–By Steve Dale
For many dogs, sheltering in place at home and spending all of their time with their humans has been a dream come true. COVID-19 has been great for our dogs, keeping us together 24/7. But as we slowly go back to work or to school, pet parents are likely going to need to address the separation anxiety their pets may experience during the transition. You can find my segment on increased separation anxiety on Good Morning America here.
We don’t know exactly what dogs with separation anxiety are thinking: they might feel like their people have abandoned them, or may simply be experiencing pain at being away from those they love. Either way, there are several telltale signs which include but are not limited to:
- Howling, barking, or whining to excess.
- Indoor “accidents,” though the dog is housetrained.
- Chewing or eating inappropriate items; digging in the carpet, scratching at windows and doors.
- Excessive drooling or panting.
- Trying to escape crates or event the house.
Humans often believe that dogs with separation anxiety will soon realize that eventually their people do return, and that their dog’s anxiety will ease all by itself–but this is a myth. In fact, if left untreated, the anxiety more often worsens over time. With all the stress that many families are feeling financially and otherwise after the pandemic, I worry that dogs may be relinquished for dog behavior problems which their humans previously have tolerated, or that landlords or neighbors may lose patience with excessive barking, so I want to provide some tools to keep your dogs calm and happy while you are away.
Is it Separation Anxiety?
To begin, it’s important to find out whether your dogs have separation anxiety in the first place and determine what’s really going on when you’re away. Barking and/or ripping apart pillows doesn’t always mean a dog has separation anxiety. Sometimes dogs bark at the window because it’s fun or rip up pillows out of boredom. Camera systems are inexpensive to set up and can help you figure out exactly what is going on with your dog. You’ll want to point your primary camera towards the door your family most often departs from, at least in most cases. Once you record your dog’s behavior, you can show a veterinary professional to see what they suggest.
Dogs with separation distress will usually fall into one of the following three buckets:
- Dogs who previously suffered mild-to-more-severe separation anxiety, potentially even among some dogs who were once treated successfully for this problem.
- In many places, a record number of dogs have been adopted or are in foster homes from shelters/rescues. That’s great news. However, especially for individuals who had been re-homed several times, there’s data to support the notion that these dogs may be more predisposed to separation distress.
- Change isn’t easy for many people, and dogs aren’t any different. I suggest it’s possible that many dogs who had no previous separation anxiety might be thrown off by the sudden change in routine. Dogs are not going to see an email that explains why, one day, suddenly everyone in the household has disappeared.
While it’s great that so many of us are taking more walks with our dogs, I suggest everyone in the family take some walks without the dog, leaving the pup – I dare say – home alone. If you happen to have a shelter/rescue dog that’s not yet been left home alone, or a dog with previous separation issues, take it slow and only depart, at first, for five or ten minutes.
Before you depart, leave out safe treats. Stuffed cookies or a Kong filled with low-fat, low-salt peanut butter are good options. You can even leave a sterilized bone left somewhere out of reach: as long as your dog knows the bone is there, they will focus on that instead of on your departure. Ask your dog to sit, and then deliver the treat as you depart.
Another idea is to offer a meal or treats in various toys, kibble, or treats scattered around the house. Either way, assuming your dog is food motivated, if you find the food isn’t touched when you are back home, that’s a hugely significant red flag. Of course, you may also find the pillows have been destroyed or the front door scratched, which clearly indicate that your dog is suffering from separation anxiety.
If there are no issues – great! Leaving your dog home alone periodically is actually the right thing to do: ultimately, very few of us are home all the time, and life will ultimately return to normal, so it is best to teach our dogs how to cope.
Products that Help Generally Anxious Dogs
Whether your dog is described as generally anxious (worried about anything that changes and/or car rides, thunderstorms, etc., or has separation anxiety, there are a lot of good products on the market that can lower their level of stress.
- I recommend a pheromone product called Adaptil, which is a copy of the comforting pheromone naturally found in the milk of nursing dogs. Adaptil is available at many pet stores and online as both a diffuser (you plug into the wall) and a collar.
- The Thundershirt can also calm dogs, and they often come with with Thunder-Ease (same as Adaptil). The Thundershirt Itself wraps around the dog (kind of like a vest or shirt) and has a swaddling effect on many dogs.
- Zylkene is a nutraceutical. As grandma used to say, “To help relax at night, drink a warm cup of milk.” It turns out granny knew best. Zylkene contains bovine-sourced hydrolyzed milk protein, an ingredient with calming properties (though it doesn’t typically cause any drowsiness). Zylkene is available online and via Amazon.com; though very safe, it’s best to consult your veterinarian before giving to your dog.
- Calming Care is a probiotic from Purina ProPlan Veterinary Diets; simply sprinkle on the dog’s food. The stomach and the brain are indeed connected. The supplement contains a strain of beneficial bacteria known as BL999 that has shown to help keep dogs calm during stressful situations like separation. While available at Chewy.com and elsewhere online, and while perfectly safe, ask your veterinarian before purchasing.
- CBD: Anecdotally, CBD (cannabidiol, is a non-psycho-active chemical compound from the Cannabid sativa plant) has shown to relieve anxiety, and even help some dogs deal with separation distress. However, to date, there’s no science to specifically support this use. Not all CBD products are equal. Contact your veterinarian before trying.
- The Calmer Canine Device is good for generalized anxiety, but was specifically developed for separation anxiety, and fits like a halo above the dog’s head. The fight or flight center, the amygdala, is the area in the brain responsible for producing fear and emotional responses, which express themselves as the signs of anxiety. An anxious brain is out of balance, not only hormonally, but also with overactive brain cells that produce harmful substances causing inflammation. Calmer Canine’s treatment is called targeted pulsed electromagnetic field (tPEMF TM ) signals. The same technology is effective in treating humans with mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. The signals are invisible, sensation free and arguably safer than meds (which, of course, may have adverse reactions). There are no known adverse reactions to the Calmer Canine. The Calmer Canine helps dogs with current separation anxiety and can even potentially prevent the problem from starting.
More on Separation Anxiety
Crate training is generally a good thing, but not always for dogs with separation distress.
More You Can Do
- It might not be a bad idea to hire a dog walker even before returning to your routine. While it sounds crazy – the walk offers fun independence from you and your family, and also provides work for the dog walkers.
- Music – studies demonstrate that background music, particularly classical music may help to sooth nervous dogs when you’re not home. A talk radio station or the TV playing might do the same.