There is a popular saying that goes a little something like “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. It’s an age-old myth that actually holds no bearing because in truth, dogs are constantly learning and adapting. This is why it’s possible (and probable) for an old, well-trained dog to regress back to undesirable behaviors and bad habits, especially if he is left to his own devices, neglected, or introduced to a situation that forces him to adapt.
Since March 2020, the majority of American’s have been thrust into what is now considered by many to be our new normal. This includes wearing masks, carrying around hand sanitizer, stocking up on an abundance of toilet paper and working exclusively from home.
For many dogs, these last few months of social isolation have been just as much of an adjustment. And now, as they have finally adjusted to having their humans around 24/7, we’re about to change up the schedule again.
Your dog may not be as prepared for this abrupt change as you think. If you’ve already dipped your toes back into the real world over the last few weeks, you may have even noticed some concerning behaviors from your dog you did not expect.
What’s going on? Well, my friends, your dog is probably suffering from a bit of separation anxiety.
Understanding Canine Separation Anxiety
Canine separation anxiety, or CSA, is a very real issue plaguing many dogs throughout the world. CSA is rearing its ugly head more and more these days as dog parents leave their furry companions behind to go back to work for the first time in months.
For years, canine separation anxiety was mistaken for bad behavior in otherwise well-behaved dogs. Ripped furniture, urination, defecation and obnoxious behaviors greeted many dog owners returning home from work. Some of these pet parents immediately assumed their dogs were mad at them for leaving and that is why they were behaving negatively.
Since many of us have a tendency to humanize our dogs, it’s normal to feel this way. However, you should know this is not the case at all. As we learn more about our canine counterparts, we have discovered that dog psychology is a bit less complicated than our own. In fact, dogs don’t hold grudges, are not vindictive or vengeful, and aren’t out to “punish” us when we leave them for extended periods of time.
Instead, dogs who exhibit undesirable or negative behaviors upon being left alone are more likely suffering for canine separation anxiety.
Canine separation anxiety is exactly what it sounds like: it is stress, worry, and fear that settles into your dog once you leave. Any dog can suffer from separation anxiety whether you’ve had that dog from puppyhood and trained them vigorously or whether you’ve rescued a dog who spent the first few years of his life on the streets.
Dogs fall into the routines we humans provide them with and it only takes a few months for them to adapt to whatever these routines are. If these routines are abruptly upended, dogs are more likely to suffer from anxiety as they struggle to adapt.
The topic of separation anxiety in dogs is not a new one, but it is especially relevant today as many dog owners begin returning to work after spending so many months at home. Does your dog have separation anxiety? It’s important to know for sure, so let’s take a look at the symptoms.
The Most Common Symptoms Of Separation Anxiety In Dogs
Before you diagnose your dog with separation anxiety, take a moment to assess his behavior so you can be sure you are in fact dealing with separation anxiety. Treating canine separation anxiety and helping your dog cope with it will only work if the anxiety is directly related to actually being left alone.
Some of the most common symptoms of separation anxiety in dogs include:
Whining, Barking, Howling and Pacing
This can occur just before you get ready to go and continue on after you leave the house. Dogs are experts at reading our behaviors and picking up on patterns, and most of us have routines we follow before we leave the house.
For example, many of us wake up to an alarm, take a shower, pick out an outfit and make a coffee before we leave in the mornings. If your dog has separation anxiety, this anxiety can begin creeping in from the moment your alarm goes off.
As you go about your schedule and prepare to leave, your dog is anticipating being left alone. If he has negative feelings about what is to come once you head out the door, chances are your routine actions of getting ready to leave are triggering some anxious feelings before you even grab the car keys.
Destructive Behaviors That Only Occur After You Leave
Many dog parents are baffled when they leave their “well mannered” pup home alone and return to a house that has been destroyed. Chewed blinds, ripped furniture, shredded paper – these are all symptoms of separation anxiety, but only if they occur shortly after you leave.
Some dogs can be destructive out of boredom, and this can occur whether or not you are home. But for dogs who are anxious and don’t do well with being left home alone, this behavior will only happen within 20 minutes of your departure.
Bathroom Mishaps After You Leave
Another common sign of separation anxiety in dogs is bathroom accidents. When well-trained dogs who are properly house broken have frequent accidents during owner absences, it is often a result of fear in dogs.
In dogs who suffer from separation anxiety, these bathroom mistakes will happen within 20 minutes after your departure regardless of if your dog is well-trained, already went to the bathroom before you left, and even if your dog was only left alone for a short period of time.
Dogs who suffer from canine separation anxiety will often focus their destructive behaviors on areas of the house they are trying to escape from. These areas usually include doors, windows, fences, crates or gates they are locked behind.
Canine Separation Anxiety Is NOT:
- When your dog digs through the garbage bin or devours the Easter ham when you aren’t looking. This is just a dog being a dog tempted by yummy food smells.
- When your dog barks at other dogs, the mailman, squirrels, or neighbors from behind the fence or window. This is simply nuisance or territorial barking or vocalization.
- When a poorly trained dog has bathroom accidents inside the house before being properly house broken. This is obviously just a dog in between the stages of training.
You Are Also Less Likely To See CSA In Dogs Who:
- Are less than one year old
- Have pre-existing medical conditions or chronic pain
- In dogs who have not been house trained
- In dogs who already have pre-existing anxiety disorders
- And in senior dogs with age-related cognitive dysfunction syndrome or CDS
How Anxious Is Your Dog? Let’s Talk About The Levels Of Canine Anxiety
Like people, dogs can suffer from different levels of anxiety. Not all dogs are going to experience this anxiety in the same way and not all dogs are going to exhibit the exact same symptoms.
There are three levels of canine anxiety and these levels can be described as mild, moderate and severe.
Mild Canine Separation Anxiety
Dogs with mild separation anxiety will typically exhibit anxious behaviors before and after you leave, but these behaviors will be mild. Dogs may pace, whine, pant, or follow you around the house until you leave.
Once you leave, these anxious dogs may stress for a short period, but they will often calm down quickly and go about their business without destroying anything, causing harm to themselves or having bathroom accidents.
Moderate Canine Separation Anxiety
Moderate separation anxiety can present itself in heightened anxious behaviors that are a bit more excessive than the mild symptoms and present themselves with more intensity.
These behaviors can include more insistent vocalizations, pacing, whining, jumping and an overall clear distress at the anticipation of you leaving.
Some moderate separation anxiety can also result in destructive behaviors like chewing or shredding after you leave, and can include barking or whining that results long after you have gone.
Severe Canine Separation Anxiety
Dogs with severe canine separation anxiety will go into full blown panic attacks and these attacks typically do not resolve themselves until after the human arrives back home. These cases can result not only in destructive behaviors like ruined belongings, defecation, urination and vocalisation, but can also lead to danger for the dog.
Some dogs with severe separation anxiety can become so stressed they will do anything to get to their person. Dogs left outside may incessantly try and escape, which can lead to injury or even a missing dog.
Dogs may also chew or swallow things that can harm them. Particularly strong or persistent dogs have been known to chew or scratch holes through drywall or doors in an attempt to “escape” their situation.
Can You Cure Separation Anxiety In Your Dog?
The idea of a cure for canine separation anxiety may sound hokey, but there are steps you can take to help not only prevent anxiety from occurring in your dog, but to also help your dog work through this anxiety in a healthy and productive way.
Here are a few ways you can go about this:
Make An Effort To Prevent Separation Anxiety Before It Begins
If your dog has gotten used to you being home all the time and then suddenly you leave him without any type of preparation, you have a good chance of him exhibiting some of the above symptoms of stress and separation anxiety.
Instead of abruptly leaving your dog to go back to work and expecting him to handle it without any issues, try to practice and prepare your dog for your eventual departure by providing him with tools to keep him busy and distracted while you are away. Play music, give him puzzle toys or KONG toys, and never leave him longer than five hours at a time.
You can prepare especially anxious dogs for being home alone by crate training them early on. However, make sure you crate train your dog using the proper techniques so that the crate does not add more anxiety and stress to an already nervous pooch.
Work To Diagnose Your Dog’s Behaviors To Ensure They Truly Are A Result Of Separation Anxiety
Dogs can exhibit stressed behaviors for a number of reasons and many of the symptoms of separation anxiety can also be symptoms of other issues such as an illness or physical pain.
Keep an eye on your dog and monitor his behavior to ensure what you are experiencing with him truly is separation anxiety or if it is perhaps something else that needs further attention and treatment.
Understand Your Dog’s Anxiety And Do Not Punish Him For It
Dog’s are not “naughty” deliberately and in fact want to please us by nature. Remember that any undesirable behavior your dog is expressing is typically a symptom of something that is not quite right with him either emotionally or physically. Assess these behaviors and work to remedy them through positive reinforcement, training and consistency.
Punishments, pain, discomfort and frustration will often only make these behaviors worse and can result in emotional harm and long term trauma for a dog who is already anxious and stressed.
Transitioning From Work-From-Home To Going Back To Work
Keep in mind that even well-trained dogs can adapt to new schedules. If your dog has gotten used to you being home with him all the time, chances are he is going to struggle a bit once you leave again.
This is why it’s wise to begin preparing your dog for the inevitable day you end up going back to your normal work routine.
Set Up and Stick To A Work Routine Now
Before you go back to work, we recommend setting up a routine and sticking to it. Dogs thrive with consistency and structure, and they do best when they know what to expect. If your dog learns that you have a routine he can trust, he is much less likely to struggle when you leave because he knows you will return again.
Wake up at the same time every day and practice the same routines. Help your dog learn that just because your work life has changed, he can still count on you for consistency and structure.
Create And Practice Work-From-Home Work Hours and Separation During That Time
When creating the above routine, make sure you include alone time for both you and your dog. Practice having work hours in which you and your dog are not in the same room. This will help your dog learn how to be by himself again and not rely on having you around during the hours you are working.
Practice Leaving Your Dog For Extended Periods Of Time For You Go Back To Work
Before you go back to work and leave your dog home alone, get your dog used to you going out by leaving for extended periods of time. Doing this routinely before heading out to work will help keep him in the headspace that it’s normal and okay for you to leave because he can trust that you will return again.
Use Positive Reinforcement Puzzle Toys To Help Your Dog Learn To Adapt To Being Alone
Helping your dog cope with being left home alone is key to his success and happiness. A busy dog is a happy dog, so you can help your dog deal with separation anxiety by offering him plenty to do while you’re gone.
Use puzzle toys, treat toys, KONGS, and more to help him cope. You can also help prepare him for being alone by reserving special, high-value treats and toys for times you head out. This will not only help your dog understand that you are about to go, but communicate to him that while you’re gone he gets to do something fun and special.
Other Tips On Helping Your Dog Cope With Separation Anxiety When You Go Back To Work
Tackling canine separation anxiety takes time and patience, and it won’t resolve itself overnight. For dogs who suffer from moderate to severe separation anxiety, it’s important to work with them routinely and exercise patience, understanding and love.
We also suggest that you follow the below tips:
Practice Your Morning Work Routine Even When You’re Not Leaving
You can help decrease separation anxiety in dogs before you leave by doing things you sometimes do before you go to work or run an errand.
Grab your car keys and jingle them around as you walk through the house. Set your alarm for random times throughout the day. Grab your purse or briefcase and move it to a different room and even put on your shoes and take them off again.
Doing these things throughout the day at random times without leaving will help reduce the buildup of separation anxiety in dogs when it is time for you to actually leave.
Exercise Your Dog Before You Go To Work
Giving your dog 20 minutes to calm down with you still at home after he exercises will help him recover from the excitement of having been outside without mixing those emotions with the anxiety of you suddenly disappearing.
Give Him Special Toys Five Minutes Before You Leave
It’s all about the timing.
Five minutes before you leave, pull out those super yummy treats and toys that you reserve for your dog’s alone time. Then, when you return home, take the toys away.
The best kind of toy to give your dog before you leave is a well-stuffed KONG or puzzle toy that takes time and energy to play with. Giving your dog high value treats and toys that they love at least five minutes before you leave will help distract them while you do the things that usually stress them the most like grabbing your briefcase, purse or car keys.
Leave Calmly and Return Calmly – Don’t Make A Big Fuss Over Goodbyes and Hellos
This is a tough one for dog parents because saying a big, fussy goodbye and hello is how many of us express our love to our dogs. Making a big deal over goodbyes and hellos may also help us feel less guilty for leaving our dogs. However, the truth is that doing this actually makes us leaving and returning more difficult for them.
The big, anxious goodbye reinforces to our dogs that us leaving is a big deal and something they should be worried about. What’s more, returning home and showering them with frantic love, kisses and apologies for being gone confirms to them that us leaving was indeed a negative thing and can lead to more exuberant and undesirable behaviors each time you return.
Instead of making a big deal about leaving and returning, leave calmly with very little interaction with your dog. When you return, wait until your dog calms down before you say hello and give him pets and love.
If you do want to say goodbye to your dog and give him some love before you leave, do it at least ten minutes before you head out so it doesn’t feel like a goodbye and trigger a buildup of anxiety in him.
Invest In Anxiety Relievers Such As Sprays, Plug-Ins Or Thunder Shirts
For dogs with more moderate anxiety, try investing in thunder shirts, sprays or plug-ins that help naturally calm them. For dogs with more severe separation anxiety, you may need to contact your veterinarian for anxiety medications.
Play Calming Music or Dog TV While You’re Gone
Studies have shown that shelter dogs relax more when classical music is played. This is the same for dogs with separation anxiety. Playing calming music while you’re gone can help your dog relax.
There are also channels on Youtube you can search that play dog TV specifically for dogs to enjoy while their humans are away. Who knew?
For Severe Anxiety, Consider Alternatives To Leaving Your Dog Home Alone
Some dogs truly can’t cope with being alone. Dogs suffering from severe separation anxiety can be a danger to themselves or even cause hundreds of dollars in property damage.
If you have a dog who struggles with severe separation anxiety, you may want to consider investing in outside help. Consider contacting a dog trainer to help you work with your dog. In the meantime, you can also invest in local dog walkers, send your dog to doggy daycare, or hire a dog sitter.
Never Punish A Dog’s Anxious Behavior
Remember, this is a new normal for all of us – dogs included. Be patient with your dog and never punish your dog for behaviors that are a result of his anxiety. Punishing a dog for having potty accidents or destroying furniture or property out of stress and anxiety will only make the problem worse.
Instead, follow the above tips and work with your dog to help him better cope with you going back to work.
If you need more tips on how to deal with your dog during this transition and help him cope with separation anxiety, you can reach out to our trainer and dog communications expert, Lily Reiche at My Dog Spot.
And for more on dog behavior, psychology and health, visit us at walkmydogspot.com/blog.
Stay safe out there everyone!