Going Back to Work? Here’s How to Prepare Your Pet and Cope with Separation Anxiety
Are you working from home and have noticed that your dog is becoming even more attached to you? Once social distancing due to COVID-19 is over, many of our dogs may display signs of separation anxiety as we return to working outside of our homes. The best way to prevent disruptive, potentially destructive behavior is to begin desensitizing your dog to the transition as early as possible. In many cases, this means making small changes to your daily schedule now so that your dog isn’t surprised when you start spending 8-12 hours a day outside of the home again. Here is what our Bettervet doctors say about separation anxiety.
What is Separation Anxiety?
In dogs, separation anxiety is the display of stereotypic behaviors in response to separation from one or more people. These behaviors might include vocalizations, urination, defecation, chewing inappropriate materials, or even self-trauma. While many dogs are prone to this condition, it can also develop secondarily to a lack of exposure to separation from a dog’s favorite person. For this reason, it is important to teach your dog to be comfortable spending time away from you as early as possible.
Why is COVID-19 worsening separation anxiety for so many dogs?
This is an easy one: our dogs are so happy that we’ve been home most of the time during the COVID-19 pandemic! Now that your dog has adjusted to following you around the house all day looking for treats and scratches, he or she might have a hard time adjusting when you go back to a normal work schedule. If you think your dog might fit this description, we recommend starting to follow the steps below as soon as possible so that your dog is prepared when your schedule changes.
What Steps Should I Take Before I Return to Work?
Start Small and Start Early
If your dog starts showing signs of separation anxiety as soon as you leave your home, we recommend starting with short intervals of separation at a time. You can gauge how long those intervals need to be by how quickly your dog begins vocalizing or displaying some of the other behaviors listed above. As a distraction and reward for remaining calm when you leave, you can provide your dog with a puzzle, such as a snuffle mat, Kong, or other toys. If he/she can only remain calm for 10 minutes, start there and work up slowly. We want this to be a positive experience so that your dog knows he/she will be ok when you leave. It’s never too early to start with this kind of desensitization.
Create a Safe Environment
If your dog is comfortable in a crate, this can be a great way to keep him or her safe while you are out of the house. Alternatively, some dogs show worsening signs of anxiety when they are confined to a crate with which they are not comfortable (see our blog on Crate Training!). To ensure that your dog will not cause harm to him or herself, we recommend identifying a safe area of your home where your dog will have access to food, water, and quiet. Often, loud sounds and distractions will worsen signs of separation anxiety. Your dog needs to be somewhere where he or she is comfortable.
A tired dog is a happy dog! Whenever possible, try taking your dog on a long walk, playing fetch, or engaging in whichever form of exercise he or she prefers before you leave. Less pent-up energy will often mean fewer signs of separation anxiety.
Stick to Positive Reinforcement
Never punish your dog for showing signs of separation anxiety. Instead, stick to positive reinforcement of desirable behaviors. The puzzles mentioned above are a great way to start.
Talk to Your Veterinarian
If your dog is exhibiting sudden, new behaviors, it is always a good idea to talk to your veterinarian. He/she can perform an examination and discuss any additional, recommended diagnostics to ensure that these new behaviors are not secondary to a medical condition.
With training, gradual steps, positive reinforcement, and a little bit of determination, even dogs with severe signs of separation anxiety can show improvement. Some cases might require more advanced therapeutic interventions. Our veterinarians are happy to discuss behavioral modifications and medications to control anxiety. We’re here when you need us!