Written by Natalie, Pack Member & Krista, Owner
As the Covid-19 pandemic starts to release its grip on our lives in the US, life is starting to resemble normalcy once again. Restaurants and bars are open. Families are making plans to travel. And people are starting to return to the office after months of working from home.
Sadly, this “beginning of the end” of the pandemic has also brought a sharp spike in the number of dogs being returned to rescue groups and shelters, often accompanied by unhelpful reasons such as “not enough time” or “not a good fit”. And of course job loss is a major factor in this uptick too. However, two of the main issues people are experiencing as they return to the workplace include struggling to implement a proper post-COVID routine and the dreaded separation anxiety.
True separation anxiety has a genetic component and is usually triggered by a singular event. When left alone, your dog feels absolutely panicked and depressed.
Dogs thrive on routine and many do not adapt well to sudden change in schedule. In the case of the pandemic pups, going from constant 24/7 indulgence and attention from an owner that was home all day to being forced to immediately cope by themselves for 8+ hours can be a traumatic, shocking change to their routine. Here are some tips you can start doing now to prevent or curb separation anxiety and create a harmonious post-COVID life for you and your dog:
1. Establishing a routine – This is our top recommendation for a reason. Establishing a routine and sticking to it gives you and your dog a sense of stability. Start practicing now before you begin commuting back and forth to work each day.
Are you taking your dog to daycare? Try to stick with the same days week to week. Having someone come walk your dog around lunchtime? Make an attempt to have them come in at the same time. Make sure meal times, walk times, and play time all take place around the same time of day. This way your dog knows what to expect and is less likely to become anxious over when someone is going to spend some time with them.
We know this part is super hard for varying schedules especially that of students or shift workers but do your best. If you are struggling to establish a routine or want help getting started, contact a local trainer. The vast majority are trained to guide you in creating a sustainable long-term routine that fits your individual life.
2. Go slow and desensitize your dog – According to Amanda Hanson, owner of To the Rescue Dog Training, “The key to helping your dog cope with stress & change is inoculating them to small manageable amounts of it with a positive or neutral outcome.” Dogs are excellent at picking up cues and actions you take when you’re about to leave the house.
Help your dog cope with their stress incrementally by teaching them that just because you might make an action to leave, doesn’t mean you are actually leaving. Simply picking up your keys may start triggering separation anxiety as soon as your pup even starts thinking they might be left alone so you can work on the trigger and response. Desensitizing your dog to these actions, and gradually working up to leaving for short periods of time can teach your dog to cope with their anxiety as they learn that you leaving or getting ready to leave results in a neutral outcome.
While practicing this with your dog, it’s best to stay calm when departing or returning home. Patiently waiting for your dog to settle down before giving them attention will prevent them from becoming over excited or overly upset when you do have to leave or when you come home.
3. Exercise – A tired pup is a happy pup… and typically a less destructive and bored pup. They may have gotten used to tons of walks, dog parks, and/or play time during the pandemic. As you transition to a new routine, build in plenty of physical and mental stimulation with training and exercise while you’re home.
For exercise, you may consider hiring a local dog walker, registering with a doggy day care, or incorporating a play & train style program provided by a local trainer. For mental stimulation consider games like hide & seek where you hide treats all over your house and have them “hunt” for their rewards. Jessica from J-Tails Barkyard recommends, “Sprinkle in some puzzles, or busy toys and you have yourself a recipe for success. Our favorite concoction is a Frankensteined item we call the Kantler. It’s a frozen peanut butter Kong with an antler stuck in the small end.”
There are dozens of options in terms of mental stimulation and exercise! Ask a Pack Member or local trainer for help choosing what’s best for your dog and budget.
4. Crate Training – A crate can be your dog’s best friend when it comes to leaving them alone for long periods of time. Too much space and too much boredom can lend itself to destructive behaviors. Also, implementing a positive crate routine can provide your dog a ton of peace and give them a safe space to be while you’re away.
The best method for crate training is to teach your dog that the crate is a wonderful thing…feed your dog in their crate, provide a ton of treats (at first), and make their space as relaxing as possible. Start with very short periods of being in the crate and increase the length of time your dog spends there gradually. Krista, owner of St. Petersbark, will leave her hounds with a Benebone or another toy that has no threat of causing choking while she and her husband are away from the house.
We sound like a broken record but seek help with crate training your dog. Most local trainers will work with you on a crate training protocol if you need some help or are struggling to implement.
5. Calming Supplements & CBD – This is our last recommendation, but not meant as a last resort. These are great tools to use to ease your dog into spending more time on their own. However, these should not be used as a crutch and instead are intended to be an aide with the tips above. We have many options on the shelf, including VetriScience Long Lasting Composure. Vetriscience saw the need for a more advanced calming remedy and recently updated their Composure treats to last up to 8 hours!
Getting your dog to a serene state of mind can be achievable through mental stimulation and exercise but for some dogs, there aren’t enough laps in the world to run that will tire them out and that’s where a calming supplement or CBD can help. We’re looking at you, huskies.
“Structure and consistency are critical when preparing your dog for expected major life changes and helping them through unexpected ones.” explains Amanda Hanson. “Not indulging your dog or yourself with constant access to each other is a challenge at first but necessary for success.” As we’ve said a lot in this blog, a professional dog trainer can help guide you through the difficulties of working through separation anxiety and creating a reasonable, long-lasting routine.
Here at St. PetersBARK, we recognize that our city and our country have been through an exceedingly difficult time this past year, and acknowledge that sometimes, no matter how much you try, things just don’t work out the way you intended. So, from the bottom of our hearts, we implore you to please talk to us or work with a local trainer before rehoming your pet or taking them to a shelter. There are many resources available (including financial assistance) to help you and your dog or cat regardless of your circumstances. We’re also happy to find food or other pet needs in store to fit any budget. To quote Jess from J-Tails Barkyard, “Remember in the end, you know your dog best. Listen to them, love them and it will all work out.”