Prepare for post-pandemic pet separation anxiety

By: Sarah Wojcik | Metro | Published May 26, 2021

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METRO DETROIT — With lockdown restrictions easing up and more people returning to work, going back to school or taking vacations, some dogs accustomed to the constant presence of their humans may experience different levels of separation anxiety.

Additionally, shelters and rescues saw a large influx in first-time dog owners who adopted their dogs in the midst of the pandemic, and many of those dogs have never known a home where they are alone for hours at a time.

Megan Synk, an adoption counselor for Warren-based rescue I Heart Dogs, said adoptions during the pandemic definitely increased but have been slowing down in the past few months. The return rate has also been higher than in past years, she said.

“But we haven’t seen a correlation with (the increased return rate) having to do with people returning to work. It’s common behavior issues that people can’t cope with,” Synk said.

She identified a variety of tips for pet owners whose pups might not understand feelings of separation anxiety or abandonment as life picks back up — the first being to practice leaving for short periods of time and come back.

“Did you see any anxious or distressing behaviors before you started to leave the house?” she said. “People tend to associate boredom and destruction with that kind of thing, but it’s not the same.”

The root cause of separation anxiety in dogs is a complex issue, and every dog is different.

“They’re similar to people. It might have something to do with genetics or trauma from past events, but signs of distress include anxiously pacing around the house when you’re getting your shoes on, drooling and barking,” Synk said. “If they’re being crated and they try to escape the crate or cause pain to themselves to try to get out, it might be caused by separation anxiety, as well as defecating and urinating (among house-trained dogs).”

She said, as an adoption counselor, her first recommendation is to contact a dog trainer who specializes in separation anxiety and positive reinforcement. A professional dog trainer can identify and remediate distressing factors and also delve deeper into the health of a dog. The distress could be a sign of an underlying medical issue or pain the dog is trying to communicate.

However, the availability of dog trainers is currently greatly reduced, as there is a large demand for their services due to the influx of adoptions. Many instructors are booked for months in advance and have long waiting lists.

For a more short-term solution, Synk recommended crating anxious dogs and supplying them with enrichment or a job to do while they are home alone.

“Frozen peanut butter cones are awesome, especially if you have a food-motivated dog. Put treats in a KONG and slap some peanut butter on there. Same with a lick mat,” she said. “Canines’ instinct is to want to destroy something, so you can give them a stuffy toy and let them destroy it, or throw some treats in an empty cereal box. There are so many things and puzzle toys online that provide enrichment.”

Other immediate solutions are to enroll dogs at a doggy day care, hire a dog sitter or purchase an Adaptil diffuser, a non-drug scent that helps calm and relax dogs at home.

“I just had my mom’s dog stay with me for a week. It was stressful for her to be in a new place, so every time I left, I played classical music,” Synk said. “I highly, highly recommend that for any dogs with separation anxiety.”

Lastly, she cautioned pet owners to not get mad at their dogs for displaying signs of anxiety.

“It can be frustrating, but be sure not to punish or yell at the dog, because that heightens their anxiety and creates more fear in them,” she said.

Virginia Smith, training director for the Sportsmen’s Dog Training Club in Warren, said the club’s classes are booked for months out and there is a waiting list for people trying to get in sooner.

“Pet owners should keep a daily routine that closely resembles what they had before the lockdown. They can practice brief absences from the house, so their dogs continue to feel comfortable being alone,” Smith said. “You can do things like go outside and get the mail, so you’re gone for maybe one or two minutes, then come back.”

She recommended briefly extending the time spent out of the house, doing activities like pulling weeds, before coming back inside.

“This should take about one to two weeks, gradually building up to your workday time, say, six or eight hours that you’re out of the house,” Smith said. “Owners should be checking in and coming back in before the dog feels nervous — try to find a turning point, and offer a reward.”

She stressed the importance of keeping dogs engaged with puzzle toys, specifically a TRIXIE multi-compartment box, and mental enrichment, such as hiding toys or kibble around the home. She herself creates “snuffle mats,” or fleece rugs that encourage natural foraging behaviors.

“I have them sit and wait while I put kibble or their favorite treats in it, then send them to find the treats,” Smith said.  “It’s a fun game for dogs, but I recommend it be picked up when you’re done so that it isn’t used as a chew toy.”

Some signs of separation anxiety in dogs, she added, include breaking out of their crates, damaging or scratching at the door, and doing major damage to furniture or walls.

“If a dog continues to feel stress, of course ask your veterinarian or seek an animal behaviorist to get more help,” she said.