Despite two years of pandemic-related bad news for humans, this time has had quite the opposite effect for dogs. Our four-legged friends have cherished every single moment at home with their people who are working remotely or unemployed, and might have otherwise been out at a job for most of their waking hours.
COVID-19 and lockdowns have also benefited throngs of pets in need of homes. According to the ASPCA, more than 23 million households in the US adopted a pet during the pandemic — that’s one out of five. Some were pet owners who adopted an additional dog or cat, while others were adopting for the first time.
Dogs and cats provided companionship during the lonely months and years of social distancing and limited physical contact with others. For those with a full home, such as parents with kids, pets offered a welcome distraction from the pandemic and helped owners stick to a routine.
But now that the pandemic has died down, and things are mostly back to normal, a lot of dogs are experiencing some form of separation anxiety as their owners return to work. For the dogs who were adopted during the pandemic, being left alone may be a new, unpleasant experience.
“The sudden departure of people returning to work has upset the daily schedules and habits established during the lockdown,” explains Dr. Karen Johnston of Hampton Veterinary Hospital in Speonk, noting that she has treated an increasing number of dogs for anxiety due to this change. And, she points out, her overall number of patients has also grown in the COVID era. “As the pandemic isolated many people and prevented them from leaving the house or socializing, pet ownership increased drastically,” Dr. Johnston says, including both dogs and cats. “Many shelters had no trouble adopting out not only their puppies, but older or more difficult to home dogs, as well.”
Even without the pandemic compounding the problem, dog owners often unknowingly encourage separation anxiety by making a big deal and saying a long goodbye to their dog when leaving home, and again by wildly celebrating their reunion upon return. This will reward a dog’s anxiety and enforce unwanted behavior.
There is a difference between a dog that is truly experiencing separation anxiety and a dog that follows an owner around at home and gets upset when his owner leaves but then quickly calms down once he’s alone. Dogs with true separation anxiety experience emotions of panic and distress, and display excessive behavior that can result in self-harm.
Thresholds and symptoms depend on the individual. A dog might present excessive yawning, drooling, panting, pacing and whining behaviors. Housebroken dogs may go to the bathroom in the home due to the fear and stress they’re feeling, or they could engage in heavy vocalization, such as barking or howling. An acutely affected dog may even take part in destructive behavior, ruining objects and even furniture around the house, or attempting to free themselves to find their owner by digging or chewing around windows and doors, which can result in self injury and costly property damage.
The good news is, separation anxiety is treatable. Steps can be taken by dog owners to not only help deal with the anxiety the animals feel, but to eventually overcome it all together. The process, however, takes patience, consistency and time.
It’s best to recognize and address anxiety as soon as possible. Dogs who experience anxiety when left alone will generally get worse without intervention. They should not be left alone. Luckily, there are options. If friends and family are not available to watch them, dog sitters can provide care and companionship, as well as stimulation and exercise. For dogs who like to socialize with other canines, some boarding facilities provide doggie daycare. Or, on a smaller scale, many dog sitters offer daycare in their homes. Another option is hiring a dog walker or sitter who comes to your home. Sites like rover.com can connect owners with sitters along with loads of helpful information from experts.
It’s important for a dog’s wellbeing to get plenty of physical and mental exercise, with some breeds requiring much more than others. Interactive toys can help, along with chews (if they’re supervised). A good walk can go a long way toward keeping your best friend calm and at ease. But a dog with true separation anxiety will demand a more focused effort.
Separation anxiety training starts with finding a pet’s threshold (the time it takes for anxious behavior to commence after they are left alone). This can be done by observing them with a nanny cam or cellphone app. The key is to incrementally get the dog used to your absence without ever allowing them to reach a point (threshold) of exhibiting true anxiety, while also desensitizing them and changing their perception. For example, dogs often begin freaking out when they see their owner pick up car keys or putting on shoes. Try performing these actions throughout the day without ever actually leaving the house. Soon, the dog will stop making the association. Giving food-motivated dogs their favorite treat only while leaving the house, and at no other time, can also change how they experience the separation.
Vets can, of course, prescribe anti-anxiety medication to calm a dog’s senses, but this is a temporary solution and not a cure. Supplements such as CBD and herbal products — White Crane’s “Relaxol” and other eastern medicine blends are available locally from Dr. Johnston at Hampton Veterinary Hospital — or even acupuncture (consult your vet), may also help as part of an overall plan, but behavior modification is paramount.
Unfortunately, far too many dogs are given away for displaying symptoms of separation anxiety. We made a commitment to our pets upon adoption, and they helped many owners endure two bleak years during the pandemic, so we owe it to them to do the necessary work.
Colleen Peterson is the owner and operator of Petite Dog Care in Center Moriches, a home-based dog care business for small breeds—email [email protected], for more information.