Dog separation problems after a pandemic

Helping our pets as life returns to normal

Loneliness is a common problem amongst dogs that belong to working owners.  Dogs are highly social animals and much of their individual confidence is derived from belonging to a stable social group.  During the “lockdown”, this social group (the human family) will have been at home all the time.  In the case of young puppies acquired during the pandemic, this means that they will not have been able to “habituate” or adapt to solitude.  These puppies will have had their owners present at all times which could have resulted in “over attachment” to usually just one (or sometimes more than one) members of the family. The absence of this person(s) might cause the dog increasing levels of anxiety and distress even if the separation is brief.

Due to the extreme conditions in which we have been living for the last few months, it is possible that even well adjusted dogs might have difficulties when life returns to normal.  We have heard anecdotes about dogs finding the constant presence of the family very stressful with increased levels of noise and activity.  We also can’t under estimate the effects on our dogs of human stress and anxiety.  Concerns about our health and employment can alter our behaviour to the extent that dogs can be affected too and become anxious and fretful.

Signs of separation anxiety

  • Dogs with separation anxiety will follow their owner continuously especially around the time they are about to leave.  
  • They have a tendency to maintain close physical contact with their owner even in non-stressful situations and require continuous reassurance.
  • The dog will show signs of distress whenever the owner is absent and will greet them over enthusiastically when they return.
  • They might salivate excessively or urinate and defaecate on the floor even if usually well trained.
  • They might destroy possessions of the owners or scrape at doors and carpets (often in an attempt to escape and follow the owner)
  • They might howl and bark often incessantly.

The situation can be made much worse if the owner shows signs of anger or distress on their return. This is usually because there will be signs of damage or house soiling.  If this happens a few times, the dog will become anxious when the owner returns and its submissive behaviour will be misinterpreted as signs of remorse or guilt.  In fact, a dog has no ability to make an association between a “misdemeanour” which took place hours previously and the owner’s displeasure on their return.

Preventing separation anxiety

Provide the puppy with a crate or pen so that he feels secure and safe when you can’t attend to him.  It is important that the puppy learns to entertain himself when you are busy so that when life returns to normal he will not have become very dependent on human contact.  It is also important to give the puppy some time to relax on his own and to “wind down” which are very important skills to learn.  

Good breeders start to get puppies used to being alone from about the age of six weeks.  Initially, this will involve restricting the puppies’ access to their mother so that they have to learn to cope without her.  Before the puppy leaves the breeder, it is helpful if each puppy has spent short periods of time on their own in a crate or pen to prepare for life in their new home.  This essential training should be carried on from the first day the puppy arrives home.  Crates or pens are very useful for this purpose as the puppy has a well-defined area where it is safe and secure.

With most dogs, it is the case that they manage to find a “coping mechanism” when left alone.  The more predictable the human’s behaviour is, the easier this will be.

Coping alone is a skill, which a dog has to learn.   The dogs, which acquire this skill most readily, will probably have come from a skilled and enlightened breeder (see above) and once with their new owner they will live in a safe, secure and predictable environment.  This means that their lives will be based on a routine where they are left alone for regular periods every day rather than for, say, 6 hours twice a week.  They should have a well-defined bed or rest area, which is in a quiet area of the house and there should be rules in place to prevent the dog being disturbed while it is sleeping.

The dog should have regular exercise both physical and mental and they should be trained to “switch off” on command.  Dogs, which become highly aroused by play, should be given plenty of time to unwind before being left.

Dogs, which become destructive when left alone, are often bored.  This can be alleviated by providing suitable activities for them.  One idea is to leave a few pieces of cardboard or newspaper on the floor for the dog to rip up which may satisfy its initial frustration at being left.

How to treat separation problems once they arise

Separation anxiety is a complex behaviour problem and treatment is best achieved by carrying out a behaviour consultation with a vet who is interested in behaviour or a qualified behaviourist. 

The following list gives a summary of the recommendations usually given to separation cases but it must be stressed that every case has a unique set of circumstances and any advice given is tailored for the individual patient.

  1. Try to prevent the dog from following you from room to room. Leave him behind sometimes when you are, for example, busy elsewhere in the house.  Return occasionally to check on him but make your departures and returns as low-key as possible. If you are sitting down during the evening, do not allow him to initiate any contact between you. Ignore him until he loses interest and then when you are ready call him to you, give a command and reward him.
  2. Think carefully about any signals you give him before you leave him alone. Examples of this may be switching your TV and lights off and of course words spoken to him. Aim to give no signals of your imminent departure but better still make these actions commonplace.  You would do this by identifying the triggers, which cause the dog to become anxious, and then making them happen several times throughout the evening.  If turning a light off has this effect, switch it off and then continue sitting in the room until the dog has has settled again.  In this example, you could switch it back on and carry on as before repeating this process every half hour or so.  Other triggers could be picking up and rattling car keys, picking up a bag or briefcase and putting on a coat or jacket.  Again, these actions could be repeated regularly.  This would have the effect of reducing the potency of the trigger.
  3. Give him a recently worn sweatshirt of yours as you leave which he may find comforting.  If you do this, it would be a good idea to wash and wear it regularly so that it always has your scent on it.  Another similar idea is to place piece of bedding or a towel in your laundry basket so that the scent from items in the basket is transferred to the dog’s item.
  4. Give a protein meal some hours before you leave and then shortly before follow this up with a carbohydrate meal e.g. potato/rice/pasta.  This step is sometimes useful as food can result in a state of drowsiness.  
  5. To follow on from item 1. above ignore the dog for half an hour or so before you leave him. When you finally depart, say nothing to him. If you wish, you can give him a special toy like the “Buster Cube” or a “Kong” smeared with peanut butter as you leave but avoid any words or physical contact. On your return, it is advisable to give him no greeting until he has calmed down. This would also be advisable when you greet him in the morning.