COVID-19 & Separation Anxiety

Learn how to avoid your dog developing separation and isolation related anxiety during lockdown

The recent guidelines issued by state governments in response to the coronavirus outbreak have many people indefinitely stuck at home. While this turn of events is troubling for us, it is a dream come true for some of our canine companions! But will spending every single second of the day with our dogs be good for them in the long run? When confinement is over, we will have to go back to work and leave our furry friends to their own devices, leading some dogs to experience separation or isolation related anxiety

WHAT IS SEPARATION ANXIETY?

 

Separation related anxiety is a condition in which dogs exhibit symptoms of excessive distress when separated from their guardians. Similar, but not quite the same, is Isolation Distress: where dogs struggle, not being apart from specific guardians, but being left alone generally. The severity of the emotional response is akin to a human panic attack and we often see behaviors very out of character occurring during periods of separation or isolation. It is an intolerable level of stress and panic that, at its most severe, can cause dogs to uncontrollably howl and pace for hours, soil carpets, and seriously damage both themselves and their surroundings in escape attempts. The destructive nature of these symptoms can greatly increase frustration and anger on the human end, and many cases end up in surrender to a local shelter due to difficulty managing the condition.

WHY DO DOGS DEVELOP SEPARATION RELATED ANXIETY? 

There is a strong genetic component to these conditions but, importantly, separation and isolation related anxiety can be triggered in any dog by significant changes in routine. The current lockdown most definitely constitutes a significant change in routine, and it has led to concern amongst canine behavior experts about how some of our dogs will fare on the other side of the pandemic.The most important thing is to identify if your dog is at risk of developing separation or isolation related anxiety for there are some dogs who, due to a combination of genetics and learning history, are more susceptible:

 

  • Of course, dogs who have previously exhibited separation or frustration related anxiety will be more susceptible
  • Puppies and young dogs being raised during lockdown, who have little learning history of separation and isolation
  • Dogs with low or underdeveloped impulse control or frustration (particularly adolescents between 6 months and 5 years) 
  • Velcro dogs who can’t seem to leave their guardians side (e.g. follow them around and struggle to be separated in another room)
  • Dogs who struggle with crating and confinement 
  • Dogs who get super overexcited and overwhelmed when their guardians come home 

 

If your dog is in the above list you may need to dedicate some time to developing the necessary skills your dog will need to tolerate separation post lockdown: we call these “Separation Skills”.

HOW TO AVOID SEPARATION  ANXIETY: TEACH SEPARATION SKILLS

 

To avoid dogs from developing separation or isolation related anxiety, we need to maintain or develop their separation skills. These are skills that build independence, confidence and impulse control. Here are some ways we can start to build up our dog’s separation skills during lockdown.

 

NOTE: If, during these exercises, your dog is exhibiting severe stress when separated (e.g. incessant barking, panting, pacing, or escape attempts) stop what you are doing immediately and get in touch with a certified trainer to discuss further options.

1. Schedule alone time

It is important that we integrate separation into our quarantine routines so our dogs are regularly rehearsing self soothing without access to us. 

Crates, barriers or tethers are great tools we can use to teach our dogs to enjoy alone time! You can begin by having your pet go in the crate or behind a barrier, and immediately offering them a delicious work-to-eat toy or chew to enjoy.  We want our dogs to learn they are 


capable of entertaining themselves, so do not engage with your dog at all during this time, and maintain a close distance to your dog's barriers order to set them up for success. The above video shows a Board & Train rescue Coby scavenging his dinner, which was hidden in the toy chest while CCA trainer and helper dog Heera hang out close by. If your dog is able to focus on the food toy, and seems to be handling the separation well, you can begin to increase the time that they spend separated from you, as well as your distance from the barrier. Integrate two to three of these short sessions into your dog’s everyday routine.

Want to learn more about work-to-eat toys and alone time activities to entertain your dog?

 

2. Keep Your Cool 

Dogs are masters at reading human body language and social cues. They look to us for information about how to react to the environment, and whether or not their own reactions are appropriate. For this reason, do not make a big deal about leaving, or reuniting with your dog. By playing it cool during departures and reunions you can help your dog understand that being separated is not such a big deal after all. 

Similarly try not react if they whine, jump, or beg for attention in pushy or impatient ways. If your dog expresses minor signs of stress when being denied attention, such as whining or pawing, wait until the behavior stops before engaging with them. Wait for the impatient, demanding behavior to stop, then ask them for a polite sit. When they ask nicely with a sit you can say "yes good dog" and give them kisses and cuddles. Remember, by giving them any attention while they whine, jump, bark, nose at you - including even just looking at them - you could be inadvertently reinforcing their attention-seeking behavior and worsening their anxious displays when denied access to you

3. Teach a “Stay” 

Build impulse control and independence by teaching your dog to stay while you walk away from them. By training this behavior you can help your dog learn that waiting calmly for you is not intolerable, but reinforcing! 

 

Here’s how to get started:

  • Cue your dog to go into a down, say “YES” when they do (to show them they did the right thing) and deliver a treat in between their paws
  • Now take one step back
  • If your dog stays down, say “YES” again, and step back towards them to give them a treat
  • Repeat this, slowly increasing the amount of steps you are taking away from your dog
  • Intersperse some easy repetitions, so you aren’t constantly increasing the distance and making it harder and harder - this will lower frustration for the learner
  • Introduce a release cue “Okay” or “free dog” which you can say at the end of the session to release them from the stay
  • If your dog gets up before you are able to mark, do not get angry or scold them, this will just cause more stress to be associated with separation. Simply re-cue them into the down, go back to step one to ensure they are successful. 

 

Check out this video for more information on teaching Stay for dogs with separation or isolation related anxiety

LEARN MORE ABOUT SEPARATION SKILLS

 

These are three simple things that you can do to start building your dog’s separation skills. If your dog is exhibiting more severe symptoms, and is struggling with the above activities consider signing up for Calm Canine Academy’s Separation Skills digital class. This innovative 6-week group-class teaches the skills needed to resolve separation anxiety, including advanced confinement training, desensitization to departure cues, isolation training and confidence building.

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