Prevention Tips: Separation Anxiety in Dogs Post-Shelter in Place
with Melissa Dallier of ACanineAffinity, Training Advocate

Prevention Tips: Separation Anxiety in Dogs Post Shelter in Place 

Originally Posted: March 2020

Updated: June 2020

As a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer I have been spending the better part of my time lately talking to and worrying about my NON separation anxiety clients and their dogs in these unprecedented times. Many millions of us are spending more time at home than we ever planned or wanted to in a given day, week or month. If you are working on the front lines keeping us fed, keeping our packages and mail coming, taking care of our sick and elderly - thank you from the bottom of my heart and I hope you are safe and healthy - also this post may not apply to you-which is actually a good less concern! But if you are a dog owner who has been home day in and day out for weeks, then please read on…… 

I’m sure your dog is loving all of the extra attention, snuggles, walks and play time. Maybe you are working on teaching new tricks or you’ve committed to some training that has been taking a back burner, or you’re learning things about your dog you never knew - they bark at the mailman or squirrels all day or they fart in their sleep! One thing is for sure, our dogs have lives outside of us and it is crucial that it stays that wayWe will go back to life “as normal” whatever that looks like, and when we do our dogs could go into a state of shock if we go from “Nexflix and Chill" 24-7 back to “office and happy hours" 5 days a week. 

Dogs thrive off of routine. Some more than others, but I know many of you will relate to the dog who lets you know exactly when its time for dinner by dropping the bowl at your feet or by pawing at the door when it's walk time. This is routine, is comfortable and leaves our dogs feeling like they have some control over their day. We, as humans, control all aspects of a dogs life, when our dogs eat, sleep, walk, play, leave the house, play with friends, get water etc - all of a sudden we just changed everything! Suddenly their nap time is ruined, walks are all over the place, meals are probably different and while they may be doing their best to adjust currently it is a big change. Then just when they adjust to their “new life” we will go and change it again.  

Large changes in routine have been known to cause anxiety and distress in dogs overall and research has shown it can trigger anxiety and distress in dogs when left alone. I have helped many clients whose dogs began suffering from separation anxiety after such a life change. Things such as a person being home from work after a layoff or a serious injury and then they suddenly returning to work after an extended period of time and are shocked that the dog is extremely distressed have been cause for clients to call me. Another scenario I’ve had is the kids coming home from school for summer break or from college and then going away again suddenly and the family dog can’t be alone anymore…… any of this sound familiar? Now, I want to be clear, if this was a risk for EVERY dog - most dogs would have separation anxiety- but because we don’t know exactly what the link is between these scenarios and the dogs who end up with SA, there is no way to know which dogs may end up suffering, so why not take precautions to try to prevent it overall?

Below I’m going to lay out a few suggested plans to help dogs stay in a routine without your needing to find a place to go for 6-10 hours a day. 

What steps can we take to ensure our dogs are prepared for us to go back to normal life when this is all said and done? 

Updates: As the world begins to open up slightly, depending on where you live, please don't forget that your dog has experienced a lot of change over the last several months. What have you noticed? Are they following you around more? Do they wake up if you leave the room? Have you been practicing any intentional separation? If not please be careful as you begin to want to get out and about into the world a bit more! Take some time and help your dog readjust to what their new normal might look like!

The following is still true even if you are slowly going back to work, leaving your dog occasionally or still staying in most of the time. Prevention and planning are the best ways to ensure your dog is ready for the future!

Routine! Routine! Routine!! You aren’t the only one who has one…. 

Here are some goals to work toward to help your dog feel safe, healthy and normal during these uncertain times. 

  • Practice normal daily feeding, walking and training schedules - or commit to one now! 
  • Did you always go for a morning run with the dog pre COVID? 
  • What about the post work long sniffy walk? 
  • Were Saturdays for training and hanging out a coffee shop? Maybe you can go back now and sit outside with restrictions lifted!

Make it a point to try to do these same things, or something like you did before as often as possible! This will help your dog feel as though something is the same on a day to day basis.

  • Shower / Get Ready for work as “normal” a few times a week 
  • Seeing you in your work clothes vs sweatpants makes a difference! Dogs make strong associations to the shoes you wear when you go to work vs the sneakers that go on for a walk! Remind them what your laptop bag looks like and what your cologne or perfume smell like.

  • Create a safe and quiet place for your dog to sleep and rest
  • If you are now working from home and the kids are home from school all day this likely means your dog is sleeping less than usual. This can cause physical and behavioral upset! Be sure that the kids know not to bother the dog when sleeping and if the dogs usual sleeping place is now your office or the kids homework spot, try to create a safe and quiet place for them to rest during the day - a bedroom, bathroom, extra room or office can do well! Make it a happy place with lots of snacks, a comfortable place to rest and quiet. 

  • Work or hang out behind closed doors for 30 mins - 2 hours several times a week! 
  • This is not only to ensure your dogs can be way from you but also to help ensure they are getting enough rest. Lack of sleep can cause the same issues in dogs as in humans. Of course we want our dogs in on all of our conference calls and meetings, but it's not reality in the long term and they need to know how to survive when we go into another room. If you try this for the first time and they are suddenly distressed, see the tips at the bottom of this email! 

  • Leave home without your dog for 30 mins - 2 hours at least 3 times a week! 
  • Just because you do it once and they have no issue, doesn’t mean one may not form later on, remember good habits are hard to create and bad ones hard to break! Take a walk, go get gas, run to the store for essentials or just drive around and listen to a podcast. 

  • Watch your dogs in a camera / computer on Zoom /FaceTime/ Google Meetings when you leave to observe behavior
  • If you’ve never watched your dogs when you are away, you may not know what to expect. Some dogs will immediately lie down and go to sleep, some may lie by the door for a bit, while others may like to look out the window. Clear signs of distress are listed at the bottom of this post. 

  • Make alone time special by introducing enrichment toys, bones, find it games and more! Look at previous posts on my page here - on Dogly, my Instagram or Facebook for enrichment ideas!  
  • Exercise your dog before alone time so they are calm and relaxed 
  • Close blinds/curtains and leave music or TV on if your dogs are now barking more at neighbors or dogs walking outside - this will help ensure they are getting enough rest. 

How to know if there is a problem

While many dogs will make it through this without issue, there will likely be just as many who have a range of symptoms from mild alone time distress to full separation anxiety. So what are some things to look out for: 

General signs your dog may not be out of practice being alone

  • Following you around more than usual in the home 
  • Waking from a sleep anytime you leave the room 
  • Distress when separated in the home 
  • Becoming anxious when you prepare to leave the home without them 
  • Distressed when fully alone in the home 

Signs of distress when alone or separated may be (this list is not inclusive) 

  • Panting 
  • Pacing 
  • Drooling
  • Whining 
  • Barking 
  • Howling 
  • Destructive Behavior - especially around doors and windows or crate 
  • Attempting to escape / escaping : digging around windows / doors  
  • Door Darting when you attempt to leave 
  • Disinterested in food (when alone) 
  • Eliminating (not related to potty training issues) 
  • Self Harm 

What to do. 

If any of these behaviors start to occur and have never occurred before when your dog is alone or separated from you, I would consider continuing to practice the steps above at a gradual steady pace with short absences of just a few minutes. If you do not see improvement or an increase in anxiety over the course of a week or two please reach out to me or another Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer as soon as possible. Separation anxiety rarely resolves itself once developed and usually worsens without proper treatment. Additionally, while many positive reinforcement trainers are well intentioned, unless they have studied separation anxiety specifically and treated it successfully there is often a lot of misinformation about its treatment and this can delay progress.  

What not to do

Punish. Separation anxiety is a serious behavioral disorder that stems from panic and anxiety. When a dog is suffering from separation anxiety they are afraid, anxious and out of control. They cannot just stop and get it together. It can be extremely detrimental to punish this behavior in dogs with treatments such as (but not limited to) 

  • Spray Bottles 
  • Shaker Cans 
  • Bark Collars 
  • Shock Collars 
  • Hitting or other physical or verbal abuse 

I do hope this proves useful, I do hope you follow along with these recommendations and I do hope I never hear from any of you. 

But if you need me I’m here and I will help you and your dog find your way back.