Separation Anxiety: Part 1
Updated: Apr 7, 2020
Working from home never felt so good … for our dogs! Whether you’re a single dog parent or a big family, most City dogs have gone from spending the weekday alone to having us ever-present with them. House rules have been altered, their walk schedule is less consistent, and they’re getting more attention throughout the day. In the short term, this seems reasonable; we look around and think our dogs are thriving. However, the long-term effects on our dogs caused by NY PAUSE / Shelter-in-Place may prove to be quite a challenge. This blog will be a two-part series since there is a lot to discuss here. This week, I will touch on separation anxiety through sharing honest stories from our clients and offer guidance on how we can make small changes for our dogs. Next week we will address how separation anxiety will be an issue for us, their humans, when we return to work after months with our dogs at our side. It will not be easy for either party.
According to the VCA, separation anxiety “describes dogs that usually are overly attached or dependent on family members. They become extremely anxious and show distress behaviors such as vocalization, destruction, or house soiling when separated from the owners.” While the stats vary, roughly a quarter of dogs suffer from separation anxiety. How does this develop? There are no conclusive results though there are clear reasons for many dogs. A rescue dog may have a more difficult time with this since the dog already experienced the loss of their pack leader (previous family member) when they were surrendered to the shelter or discarded on the streets. We see this develop early in puppies, as well. They are taken away from their k9 family at a young age, planted into a new home with a human family, and develop behaviors that get our attention: crying while in the crate will get you to let them out, barking at the dinner table will get them on your lap, scratching at the door or destroying something when you leave will get them a chance to go with you next time. We may not recognize how often we cater to these behaviors but when we do, it becomes their new normal. It’s a learned behavior that gets them what they want — and while it may be an easier route to take at the time, or it’s cute they want to be with us, it is doing them a disservice when they set the tone. We’re their advocates; we create the boundaries.
The next segment includes four stories from our clients. If any resonate with you, your dog may be developing separation anxiety (or, as Cesar Milan may suggest, a “simulated” separation anxiety). It is my hope that through these honest conversations, we are able to help our dogs get back into the routine they are used to so, when the time comes to return to work, they are better prepared for your departure (and TBM’s arrival, woohoo!). A huge thank you to the many k9 parents who provided me with honest, tangible stories about your dogs.
Cisco - Chocolate Labrador
Cisco’s parents were rigorous about their puppy schedule this past winter. At 10 weeks old, she knew her routine, happily trotted back to her crate after TBM walks, and settled in as her humans departed the apartment. On the weekends, Cisco had more freedom outside of the crate but remained consistent with her schedule and still utilized crate time while they were home. After a month of quarantine and little crate time, Cisco has started to show signs of separation anxiety: when one of them leaves, she barks and cries at the door, knocking it with her paw. If they ask her to go to the crate, she refuses and barks at them. These behaviors developed over a short period of time.
Finn - French Bulldog
When I first started working with Finn years ago, it was to address his need to run to the front door. Because his mom had moved into an apartment where the front door opened onto the street level, she wanted to teach him to stay put. He became less anxious about the door, and often went into his crate without issues after his walks – he knew that’s where he would camp out during the day. Finn’s anxiety has heightened due to PAUSE: he is more aware of where his mom is in the apartment; he sleeps closer to her at night. She refers to him as her “shadow.” The few times she has left the apartment without him, he’s peed in the house, a sign of distress for a potty trained dog. His anxiety has made her feel more anxious about leaving him at all, a response Finn wants but does not necessarily need.
Lexie and Layla - Pitbull Rescues
Both Lexie and Layla are rescue Pitties. As to be expected, they came into their mom’s world with a level of separation anxiety. Lexie was given back to the shelter numerous times before she found her forever home so she has an extreme connection to her mom. Layla was in such bad shape when rescued that her freedom video from the shelter caused me a level of anxiety: the poor pup was shivering and hunched, lacking any level of joy or trust. Thankfully, both dogs found an incredible human to call their own and you would never guess their past by the look of them now! Their mom has long workdays and many weeks of travel so the pups are used to being home without her. This helped them settle into being separated from her and they both do well in their routines. However, with the past five weeks of mom working from home, the dogs have grown in their attachment to her and there are moments where their anxieties are popping up again. They become vocal and agitated if not given attention.
Cleo - Miniature Goldendoodle
Cleo has suffered from separation anxiety since she was young. She had the luxury of her mom working from home and her dad bringing her into his office. Cleo was rarely alone. Over time, she became fearful of being left alone or even taken from her house. TBM would show up and she would hide. She became so attached to her home that she did not want to leave unless mom or dad went with her. Now that Cleo has a newborn brother, that anxiety has increased—she does not want to leave the baby’s side. She hides under his bed when he’s sleeping, and follows her mom around the house when she’s carrying the baby. During PAUSE, it’s become so severe that she barks, paces, and watches at the window until all members are back home. She wants her family (all three humans) in the home with her at all times. She loves leaving the house for walks or a romp in the park only if everyone is present with her.
These are some of the stories. All of them laced with love from the dog to their humans and from the humans to their dogs. They want to be with us, and we want to be with them. The problem exists in the negative impact that this has on our dogs and, based on what my clients have shared, the impact it is also having on them.
So how can we help them overcome some of these anxieties? There are many ways to address separation anxiety. Depending on how severe it is and how early you’re catching it, these easy-to-do guidelines should provide both you and your dogs a way to combat the anxieties developing.
1. Utilize the Crate
If your dog is used to being in a crate or gated area during working hours, try to stick to that routine within reason. This may not seem fair at the time, but after a couple months out of the crate, those first days back to work will be extremely difficult for your dog if you do not practice this now. Your neighbors will complain that Cisco is barking all day, or you will come home to find Finn continuing to urinate in the home. Take advantage of this time with your dog by making the crate less about you leaving and more about a safe space to rest. If your dog is used to sleeping in the crate at night, get those bedtime snuggles in before you fall asleep then place your dog in the crate to rest on their own. On average, adult dogs need to sleep 12-14 hours daily; puppies need to sleep 18-20 hours daily – this means that crate time during the day as well as overnight will allow them to get the rest that they need. The crate should be a positive space; use treats or a high-reward chew bone to incentivize them to enter the crate. You can then leave them alone to self-soothe and return to work without the distraction of their puppy eyes begging you for attention.
Note: For those of you who have not used a crate before but want to try it out, it’s important to take it in small steps since it may be a bit more challenging for an adult dog to adjust to it. Use the crate as a positive, den-like space and never as a form of punishment. Please reach out to me directly if you wish to learn more about implementing a crate into your dog’s daily life.
2. Alter How You Depart/Arrive
As many of you know, I am a big proponent of not making it a big deal when you leave or return home. This normalizes the separation between you and your dog. When departing, it’s a natural reaction to have a conversation with our dogs. It goes something like, “Mouse, I love you so much and I will be home soon,” as you smother her with kisses and a very tight squeeze. At the door, you turn again, “I love you, Mouse, I miss you, be good … OK, I love you.” Sound familiar? Upon our return home, we run through the door, fall to the floor, and apologize for being gone, holding Mouse. Often times though Mouse’s excitement will turn into an anxious moment because of our energy. Try to make it less of an event. Whether or not you’re using a crate, start the departure protocol a bit earlier: give your dog a bone or puzzle, throw on some light tunes, put them in the crate 5-10 minutes before you leave, tell them how much you love them before approaching the door. When you come home, ignore your dog for a few minutes. If they are loose, let them come to you but refrain from conversation or pets. Sounds harsh but it sets an excellent tone for “it’s not a big deal that I left” and the dog will become less anxious when you come home. Even if you wait a few seconds, it matters and will make a difference. If they are in the crate, let them hear you return don’t engage (meaning you don’t have to be quiet but also don’t call for them). Head to the crate, open the door, and let them run out but not necessarily right into your arms. Make it a low-key event as if it’s the same as walking past them to go get a glass of water in the kitchen. It will lessen your anxiety about leaving them, and it will shift their anxiety too.
3. Stimulation Through Exercise and Routine
I touched on this last week, so check out that blog post! A tired dog is a happy dog. If your pup is struggling with separation anxiety, either before or during PAUSE, amp-up the stimulation. Before you leave the house, give them a solid walk, spend 10-minutes with fun training exercises, have them navigate a treat puzzle. Intentional time given to your dog is more effective than an abundance of unguided time. When my Frenchie Lucca gets bored (as a blind dog, this has become a common occurrence in our day, though it’s something she never dealt with as a seeing dog), and we don’t have the time set aside for a long walk (again, with a blind dog, the long walk isn’t for distance as much as it is for stimulation), we give her a marrow bone. She has to use her brain to get to the marrow, plus it’s a delicious treat. She is preoccupied rather than wondering where I am in the house. Her k9 sister, Chewy, reaps the same rewards as Lucca and both dogs pass out for a few hours while I work. (Ask your butcher for a marrow bone – it also helps with their breath!)
4. Be Calm, Be Assertive
It may feel counterintuitive to implement discipline in these instances but it is important. Clear your state of mind when working with your dog because if you bring the anxieties, uncertainties, and frustrations of work into your time with the pups, they will take that on with you. This is why separation from your dogs is important if you want to curb the separation anxiety they are facing. If Cisco runs to the door and barks when one of you leaves, call her away from the door with a treat, work her through some commands, and do not let her go back to the door. Or if both of you leave, crate her in advance of your departure and let her work through that anxiety without giving her attention. If Cleo barks and paces and stands guard until the entire family is back home, try leashing her before someone leaves, let her walk to the door with the family – without it being a big deal – then walk back away from the door while she remains either on the leash beside you until she settles or she is tethered to a chair/table where you will be spending time. This prevents an increase in her anxiety as she paces by the door/windows until all return home. If Finn is used to being in a crate when you leave the house, implement that routine again. He feels safe and at ease in his crate. He won’t eliminate in the house and it will decrease his nervousness watching you leave because that’s what he’s been used to for many years. While it’s cute to have a shadow, it will be difficult for him when you go back to work. Use the crate during the day, or teach him “place” (a command to have him stay in his “place,” or crate), so if you leave the room, he has to stay there until you return. For Lexie and Layla, set boundaries while you’re working from home because they should not be right next to you all day: Lexie can rest in her place, Layla can get some crate time, and you can work at your desk without the interruption for constant contact and communication. Stick to their regular routine of the lunchtime walk as your time to give them the attention they’re craving and once you’re back upstairs at the computer, they need to respect your space and keep to themselves/play with each other until you’re off of work. Be intentional with the time and energy you’re giving them.
Throughout all of this, it is important that we, as the pack leader, mean what we say, and that we say what we mean. We’re all dealing with some level of anxiety during this uncertain time so we need to do our best to be aware of our energy and the state of mind we are in when interacting with our dogs. They deserve our best, right? And they are looking to us to make them their best. Little alterations in how we navigate the full days we spend with our dog could make all the difference for them. Quarantine should allow us to advocate for them more because we have more time for them. It’s in the quality of time though, not the quantity.
Be well. Be safe.
Advocating for k9s,
Firstly, we will continue this dialogue in next week’s blog so stay tuned for the second part in this series on separation anxiety.
Secondly, I will be hosting a live chat on Instagram on Saturday, April 11, at 11:00am. I will address questions sent to me over the week regarding this topic as well as the comments left during the live chat. So tune in on @teamtbm.
Thirdly, I believe that medications are a last resort. Most of the time, they are not needed and separation anxiety can be addressed through behavioral changes and/or natural remedies. I do think that CBD can assist with dogs who suffer from various anxieties (not necessarily needed for those developing separation anxiety during Covid-19). However, many companies do not make their products to code. If you are in the market for CBD oil, check out Austin and Kat. They are doing remarkable things for dogs and they have been designated as one of the brands who sets the bar for this product. During Covid-19, Kat is offering us a discount so use code “karafriend25” to save 25% on all products.