25th Aug, 2020

Written by Claire Atkinson M.A. (Cantab.), Qualified Canine Behaviourist and Certified TTouch® Practitioner

Perhaps the only sentient beings that appreciated the disruption caused by the lockdown are our dogs. Life is one long, long weekend, the humans are here to fuss and feed and, though the routine might have changed, mostly it’s been in their favour.

So, when all good things (in dog terms) come to an end, it’s natural for them to be somewhat confused and upset.

Separation anxiety

Since dogs live in the moment, the sudden disappearance of humans for long periods of time provides a difficult environment for them to manage. Some are quite happy to go back to the old routine, but some find it overly stressful.

Some become over-anxious and exhibit excessive vocalisation (barking, howling, etc.), possibly becoming destructive. This condition is known as “separation anxiety”.

In some cases, the symptoms may be that of boredom – the absence of their caregiver(s) who were always around for a pat and sometimes a treat.

Preferably, dogs should not be left alone for long periods of time, whether or not they exhibit these behaviours. Six to eight hours would be the maximum, but, of course, we can’t always arrange our lives according to their needs.

Separation preparation

We can prepare our dogs ahead of time to help them to adjust to this new environment (i.e. being left alone). Don’t leave it until the last minute. One method is to ensure that our coming and going is no big deal. Most of us tend to say “goodbye” in some way and respond equally enthusiastically to the return.

To defuse this, we identify the articles (such as the lead) that cause our dogs to become excited. Picking up keys, putting on walking shoes, picking up shopping bags, etc. could all be “cues” for your dog that you’re about to go out. Get into the habit of picking these items up at random during the course of the day and putting them down somewhere else. In time, this defuses these triggers to excitement.

Coming and going should be no big deal – just leave quietly and come back quietly, and sit down before giving them a welcome.

Another important tool is to take them out for a good walk before leaving for the day. Yes, it means getting up a little bit early, but it’s worth the trouble.

Space to settle

Something that’s of benefit is the concept of a “safe” or “quiet” space – this can be either a room, a crate, or a special bed away from the normal sleeping area. Equip this space with a water bowl, a comfortable bed and some favourite toys. Useful is a Kong feeder that can be stuffed with portions of their food or special favourite treats (peanut butter and plain yoghurt usually go down well). These can also be frozen, which keeps them occupied for even longer.

When doing this, it’s important to teach the dog to “settle”. This is done by throwing treats onto the bed and rewarding, at first, two feet, then four, sit and down. Don’t use a cue until the dog does this naturally, and be sure that the cue will work. Use the cue once only, and if the dog doesn’t respond, walk away and try again later.

Getting the dog used to accepting this as a “safe” place should be trained in small increments and very short time intervals that may be extended slowly as the dog grows accustomed to it. This becomes useful if your dog gets over-enthusiastic when guests arrive or takes to getting underfoot when in the kitchen.

Alternative options

Natural remedies may also help, such as Bach Rescue Remedy, Tissue Salts 6 (Khali Phos), and CBD oil. Since the latter comes in different strengths, it’s best acquired from a reputable outlet that produces special CBD for pets. In extreme circumstances, your vet may recommend stronger medication.

Also helpful is the Thunder Shirt – a swaddling type of jacket that eases anxiety (especially for noise phobia). It’s best never to leave collars, leads, harnesses and wrappings on the dog unless under supervision. If noise exacerbates the situation, play special “dog” music or any quiet music that seems to relax them.

Other alternatives are to book the dog into doggy day care (choose carefully), or take the dog to parents during the day. Or have a reliable dog sitter (again, choose carefully) come in for a few hours or a student who’s studying. Perhaps you have a friendly neighbour who’d share dog play dates, each taking the other dog/s for a day, then swop.

In all these suggestions, work calmly, use treats to reward “good” behaviour, and use baby steps and limited time while the dog is learning. And, after learning, a good game with a toy helps the dog process the information.

If you’re still social isolating, start preparing them now for when you do go back to work – it will make for a much smoother, easier transition for your dogs and for you.