How to help your dog with separation anxiety after lockdown.
Around the world we have found ourselves living through a strange and disconcerting time, in the midst of a pandemic. Anxiety about health and finances, the challenges of suddenly home-schooling our children and adjusting to not being allowed to meet friends and family are just a few examples of causes of stress for us over the last few months. Many of us embraced and welcomed the slower-paced and quieter life during lockdown, and so may now feel anxious about returning to ‘normal’ life. These feelings of anxiety and stress felt by people undoubtedly affect our pets, who are very much in tune with our feelings and emotions.
There are many ways we can help our dogs feel comfortable and safe at home.
Separation anxiety in dogs happens when dogs become very distressed when left alone. This can be caused by changes in the family routine or schedule, like ending lockdown. Grief from the loss of a family member is another common cause.
Signs of separation anxiety include:
Howling, barking or whining when left alone.
Soiling the home even if house trained.
Destructive behaviour such as chewing, scratching or digging.
Pacing and general restlessness.
Drooling, panting or salivating excessively.
Trying to escape.
These symptoms can be very dramatic and impossible to miss, or fairly subtle. Videoing your dog while you are out is a good way to confirm your suspicions of separation anxiety.
If your dog has symptoms of separation anxiety, these tips could help:
Try to encourage your dog to chew every day. Chewing and licking for twenty minutes or more releases endorphins to help your dog feel calm and happy. Chewing is also a great help to keep your dog's teeth and gums healthy.
Give your dog a treat to chew just before leaving home. It should be something your dog really enjoys so that they are happily engrossed in chewing when you leave.
I don’t recommend highly processed chews such as raw hide or dental sticks. Dental sticks are also very calorific, with wheat or other cereals as the main ingredient. It is possible to make home-made chews, for example sliced and baked sweet potato. Carrots make a quick, easy and nutritious chew for those dogs who enjoy them. Carrots can also be frozen to make them more difficult to chew, and longer lasting.
Kongs are another great option to encourage chewing and licking. They can be smeared with a very small amount of peanut butter, but please always check the label for xylitol which is highly toxic for dogs. Kongs can also be used instead of a food bowl – wet food or moistened dry food can be packed into the Kong, and even frozen, to make eating much more fun for your dog.
Deer antlers are marmite for dogs – some love them, others don’t.
Leaving and returning home:
Keep comings and goings from home calm and low key. Leave without making any fuss of your dog. In other words, be impolite in human terms and leave without saying goodbye, ideally with your dog engrossed in chewing or playing with a toy.
Leaving an item of clothing with your smell on it for your dog to lie on is very comforting, and may prevent your dog from shredding other possessions that have your scent.
Just like chewing, exercise also fills your dog with endorphins and allows them to burn off any excess energy that might otherwise have to be expelled with undesirable behaviour, or anxiety. A tired dog is much less likely to be stressed when you leave. Exercising your pet’s mind with training, agility or interactive games will also keep them busy and happy.
If your dog is showing severe symptoms of separation anxiety, you may need to desensitise them to being alone. Patience and perseverance are paramount, as it can be a very slow process but has the potential to yield great results.
Start off by getting your dog used to the process of you getting ready to leave home – like moving around the house, picking up keys and putting on your shoes, but don’t actually leave. Try to create a positive association with this routine – like giving your dog a treat or chew toy. Only give your dog this reward when they are calm and relaxed. Do this multiple times throughout the day and try to ignore any symptoms of anxiety from your dog. If we attempt to reassure an anxious dog, it can inadvertently re-enforce the behaviour. So best to stay calm and confident, knowing that your dog is safe and well, as you go through the motions of preparing to leave home.
When your dog no longer reacts anxiously to your routine of preparing to leave, start to actually leave them alone for short periods, initially just in a different room. Baby gates can be helpful because they allow your dog to still see and hear you from another room, but prevent your dog from following you. Initially you might only be able to spend a few seconds away from your dog, then start to slowly increase the time spent away from your dog as your dog builds tolerance to being alone.
The next step is to leave the house. At first stay just outside the door, then gradually increase the distance and time spent outside your home. It is important to remain calm yourself when you leave home, and when you return. If you are worried, it will convince your dog that there is something to be anxious about. If your dog is over-exited and exuberant on your return it is best to wait until they have settled down before greeting and interacting with them. That teaches them that you are looking for calm and relaxed behaviour from them.
If your dog starts to show signs of anxiety at any step of the desensitising process, it is necessary to go back a few steps, or even right back to the beginning. Each step needs to move on slow and steady from the one before, with no signs of anxiety from your dog.
You should notice steady improvement over 4 weeks. If you are not seeing any improvement then getting help from a qualified, professional animal behaviourist may be necessary.
Over the counter calming products:
Calming supplements containing L-tryptophan, the precursor for the body’s happy hormone Serotonin, can be helpful.
Adaptil collars or sprays for dogs can be very calming, especially in puppies. It is a synthetic version of a pheromone only ever released by a nursing mother dog. Adaptil can induce the feelings of calm and safety a dog felt when with mum as a pup.
Finally, if your pet has become ‘stuck’ in a state of anxiety or stress and is not responding to what you have tried, a holistic approach is recommended. A homeopathic consult with a qualified homeopathic vet takes into consideration everything about your pet - their physical health and appearance, personality, diet, environment and life experiences - to find a suitable remedy that is individually chosen for your pet. A well-matched remedy can support the body to heal on a very deep level, to improve physical and emotional health in a very gentle way.
You can connect with Ingrid at: Ingrid@andersonvet.co.uk