By Dr Kate Mornement Ph.D, BSc(Hons)
The Covid-19 global pandemic has seen demand for pets and adoption rates increase significantly, especially during lockdowns. Research by Liat et al., (2020) revealed many people decided to adopt a dog as they had been planning to adopt prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, and because they were at home and had more time to help their new pet settle in.
The fact that a dog can reduce feelings of stress and loneliness also played a role in their decision. Indeed, the demand for adoptable dogs increased most in areas that experienced the harshest lockdowns and social isolation.
Now that we seem to have control over Covid-19 here in Australia, and people are returning to work in the office, professionals like myself are experiencing unprecedented demand from pet owners who’s dogs are experience separation distress or anxiety.
What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is common in social species like humans and dogs and it’s a survival instinct. If wolf puppies were not afraid of separation and they wandered off, they would not survive for long. In domestic dogs, separation anxiety is triggered by separation from their family or primary attachment bond.
This separation, or being home alone, causes the dog elevated stress and anxiety. Separation anxiety can range from mild to severe.
Symptoms of separation anxiety can include destructive behaviour, excessive vocalisation, house soiling, panting, pacing, sweaty paws, dilated pupils, refusal to eat while alone and attempting escape.
Changes to the normal routine such as moving house, another pet dying and extended travel can trigger the onset of separation anxiety, even in dogs that have not experienced it before. One of the common triggers currently is people returning to work in the office after having worked from home for months.
he ability to cope with separation is a learned behaviour and something we should gradually teach our puppies and newly adopted dogs. Teaching dogs independence and avoiding overattachment can help reduce the likelihood they will developed separation anxiety.
How Can I Teach My Dog To Cope With Separation?
Teaching your dog to cope with separation takes time and consistency. The goal is to change their emotional response from a negative association with separation to a more positive association.
If you think about, most dogs associate everything great in their lives (food, treats, play, attention companionship, affection, walks etc) with their owner or family. When we’re not there, this stuff doesn’t tend to happen so life is not as fun for your dog. Reducing this contrast between when you’re home and life is great, and when you’re away and it’s not so fun for your dog, can help them cope a little better with separation.
The most effective way to teach dogs to cope with separation is to use a combination of desensitisation and counter-conditioning. This involves gradually desensitising your dog to separation starting with short separations that are well tolerated. As you leave, pair separation with something your dog loves, like a meal in a puzzle you or long lasting treat.
When you come back inside ignore your dog until they are calm and relaxed. Repeat this exercise as often as you can and gradually increase the time you are away if your dog is coping well.
Sit-stay or drop-stay exercises are also helpful to teach your dog that being separated from you is ok. Feeding your dog meals and long lasting treats away from family members helps them have pleasurable experiences on their own. Doggy daycare is another great option for social dogs to help break up the work week and allow them to have fun without you.
With time and consistency you should notice your dog copes much better with separation. If your dog doesn’t improve, has severe anxiety or you’ve tried these suggestions already, speak with your vet and a qualified dog trainer or behaviourist for professional help and guidance.
Morgan, Liat, et al. "Human–dog relationships during the COVID-19 pandemic: booming dog adoption during social isolation." Humanities and Social Sciences Communications7.1 (2020): 1-11.
By Dr Kate Mornement Ph.D, BSc(Hons)
Applied Animal Behaviourist & Consultant
Pets Behaving Badly – Solutions with Dr Kate