Canine Separation Anxiety: What happens when we go back to work?
Most of the country will begin easing COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions over the next few weeks. Like many of you, I’m eager to get back to work and “normal life,” but also want to be safe. One of the most common questions I’m receiving lately is, “How will my dog behave when I return to work?”
Psychologists tell us it takes about two months for a routine to become a habit. In my 28 years practicing veterinary medicine, I’d say that’s also about right for dogs. Over the past two months, most of our country’s dogs (and their pet parents) have been living a new routine, potentially creating new habits.
What will happen when we suddenly leave our dogs home alone? While humans may be able to adapt to abrupt schedule changes, our dogs thrive on daily structure. Here are some ways to help your dog ease into your new schedule and reduce the risk of separation anxiety and other unhealthy behaviors.
Your dog is always learning
It’s important to remember that no matter your dog’s age, they’re actively learning every day. In fact, we’ve bred dogs to be highly trainable, perform tasks (“task-oriented”), and able to comprehend and follow commands, subtle gestures, and even mimic our facial expressions.
This is why regardless of your schedule, it’s important to interact with your dog two to three times daily for a couple of minutes teaching or reviewing an action. Even if you only ask your pooch to sit, down, stay, or retrieve before feeding, that’s an excellent start.
Secret work-from-home dog school
The reason I mention these “two-minute training” sessions is that your dog has been secretly attending “work-from-home dog school.” They’ve been taking notes and adapting their behaviors to your new (albeit temporary) routine. Hopefully these lessons have been constructive, but some dogs may have slipped into unhealthy habits because they’ve adjusted to the new daily structure. You won’t know if these changes have occurred until, you guessed it, you leave them alone. That’s why it’s essential you start teaching new classes now.
What is canine separation anxiety?
In general terms, dogs suffering from canine separation anxiety (CSA) will “panic” and exhibit destructive or harmful behaviors when they can’t be in physical contact or close proximity to their owners. Researchers estimate 20% to 40% of all dogs will exhibit some signs of CSA. A recent dog owner survey found 1 in 7 dogs had at least one symptom of CSA, equaling about 13 million dogs.
The bad news is there’s no long-lasting treatment for CSA other than behavior modification. That’s why prevention and early recognition and intervention is key to success. Prescription medications are used in about 10% to 20% of all CSA cases.
CSA can lead to huge, sometimes devastating effects on family life. I’ve heard about far too many pet parents who relinquished or even euthanized their dog in unresolved cases. CSA is serious and can escalate rapidly from “annoying” to “unacceptable.”
Common signs of separation anxiety
The most common clinical signs of CSA include: vocalizing, watchful waiting, destruction, escapism, “potty” accidents or changes in bowel habits (especially increased frequency and softer stools), shadowing, excessive greeting, pacing, panting, and self harm (most commonly by excessive grooming).
Excessive and persistent drooling, excessive licking of lips, easily startled (“jumpy”), “whale eyes” (frightened look) or “side eyes” (looking at you from sides often indicates anxiety), and dilated pupils are also associated with CSA.
Dogs with CSA are more likely to develop other behavior problems. Noise, thunderstorm, stranger, and travel anxieties are found more frequently in dogs with CSA.
What is not a sign of CSA?
The key to identifying CSA is that the unwanted behavior occurs in the absence or spatial distance of the pet parent. CSA is not associated with:
- nuisance or territorial vocalizations (i.e. barking at mailman, barking at squirrels, dogs, etc.)
- “potty accidents” in a poorly trained or untrained dog
- destruction of food items or items related to a food source (i.e. rummaging in the trash, breaking into cabinets, etc.)
It’s also important that CSA is less likely in:
- dogs less than 1 year old
- an un-housebroken dog urinating or defecating when left alone
- pre-existing medical condition or pain underlying the anxiety or causing atypical behaviors
- age-related cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS)
What should you do during work-from-home and beyond?
Here are some tips to help avoid post-quarantine separation anxiety in your dog:
- Stick to a routine (wake up, eat, exercise and play at set times)
- Provide daily structure (wake up, go for a “potty walk,” feed, walk again, two-minute training session, return home, walk, play, two-minute training, feed, walk, two-minute training, etc.)
- Daily exercise
- 20 to 30-minutes total
- 20-minute sustained aerobic ideal for behavior
- Can be divided (two 10 to 15-minute periods)
- Use positive reinforcement to encourage good behaviors
- If your pet is constantly nudging you, ignore the unwanted behavior (don’t look or acknowledge unless injurious). When they stop, immediately give them a treat and say, “Good girl!”
- Reward the positive behaviors you want. Ignore the negative behaviors unless harmful or injurious.
- Daily brushing and grooming your pets
- “Work hours” – provide separate spaces for you and your dog using baby gates and crates during set time periods
- Give your cat a safe space
- Cut a hole in a baby or “doggie” gate, boxes, paper bags, “cat caves”
- Darkened rooms or spaces
- Vertical spaces (elevated climbing towers, cat trees, etc.)
- Distraction tools
- food puzzles and toys stuffed with kibble (especially when you’re working from home to establish initial time and spatial boundaries)
- “snuffle mats”
- feline indoor hunting feeder
- Classical music (“Mozart Effect” and species-specific compositions
- DogTV (yes, it’s a real thing and it’s backed by science)
- Pheromones, anxiolytic medications, veterinary behaviorist consultation
- Compression vests
- Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation (CES) and Pulsed Electromagnetic Field (PEMF) Therapy (Calmer Canine)
- Chamomile, Valerian, and Melatonin (dosage determined by your veterinarian)
- CBD oil for dogs (dosage and usage recommended by your veterinarian)
- Anxitane (l-theanine)
- L-tryptophan (dosage determined by your veterinarian)
- Bach Flower Rescue Remedy
- Star of Bethlehem, Rock Rose, Cherry Plum, Impatiens, Clematis
These are just a few ideas to help your dog acclimate to the “new normal” after the COVID-19 quarantine period is over. If your dog exhibits any unusual or unwanted behavior as you return to work, notify your veterinarian immediately. These “unhealthy habits” can escalate quickly and become challenging to correct with each passing day. By recognizing a problem behavior before it becomes a “bad habit,” you can help your pet adapt to almost any situation. Stay safe and give your dog a hug from me!