Many of our pet dogs enjoy round-the-clock companionship these days due to the pandemic. We work from home, our social lives are on hold, and while this has been stressful for many of us there is no doubt our dogs love it. But our lives will not be on hold forever, and some of our pet dogs might have difficulty coping when they suddenly find themselves home alone post-pandemic.
Dogs naturally are social creatures who prefer companionship to isolation. Most adapt well to our absences, especially if gradually introduced to alone time as young puppies. Their tolerance for being left alone tends to be maintained throughout their lives because our lifestyles naturally lead us out the door for work, to run errands and attend social activities. They just get used to it. At least most of them do.
Unfortunately, a significant number of dogs struggle with owner absences and experience extreme distress when left alone. This is known as separation anxiety, or isolation distress. The owner leaves the house and the dog panics. Some try to escape, damaging doors and windows in the process. Others destroy household items or urinate and defecate. Some drool, pant, refuse to eat, and vocalize loudly. These poor dogs suffer immensely, and as a result, owners suffer, too.
Although it is impossible to say with certainty what causes separation anxiety in any dog, it is safe to assume that a dog who is not used to owner absences might have trouble coping when they suddenly find themselves alone. Many experts are concerned about how the pandemic might impact our dogs’ abilities to cope when left alone once life returns to normal. Fortunately, there are preventative measure you can take now to help your dog adjust to your normal routine. And if your dog already shows signs of separation anxiety, there is effective treatment available.
If your dog has been enjoying constant companionship for the past several months, you might want to set up a remote camera, leave the house, and have a look at how your dog handles being left alone. Does she seem somewhat uncomfortable? Is she restless and alert, staring out the window or sitting attentively by the door? Is she not looking relaxed, but does not seem to be in a full-blown panic? You might be able to address this on your own.
Take note of when the restless behavior begins. Is it right after you leave the house, or does it set in a bit later? How much later? This information will help you establish your dog’s comfort threshold, which will help you build an effective plan to gradually acclimate your dog to absences.
Once you have established your dog’s comfort threshold you should start by leaving her alone for durations below her threshold. If your dog gets restless after 15 minutes of alone time, start by leaving her for just 10 or 12 minutes. Gradually increase the amount of time she is left alone but never leave her alone long enough for her to get antsy or upset. This process, known as systematic desensitization, is proven to be effective in treating phobias and fears in both dogs and humans, and should help your dog feel better about alone time.
If your dog seems completely comfortable while home alone, it is a good idea to develop a maintenance plan to ensure that your dog will continue to be able to cope when you return to work and resume a normal social life.
Running errands and engaging in safe activities away from home on occasion can help keep your dog’s coping mechanisms tuned up. Try to establish a routine that you practice occasionally that is like your normal routine. As the pandemic winds down, you might want to gradually get back into your normal routine ahead of time by leaving the house at the same time as you normally would, and gradually increase the time you are away. Occasionally monitor you dog via remote camera during absences to ensure that she is still able to handle being alone.
If you discover your dog is showing any of the signs of separation anxiety listed earlier in this article, you should consult with your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist. Separation anxiety is a clinical diagnosis that only a veterinarian is qualified to make.
Your veterinarian might prescribe medication to help your dog cope. Most dogs adjust very well to modern anti-anxiety medications, many of which are designed to not sedate or dope up your dog. Your veterinarian is the expert in this area and can provide you with all the information you need on the medical side.
For training, you should consult a dog trainer who uses systematic desensitization, such as a certified separation anxiety trainer (CSAT). Avoid any trainer who recommends punitive methods, such as yelling, hitting, squirting water, using pinch collar or shock collar corrections, and the like. Your separation anxiety dog is not misbehaving. He is panicking and in fear for his life when left alone. Punitive methods will only make things worse.
Phyllis Zboril, CTC, CSAT is certified in training and counseling (CTC) by the renowned Academy for Dog Trainers, where she graduated with honors. In addition, Phyllis is a Certified Separation Anxiety trainer CSAT), working remotely with clients world-wide. She has been a dog trainer in Geneva, Illinois, where she provides expert dog training instruction in the home of clients and holds dog training classes.