As more of us return to the office, Dr Karley Seagrist from Yaletown Pet Hospital tells us how to help reduce your dog’s separation anxiety.
One of the unexpected positives that came out of the recent months of lockdown was that dog owners got to spend more time at home than ever with their pups.
Instead of leaving them behind all day while heading off to the office, owners got to be around their furbabies 24/7, and were probably more excited about walk-time every day than their pups were.
But with all this added time together, a lot of dogs have become more co-dependant and as life slowly returns to normal, with more socializing outside the house again and a return to the office for many, there is a real risk of potential separation anxiety developing.
As there has also been a huge spike in dog adoptions in Vancouver during the pandemic, many pups have only ever known the ‘new normal’ of 24/7 at home with their owners, which is leaving many dog owners worried about how their furbabies will react to being alone.
As this is a huge concern among Vancouver dog owners right now, we put your questions to Dr Karley Seagrist from Yaletown Pet Hospital who will help you take steps to prevent your dog’s separation anxiety, as well as help you recognize, and ease it if you’re pup is struggling.
Many dog owners are worried about how their dog will cope when they return to work in an office. Is potential separation anxiety a valid concern?
Dogs are creatures of habit and routine, so any changes in their day to day activity can cause them stress or anxiety. Our pets have now become accustom to having us home more often, and we are seeing a rise in separation anxiety and destructive behaviours as our schedules have started to return to their pre-pandemic states.
What causes separation anxiety and what are the signs that a dog is experiencing it? Separation anxiety is one of the most common behavioural concerns experienced by pet parents and can be triggered from an abrupt change in schedule, family dynamic or residence. Dogs with separation anxiety are often described as being their owner’s shadow, following them around from room to room. They will often begin to show anxiety as their family prepares to leave, which will progress to distress behaviours, such as excessive vocalization, inappropriate chewing or destruction, pacing or shaking, house soiling and heavy panting or salivation.
Is there anything dog owners can do now to prepare for potential separation anxiety, or reduce the risk of it developing?
We can reduce the risk of separation anxiety by developing a routine to help build predictability and stability for your dog. We should ensure that their schedule includes plenty of physical exercise, mental stimulation and enrichment, social interactions and alone time.It is important that we create a safe and positive space for our dogs to relax and have downtime in, which may be in a room of the house or a crate. One of my favourite tricks is to fill a Kong or food puzzle with some high value treats and seal it with peanut butter or apple sauce before popping it in the freezer overnight. We can reward them with the food puzzle when they are having some alone time, which will provide some mental stimulation, help relieve boredom and positively reinforce their independence.
There’s been a spike in dog adoptions in Vancouver in recent months, meaning a lot of dogs have only ever known 24/7 company from their owners. What advice do you have for those owners to help it be a smoother transition when normality returns?
It is important to rule out other medical concerns with your veterinarian before we try managing separation anxiety. Try to mimic your pre-pandemic routine and schedule as much as possible and practice leaving them alone in a safe room or crate. We can also desensitize them to our pre-departure routine by putting on our shoes or grabbing our keys, without actually leaving. We can then progress to graduated absence exercises, where we slowly increase the time away from our pets, while we monitor them for signs of distress (panting, drooling, trembling, pacing or vocalization). You can also consider other options for pet care while you’re at work, such as doggy daycare, a dog walker or arranging for a friend or dog sitter to spend time with them.
How do you treat minor separation anxiety and how can you recognize if it is a more severe problem?
It is important that your dog is tired before you leave them – 30 minutes of off leash playing or swimming before you leave them will increase the likelihood they will relax while you’re away. Providing lots of mental stimulation, through food and treat puzzles and toys, will also help decrease stress and provide a safe outlet for normal dog behaviours (like chewing!). Using a camera or home monitoring device when you’re away is a great tool to investigate how comfortable your dog is while you are away and alert you if further support is required. It is always important to consult with your veterinarian in these situations, as severe cases may benefit from medication to assist with behaviour modification and help dogs become accustomed to being gradually left alone.
Is there anything you recommend that dog owners avoid doing that could make the situation worse?
It is important that we focus on keeping the interactions with our pets positive and reward the behaviours we want, rather than punish the ones we don’t, as this may actually exacerbate an issue. We are all excited to greet our pets when we come home from a long day at work but try your best to minimize the ‘celebration’ when you get home and wait until your dog is calm and relaxed before greeting them. Don’t wait to chat with your veterinarian if you have concerns, it is often most rewarding to consult with us at the first sign of anxiety. You are not in this alone and we are here to help you and your furry family!