I think we can all agree, the COVID-19 pandemic has made 2020 a strange year. And that goes for two footers and four footers alike — it’s been a stressful time for us all.
For most of our dogs, they went from seeing their owners only a fraction of the day to seeing their owners all day.
Week after week after week.
And while the pandemic seems to have been dragging on and on, our dogs have been getting used to enjoying constant, 24-7 human companionship.
For most dogs, this new routine is preferable to our pre-pandemic pattern. But as we start transitioning back to normal life and heading to work every day, our four footers might start exhibiting signs of stress.
This is actually already happening, and many people are starting to see signs of separation anxiety in their canine companions. This isn’t good for our pets, and it can drastically reduce their quality of life.
We’ll try to help you navigate this transition below, as we discuss what separation stress and separation anxiety are, how we can combat them, and how we can help our pups avoid feelings of anxiety during this transitional period.
Combating Dog Anxiety After the COVID-19 Pandemic: Key Takeaways
- Many dogs are likely to suffer from separation stress and anxiety as we return to normal life. This is pretty understandable, as our four-footers have become accustomed to hanging out with their humans all day.
- It is important to familiarize yourself with the signs of stress, so that you can make any changes necessary. Signs of severe separation anxiety are often pretty obvious, but dogs may also exhibit relatively subtle signs of stress that indicate they’re having difficulty with the transition back to normal life.
- Start now to prepare your dog for returning to “normal life”. This includes everything from teaching your dog self-soothing strategies to getting your doggo a four-footed friend to keep her company.
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety: Recognizing and Assessing Your Pup’s Problem
It is important to learn to identify the signs and symptoms of separation anxiety, so that you can support your pet’s mental health and (if necessary) get her the help she needs and deserves.
Some of the most common symptoms of separation anxiety pet owners observe are detailed below.
They’re listed in increasing order of severity – the first few are somewhat mild, while the last few are quite serious. Consider this when trying to assess your dog and her level of distress.
- Taking a long time to settle
- Barking or being “fussy”
- Mild panting or pacing
- Initial frustration when the owner leaves
- Excessive drooling and salivating when left alone
- Destroying things, with a focus on exits like doors and windows
- Escaping behaviors
- Excessive panting, pacing, yowling, or barking
- The inability to eat or drink while you’re gone.
Note that different trainers apply different terminology to separation anxiety, and some view it through a slightly different lens than others.
For example, I subscribe to the school of thought that classifies separation anxiety as a particularly acute condition, while separation (or isolation) stress refers to dogs who exhibit milder problems when left alone.
By contrast, some trainers distinguish between dogs who feel better having any human around (separation stress) and those who specifically feel distress when a specific person is absent (separation anxiety).
But while trainers and researchers may debate some of the finer points of these related conditions, the ultimate takeaway is the same: Some dogs suffer from varying degrees of stress when left alone or without the company of their preferred person.
You may very well be able to help soothe your doggo’s frayed nerves if she’s suffering from a relatively mild case (what I’d term separation stress). Leaving puzzle toys or stashing frozen dog toy chews around the house can be a great way to teach your dog that fun stuff happens when you’re not home!
However, dogs experiencing severe distress (what I’d call separation anxiety) will frequently require professional intervention.
No matter what language you use, serious cases will require the help of a certified separation anxiety trainer, who has been specifically trained to deal with these issues and will have the CSAT acronym behind their names.
Dog Separation Anxiety Training Plan
Read through our dog separation anxiety training guide here to start working on your dog’s separation anxiety ASAP!
8 Ways to Prevent Dog Separation Stress Following the COVID-19 Pandemic
If your dog is already showing separation stress, or you are wanting to smooth the transition back to normal life, you can try some techniques described below to help your dog.
Remember, proactive training is always more fun than reactionary training! So, start now before you must leave your dog alone. Coco will thank you and enjoy a better quality of life for it.
1. Let your pooch get accustomed to crate time while you’re still home.
Practice makes perfect, so start letting your dog hang out in a crate before you have to do so regularly. You might be thinking, “But I’m already home! Why would my dog be in his crate?”
Well, if your dog associates being in his crate with you being gone, this could be a source of stress.
Instead, if she is used to being in a crate from time to time throughout the day while you’re home, she will feel much more comfortable chilling in her crate when you do have to leave the house.
When crates are used properly and introduced with positive methods, they can be a source of comfort and a “safe space” for your dog to be in. This can make him feel secure and confident while you’re out.
Also consider opting for dog gates or a dog x-pen instead of crate. These are more humane options that give your dog space and – in some cases- can be less anxiety-provoking than a small, tightly-enclosed crate.
Just be sure to introduce your dog to her crate (or other enclosed area) gradually. Start slowly and build up to leaving her inside for longer and longer periods of time.
2. Practice short sessions when you leave the house.
Just like you want to let your dog practice hanging out in her crate, you want to practice leaving her alone a bit too. This way, you’ll be able to ease your dog back into the old, pre pandemic, routine, rather than chucking her in the deep end.
Start out short and easy. Leave the house only for five or ten minutes, to start. Slowly increase the duration of your absences to help acclimate her to you not being there all the time.
Be sure to vary the amounts of time you’re gone too. Sometimes leave for only ten minutes, but leave for thirty or forty minutes at other times.
You do not want to constantly increase the amount of time, otherwise your dog could start thinking each time you leave it will be longer and longer.
Instead, make it so that she never knows. Sometimes you’re gone for a minute, sometimes an hour, sometimes twenty minutes. The important thing is that she’ll learn that you always come back!
3. Teach your dog to self soothe.
Teaching your dog to self-soothe is helpful for dealing with a variety of issues. I personally already loved teaching this skill pre-pandemic, and it is an awesome skill to teach as we transition back to post pandemic life.
Basically, you have to say to yourself “Does Coco know how to chill out on her own?” And if the answer is “no” or “sorta,” then you need to teach her the skill!
It sounds complicated, and in theory it is, but in practicality it’s not.
All you’re going to do is get a handful of treats, put your dog on leash, and step on the leash. When your dog chooses to settle down of her own accord, reinforce the behavior by doling out the treats and using a calm praising voice. It’s that simple.
Of course, you do have to have the patience to wait for her to lay down! And no matter how tempting it is, you can’t tell her to lay down, either. That’s really important.
After all, you need a dog who can go “I’m stuck and I’m bored. Guess I’ll take a nap.” Not a dog who needs you to micromanage everything.
As you train this skill, and your dog becomes more proficient in it, start waiting for longer and longer periods of calm time before you reinforce the behavior with food. Eventually, you’ll get to a point where you’re waiting thirty or forty minutes between treats. I love this skill so much!
I usually train this skill when I’m folding laundry on the sofa, or binge watching something. I think by now we should all be experts on binge watching, right?
4. Consider a pet camera.
Being able to check in on your dog during the day via a pet camera can provide you with great peace of mind. Some, like PetCube Bites 2, even have features like “bark alert” so you can be notified if your dog is possibly exhibiting distress (or just telling the Amazon delivery guy what’s what).
A lot of the cameras come with microphones in them so pet owners can talk to their dogs, provide verbal praise and comfort, or tell Coco that the delivery driver is not a threat.
There are even some that have a feature where you can shoot treats out of the base. With that feature, you could reinforce calm behavior sporadically throughout the day. It’d be like remotely training your pooch, if you will.
5. Give your dog a food puzzle.
Food puzzles are a great way to keep your dog calm and occupied while you’re away.
The general idea here is to provide some mental stimulation and enrichment while you’re gone. If your dog is busy working on the food puzzle, then he won’t have time to miss you. A well stuffed food puzzle can take hours to fully consume.
Food puzzles can be as simple as a stuffed KONG, filled with your dog’s regular food, filled with canned food, or packed with dog-safe peanut butter (be sure to get the kind that does not have artificial sweeteners in it) and frozen.
You could also use frozen “licki mats” to keep Coco calm and focused on something constructive.
You can also hide treats or bits of kibble around the house before you leave. This will help keep Fido busy, as he sniffs out scrumptious morsels all morning long as part of a fun nosework game.
Just remember, if your dog won’t eat while you’re away, he might be suffering from poor mental health and pretty severe separation anxiety, which may require the help of a specialist and some dog anxiety medication like doggie Xanax.
6. Consider giving your dog some canine companionship.
There’s no getting around it: Dogs are social animals, who thrive best when surrounded by others (including people or other dogs). So, you may want to add another pet to your home to give your four-footer some animal interaction.
Companionship might not be the best fit for all families, but some dogs really respond to just having another animal (usually another dog) in the house with them. Social interaction can simply be something that helps your pooch adapt to the life changes she’s facing.
It’s a big commitment, but if you were already considering bringing another dog into the home, you can add “easing separation stress” to the pros column.
Just understand that you should not get another dog purely because your first dog is struggling with separation anxiety. In some cases, companionship really helps; but in other cases, “stress is contagious” and you might end up with two dogs who are worried that you’re gone.
If you are considering adding another dog, and you believe it is the right choice for your family financially, emotionally, time, and energy wise, then I would suggest picking a confident dog.
Most dogs that struggle with separation stress tend to be on the more “I’ll follow your lead” side of life.
A confident dog is less likely to worry when you leave, and this could bolster your original dog’s feelings as well. I’ll go so far as to say I highly recommend picking a dog who is the opposite sex as your current dog, and at least two years different in age.
7. Try to start working from home regularily.
One of the few positive things about the pandemic is that it has proven to many companies that the “work from home” model is viable. Helping your dog with separation stress might be as simple as asking your employer if you can regularly work from home.
Even working from home just a few days each week (rather than the entire work week) could help mitigate your pup’s stress or ease the transition. Plus, working from home may even provide you with some health benefits (like giving you the time to improve your physical health, among other things).
It’s also worth pointing out that some companies allow (or even encourage) employees to bring their four-footer into the office. Try to take advantage of these policies, even if “bring your pooch to work” days only occur once a week.
8. Sign your pooch up for doggy daycare or a dog walking service.
Doggy daycare or dog walkers could be something you mix in with your “work from home” tactic, or a technique in and of itself.
Keep in mind that many dogs will not be suited for doggie daycare. It can be a very stimulating, overwhelming environment for many pups! However, dogs who do well in playgrounds will love the attention.
If your dog can handle it, find a well-run doggy daycare facility where your dog can go for supervised playtime and companionship while you’re gone.
If there aren’t any daycares in your area that you like, you could invest in a local dog walker who will come by your house while you’re at work and take your dog for a walk.
Just breaking up the isolation into smaller, less intimidating chunks of time can really help your dog be successful.
Not to mention, your dog will be happy and tired from his walk when you get home.
Or maybe he’ll want you take him on another walk so you can burn off all that coronavirus pandemic snacking you’ve been doing. Or was that just me?
Get Professional Help When You Need It!
The strategies discussed above should help most dogs adjust to life in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, it is important that you solicit professional assistance if these techniques fail to give your dog some relief.
Working with a trainer should be your first strategy — just be sure to select one who is qualified and only utilizes positive, force-free training methods. The Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) and International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAAABC) are the two best places to start your search.
You can also reach out to a company that provides long-distance training solutions, such as Journey Dog Training (as a K9 of Mine reader, you can even enjoy a discount on their services).
You may also want to speak with your vet about anti-anxiety medications, if training proves insufficient.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused stress for everyone, including pets and pet owners alike. And as we ease back into normal life, we need to help support our dogs. Engaging in some of these strategies can really set your dog up for success and make the transition that much easier.
How has your pet been adapting to the lockdown’s effect on daily life? Are you anticipating big problems once the COVID-19 pandemic is over and we return to normal times? What strategies do you plan to implement to help achieve a smooth transition?
Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!