Separation Anxiety: Dog is anxious whenever the main caregiver is absent even if other people are at home.
Isolation Distress: Dog is anxious about being left alone but is fine as long as there is some human company.
If your life has been looking quite different of late, then so has your dog’s life. Whilst most dogs will cope well with a change to having more company than normal, many dogs are going to struggle getting used to less. Generally speaking, dogs cope well with what they understand but a lot less well with what they don’t understand. You will know why things suddenly change when you go back to work and kids back to school, but your dog won’t.
The truth is that isolation distress and separation anxiety in some form is very common and many dogs who already have some degree of these will have gone unnoticed, and other dogs may have only just been coping, and in both of these scenarios dogs are going to find it very tough when things change back to normal routines.
My aim here is to provide you with some simple steps to put into place right now to help you and your dog make an easier transition back to life as it was before lockdown, and hopefully prevent dogs tipping over into Isolation Distress or making an already anxious dog worse.
- If you have been walking your dog at times of the day different to those when you are at work, go back to walking your dog at the time you will walk your dog when back to work or as close to normal as possible. This goes for both morning and afternoon walks. Also try to keep them roughly the same length.
- If you have been feeding at different times revert to normal feeding times.
- Start putting some separation between you and your dog so your dog does not have constant access to you and build in some alone time, so your dog does not have your company all day. This is a big one and really important. There are several ways you can do this daily:
- Have a dog-free room in the house where you will go to at times to read or work from home, preventing your dog from following by closing a door or the softer option, if your dog is at all worried by this, is a baby gate. You could also use the kitchen so your dog cannot follow you when making a cup of tea or cooking dinner.
- Spend some time everyday upstairs reading or if you work from home you can perhaps do some of this upstairs.
- Leave your dog at home regularly i.e. once or twice per day for short periods. You could start by pretending to leave but then go and sit very quietly in the garden with a drink and a book or your laptop and extend periods out of the house gradually and at a pace that suits your dog. The advantage of this is that you can hear if your dog is vocalising.
- If the weather is bad you could go and sit with a drink in the car for a period of time. It is not the length of time that is so important as the regularity.
- Go for a family walk without the dog.
- Leave dog at home when you go out food shopping and try to get the whole family to go even if only one person is allowed in the shop.
- I would advise you use, skype, facetime, zoom etc between your mobile and tablet or laptop to see how your dog is coping and if your dog is settling when you are in the garden or in your car. Not all dogs vocalise but can still be distressed and anxious and not settle.
- If you have a dog that prefers to rest next to you or that follows you round the house, then get your dog to love spending time and settling in their own bed even if in the same room. You can do this by playing the Boundary Game and advancing through the different stages as detailed on my YouTube clips below until your dog is happily staying on their boundary / bed when you move between different rooms.
Stage 1 and 2: https://youtu.be/0zDbZKEO5u0
3. Introducing movement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekih3UUylh0
4. Adding distractions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rSE3Jv57BhA&t=12s
- Make sure to act in a calm and positive manner around your dog at all times, especially when you leave and return , no matter what, as any negative interaction or emotions from you can really undermine your dog’s confidence at a time when it needs to be boosted.
- Provide your dog with feeding toys such as Kongs, snuffle mats, lick mats, and chews when you leave your dog in a room or on the bed as these can increase the serotonin release in your dog's brain and have a calming effect.
- Finally, it is always a good idea to allow your dog some time to settle down after a walk before leaving. Many dogs are a bit pumped up after a walk just like we can be after a run and it would be a bad idea to leave your dog in that state.
Should you find out that your dog is unsettled about being left then it is vitally important that you build up the time home alone very gradually and you must return before the dogs gets distressed ( hence the need for some way of seeing your dog without your dog knowing you are there). They won’t just get over the distress by exposure but are more likely to get sensitised to being alone and get worse rather than better over time.
If you already have a dog with Separation Anxiety or Isolation Distress, be prepared to get professional help for this.