7 ways to help your dog overcome its separation anxiety | TeamDogs
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7 ways to help your dog overcome its separation anxiety

As owners return to work after lockdown, many dogs face the anxiety of being left alone. We asked the experts how to handle it.

Catrin Pascoe

Posted 2 months ago

Image: Getty Images

By Jenny White

Record numbers of puppies were purchased during lockdown, and now that owners are returning to their places of work, these dogs are faced with suddenly being on their own for relatively long periods of time.

Even dogs that were previously used to having time alone may struggle to adapt after having their owners around for months.

The result, in many cases, is separation anxiety – a fear of being left alone which often manifests in separation-related behaviour problems (SRBPs). 

“Much like humans, dogs can become accustomed to their surroundings and many enjoy having a regular routine,” says Dr Jessica May, UK lead vet at video vet service FirstVet.

“Any disruptions or changes may come as a shock to their system. It is important to remember that dogs won’t understand why these changes are happening, which can make the process stressful for them.”

Separation anxiety can manifest in various ways. If your dog is chewing on furniture, tearing up cushions or otherwise wreaking havoc while you are away, this can be a sign that it is struggling with being on its own. 

“Self-destructive behaviour, such as dogs licking themselves excessively, causing irritation of the skin, can also be a sign of separation anxiety,” says Jessica.

“Canines who vocalise or bark loudly as their owners leave the room or home may also be suffering from separation anxiety. Separation anxiety in dogs should not be ignored, as it can be seriously detrimental to the wellbeing of dogs and can worsen if left unaddressed.”

Carolyn Menteith, behaviourist at tails.com, adds that it’s easy to forget that dogs are naturally social animals; that is why they make such great companions and bond with us so strongly. 

“That strong bond has its drawbacks,” she says.

“Being alone is not natural for a dog - and unless dogs have been taught that being on their own isn’t anything to worry about, finding themselves home alone for the first time in their lives (or the first time in over a year - which is a long time for a dog) is likely to be stressful for them and give rise to behaviour issues.”

Besides the fear of being alone, dogs face becoming bored when left alone. 

“This can be responsible for some cases of barking, chewing and destructiveness,” says Carolyn. Other contributing factors can include lack of exercise and unrealistic toilet training expectations: it is unreasonable to expect a dog to go for hours without being able to relieve itself, and then to scold it when it has an accident in the house.







What can I do about separation anxiety?

1.Give rewards

“Have a handful of treats and scatter them on the floor before leaving the room for one minute,” says Carolyn. “If you think your dog will follow you, use a baby gate in the doorway to prevent them from doing so (don’t just shut the door, as that physical barrier can cause anxiety). Come straight back again as if nothing had happened. Repeat this several times in the day.” She also suggests going into another room when your dog is eating its meals.

2.Start putting a door between you

“It is helpful to start with small steps,” says Jessica. “Instead of leaving your dog at home for a full day, start with just closing the door between you and your pet. Increase the amount of time they spend alone in small increments, from a few seconds until you get to hours. As the time increases your pet will soon be ready to spend the occasional day alone, without it being too stressful.”

Image: Getty Images

3.Exercise

“You should make sure your dog has enough time outside to use up their excess energy before spending time alone,” says Jessica. “Ensuring that they have a morning walk before you head off to work will make your dog less restless and decrease the chances of separation anxiety, as well as being beneficial for you.”

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4.Establish new routines

“We all respond well to a routine, and our pets are no different,” says PDSA vet nurse Nina Downing. “Establishing a new regime before you make the switch from working remotely can be a great way to ease your pet’s anxiety as you move over to life back in the office. Waking up and going to bed at your normal time if you were going to work, spending more time in another room, or taking a short trip out during the day are gradual steps that can lead to a big impact in the long run. 

“Use the same actions every time you leave, so your pet learns what to expect, such as closing doors, putting on your coat or picking up your car keys. These small indicators will help your pet be more relaxed when your normal work routine resumes, as they will have become used to you leaving and coming back. When you return, try not to be too animated with your greeting (no matter how much you’ve missed them!) to make your return less eventful in their day. The aim here is to normalise your pet’s alone time as ‘no big deal.”

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5.Feed their boredom

“Keeping our pets engaged and stimulated during the hours we aren’t with them is a great way to stop them getting bored or worried,” says Nina. “Leave out activities like destruction boxes and enrichment feeders to keep your pets entertained while simultaneously improving their physical and mental wellbeing, however, make sure the items your dog is left to play with are pet safe and not potential choking hazards or if swallowed going to cause an obstruction. We recommend leaving a variety of activities and exercises out, so your pet has lots of options to choose from, and try to change them from day to day. It’s also important to remember that dogs shouldn’t be left for more than four hours at a time. If you’re going to struggle to pop back to see them during your work day, dog walkers could be the vital support you need when making sure your pets’ needs are met while you’re out.”

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6.Creating a relaxing environment

“Create a relaxing environment for your pets that is in a secure, safe and quiet area of your home,” says Nina. “We recommend using a plugin diffuser or a collar that releases natural calming pheromones to create a tranquil space that helps ease any midday anxieties. Leaving an old item of clothing with your scent on close by can also act as a familiar reminder of your presence, and a symbol of comfort. In short, create a space where you’ll be jealous of your pet for spending some of their day there!”

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7.Be understanding

“Never punish your dog for any destructive behaviour, chewing, loss of toilet training etc when you are out,” says Carolyn. “This isn’t ‘bad behaviour’, it is as a result of anxiety, panic, stress, boredom or frustration caused by your absence - and your dog can’t help it. Punishing them will just make an already stressful situation far worse.”

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