While almost the entire state of California has been on lockdown for the last 60 days, many people have rushed to adopt new dogs and puppies to help them stay calm and sane through this uncharted time. When our social restrictions lift, and we all resume our normal lives, it is likely that many pets will have a hard time adjusting to the new normal. It would be wise for new dog owners as well as those who already had them to prepare for separation issues after quarantine.
Many dog owners have already reported behavior issues related to quarantine restrictions. With the entire family home comes less structure, more activity, less independence and alone time, as well as more inter family conflict as we have adjusted to the new normal ourselves. The point is that change is stressful. Dr. Karen Sueda, an L.A. based veterinary behaviorist states,
“Dogs thrive on consistency and predictability, as we all do, so anytime there is an abrupt change, it can cause stress.”https://www.insider.com/prevent-separation-anxiety-in-dogs
Even positive change is challenging. So when we all go back to our normal routines soon, what will our dogs think and feel? Likely for many pets, the change will affect their behavior if we don’t get ahead of it before we have to. If you aren’t familiar with separation anxiety or separation related issues, it can be downright painful to witness.
Common separation related behavior issues are:
- Defecating and urinating
- Howling and barking
- Panting and whining
- Increased destructive behavior (chewing)
- Trying to escape (including self injurious behaviors)
These are very serious and difficult behaviors to address after the fact. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 20 – 40% of dogs referred to animal behavior practices in North America are diagnosed with separation behavior issues. These numbers are prior to the quarantine. Imagine the likelihood of these issues coming this summer.
I can testify to you that my some of the most challenging clients I work with are those with behaviors like these. The treatment protocols are tedious and they require extreme commitment and change on the owners’ part to achieve lasting results. As a canine behavior consultant myself, I would opt for a kitchen sink approach now while preparing for separation issues after quarantine.
To start your dog on this path start the following:
- Structure routines
- Create a safe haven
- Increase enrichment
- Independence training/alone time training
- Reduce frustration and boredom
- Reward calm behaviors
- Consider medications and supplements (if necessary)
Consider adding more structure through scheduled mealtimes, walks, playtime, quietime and alone time. If you have gone all willy nilly since being home with your pets, consider adjusting back to schedules up and down times similar to what you would expect when your schedule goes back to normal. Give your dog their alone time now and focus on interacting with them when they are calm instead of just because you’re next to them. Give them a quiet place to relax that is their own and don’t disturb them in this area. This used to be the couch when your family was all gone at school and work.
Additionally, consider reverting back to less frequent dog walks slowly so your pooch doesn’t freak out when it happens one day. Your dog may be conditioned to go out and meet all the neighborhood dogs and won’t get to as your schedule tightens in the future. This alone could be difficult for many dogs.
Plan for Alone Time
For many pet owners, there is simple no where to go since much is closed right now. However if your dog is sensitive to departures you don’t need to be gone very long. You can easily try to take a walk without your dogs sometime or go pick up coffee as a family. Start very short and gradually increase the time away. When you leave feel free to give your dog a stuffed kong and see if they enjoy it while you’re gone.
If you aren’t sure about your dogs behavior while you’re away, I highly recommend you purchase a cheap camera to see.
Add more inside enrichment items to work on. I have mentioned this over and over in previous articles but I’ll say it again. Enrichment protects against boredom which can lead to separation related issues. Chewing on, sniffing, and interacting with various toys designed to stimulate your dogs’ natural instincts will help keep them from over stressing and is recommended all the time.
Check out this video on various enrichment toys and games you can give your dog when they are alone.
If your pet seems overly attached already and you can go from room to room without them following you may need to start small and even consider supplements and medications for help. When I say small I mean just getting a few feet apart for some or maybe going into the bathroom, kitchen or office without your dog. Quoting Melana DeMartini-Price, a specialist in treating separation anxiety,
“It’s a gradual process of using small absences that start to teach the dog that absences are safe.”
If we push our dogs too fast they will fail. If in the process our dogs are exhibiting stress signals and get overwhelmed by our adjustments, we are moving too fast. It is advised to progress at your dogs’ pace. This is why it is so important to address these issues now while we still have more flexibility on our ends.
Desensitizing to Departure Cues
Make note of all the things you and your family members do prior to leaving the home. These could be:
- Putting on socks and shoes
- Picking up keys or a purse
- Putting on a jacket
- Walking towards the door
- Saying goodbye or petting your dog
- Putting on a facemask
Your goal is to practice these behaviors slowly, only combining a few at a time without leaving. They should be practiced at different times of the day by everyone in the home. Opening the front door is one of the last cues that tells your pet you are officially leaving. That can be challenging to desensitize so I have included a few sample charts of how it looks to proceed.
If still you find yourself struggling to progress and get out of the home without your dog feeling overwhelmed, consider talking with your veterinarian and a certified behavior consultant like myself. There are many medications and supplements that can be helpful when treating separation related issues. They are often only temporary along with training.
Some natural option that have proven useful are:
- Start adding a familiar calming scents such as lavender from a diffuser while you are home and resting. The smell should then help when you leave it on for your pooch while away as they have already associated it with you being home and close by.
- Add daily relaxing music or podcast for your dogs to listen to while your home spending time with them. Start to leave that on when your away after about 7-10 days. (Dogs seems to prefer either light classical at 60-70bpm or human banter and talking)
- Stop saying goodbye to them and just walk out the door more often. Try to avoid adding any additional cues/predictors that you are leaving.
Hopefully this article will assist new and established dog owners in preparing for separation issues after quarantine. Remember though, separation related issues are nothing to punish. It can seem like they should no better but it isn’t that simple. If you feel like your dog could use some help adjusting or have a new dog and aren’t sure, feel free to call or email me. Often these types of issues don’t require me to come into your home more than once and can be handled easier via virtual training online. (Zoom/Skype)
Be Well and Wag Tail!
Allpawsessentials.com and OCcanninecoaching.com