How to ease your dog's post-pandemic separation anxiety
The last two years will certainly be chronicled in the annals of history as some of the most turbulent times humankind has ever experienced.
Our daily lives have been turned upside down by the global pandemic and I think it's safe to say, we are all looking forward to a brighter and altogether less stressful future.
As 2021 draws to a close, there are glimmers of hope that our lives may soon be free of limitations, as vaccines continue to be rolled out, providing protection against Covid-19.
But this time hasn't been bad for all in the family! Studies have shown that our pets have significantly benefited from our increased time at home.
Our canine companions have never been better cared for; with extra walks during the day, regular stimulation from remote workers and closer attention to their health. The extra time together has meant we all got to know our furry friends a little bit better.
But with restrictions easing by the day and more of us heading back into the office, what does this mean for our four-legged family members?
Veterinarians and animal behaviourists are already warning that our pets may not be ready for the sudden shock of a return to normal life!
Separation anxiety, hyper sociability and solitude nervousness can affect even the most amiable of pets and after such a long period together, our pets are certainly not ready for the sudden return to a quiet house all day!
The schedule change may mean man's best friend is now home alone for long periods of the day, and the stress of solitude may cause anti-social habits such as destructive chewing, persistent digging or excessive vocalisation/barking.
Pets who have become accustomed to company will certainly have their wellbeing affected if now left alone for many hours each day and may show signs of stress such as drooling, coprophagia (eating their own faeces), attempts to escape and pacing.
Even if your dog is not showing any of these signs, they will certainly be suffering from boredom having previously had so much company over the last 24 months.
Any dog now exhibiting any of these clinical signs should see a veterinarian to rule out a medical condition or developmental problem that may underlie their behaviour.
Reaching a diagnosis of separation anxiety can be difficult, but usually, your dog will demonstrate the behaviour shortly after being left alone and the behaviour may persist for much of the time they are left alone.
As well as identifying any underlying medical condition, it's important to rule out urine marking, incomplete house training or juvenile destruction from the list of diagnoses, so speaking with your vet should be your first call.
There are many tools your veterinarian may want to use to help reach a diagnosis of separation anxiety. This can include telemedicine, where through a video consultation they can witness the behaviour of your dog in the home or shortly after you leave them in the house alone.
Understanding the ownership history of your pet will be helpful, with shelter dogs at greater risk of the problem, than those kept in a single household since a puppy.
Keeping a diary of the types of behaviour, the frequency of their occurrence and the outcomes, will also be helpful information for your veterinarian in assessing the quantum of the problem.
Along with sudden isolation, other triggers for separation anxiety include change of family, change in residence or a change in household membership, so it's important to identify the root cause of the problem.
Your dog's behaviour is a complex trait shaped by both its environment and its genetics. Research at Princeton University has revealed genetic markers correlated to the increased social interaction of dogs with humans, or hyper sociability.
Dogs that carry a higher number of mutations associated with behaviour may have an underlying genetic base for their behaviour when left alone and understanding this genetic predisposition can help pet parents provide an environment or daily routine where their pets will be happy and thrive.
This genomic test, available through your veterinarian, is easy to perform, simply requiring a cheek swab to be taken and sent to the lab for analysis. The results are available within a few weeks and help provide a better understanding of your dog's behaviour, so why not ask your veterinarian about a genomics test today.
If your pet is suffering from separation anxiety or simply the boredom of home isolation after many months of company, there are many ways you can alleviate the problem and bring some calm to their apprehension.
Desensitisation and counterconditioning are the processes by which you allow your dog to become accustomed to time alone. They are complex and often not easy to enact, requiring time, patience and assistance from a Certified Applied Animal Behaviourist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviourist (Dip ACVB).
A Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) or your veterinarian will also be able to help. They will help with minimising the impact of pre-departure cues and working to graduate departures and longer absences. This training will take patience and persistence, so be prepared for hard work and the occasional setback!
Fortunately, there are many alternative arrangements. These don't simply avoid the problem but provide your loved family pet with the stimulation and interaction they deserve!
- If possible, take your dog to work. As our workplaces become more flexible, this may be an increasing option for the odd day each week.
2. Arrange for family, a friend or a dog sitter to come to your home when you are not there. Human company relieves boredom and most cases of separation anxiety.
3. New technology devices allow you to view, speak to and even provide a treat for your dog when you are away from home! These can help relieve the boredom of short absences but are not a substitute for human companionship over long periods of isolation.
4. Take your dog to daycare! Who wouldn't want a day of play! This provides all the physical,
mental and social exercise your dog needs.
5. Enrolling in a reward-based training class can increase your dog's mental activity and enhance the bond between you and your dog, giving you and your dog new skills to learn and games to play, helping to mentally and physically tire your dog out before being left alone.
Finally, keep your dog busy and happy with plenty of walks, playtime, time off the lead, reward puzzles, toys and chew items - all have been shown to have a calming effect.