemic hit and I was working from home.
Although I was making sure to at least leave him alone for half an hour every day, there were too many other factors that created a “perfect storm” for him to develop separation anxiety (SA). His temperament, the move, and then the excessive togetherness during stay-at-home — compounded by the fact that I was using him as my demo dog during online training lessons — so he was working with me all day.
I have heard from others whose dogs have SA that was successfully modified that they are finding it challenging to maintain these days. I also have several clients now whose dogs are having more issues with separation distress and clinginess than they did in the past.
Any dog can develop separation issues, but the dogs that are particularly at risk to develop SA during this pandemic are
- newly adopted dogs
- dogs that have a tendency toward SA, such as highly social/affectionate “Velcro” dogs, generally anxious dogs, or some rescue dogs (dogs that have been rehomed, especially repeatedly)
If you have not already been helping your dog adjust to you going back to work eventually, please start now.
Start by videoing your dog while you go out for half an hour. This will assure you they are OK with your absence. Behaviors to watch out for when you watch the video include:
- whining, barking, howling
- refusing to eat or drink
- soiling in the house (for dogs that are otherwise reliably house trained)
- chewing or pawing at doorways, windows, gates
- chewing, collecting, or shredding your clothes (socks, shoes, or underwear)
- restlessness, inability to settle, panting, pacing
- staring at the door where you left or looking out the window for you
If your dog has developed separation issues, get in touch. We can help you set up a training plan to teach your dog how to be relaxed and confident on their own. You can also consult the books in the resources section below. It’s very important that you only work with a positive reinforcement trainer or behavior consultant because punishment (scolding, leash corrections, shock, etc.) will worsen your dog’s anxiety.
If your dog is not showing significant distress at your departure, make sure to maintain and prevent this with the following steps:
1. In a very nonchalant, “normal” way, start doing your “go to work routine” then just sit down in the house. E.g., put on your shoes, get your bag, get your keys, sit down, take off shoes, put down bag, put away keys. Repeat. While you do this, surreptitiously watch your dog’s body language. Are they following you around anxiously or are they napping through it? If they’re relaxed, move to step 2. If they are panting, following you around, etc., keep doing step 1 several times a day for several days until they are completely bored by it.
2. Set up a video camera to see what your dog does in this phase. Start heading out the door and sit in the car or drive down to the mailbox or end of the road. Do this for 5-15 minutes. Review the video. If your dog is chilling out, repeat this a few times, then start leaving for longer outings every day. Do this even if you have nowhere to go – just sit in your car for an hour, listening to a podcast. If your dog is showing distress behaviors like those above, you will need to leave for much shorter times. Your trainer will help you break it down.
3. Give your dog some alone time while you are still home, using gates or doors or pens. Provide them with a chew toy, or some other interactive toy during this time. But also leave them alone for a few minutes after they have finished the toy so they learn to cope with some time doing nothing without you present.
If your dog has not developed separation issues, make sure to maintain that by going out at least three-to-four times a week for different lengths of time. Make sure to drive away several times a week, not just walk in the back yard. Your dog knows the difference.
Resources to Learn More
- I’ll be Home Soon: How to Prevent and Treat Separation Anxiety by Patricia McConnell is a very readable and helpful, short booklet
- Don’t Leave Me! Step-by-Step Help for Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety by Nicole Wilde is a more in-depth guide for dog owners on training a dog with SA
- Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs by Malena DeMartini-Price is geared to professional dog trainers that are helping clients train a dog with SA