Helping Dogs Cope When “Normal” Returns
With most people having to self-quarantine at this time, dogs are getting used to having their family home 24/7. When things do return to “normal” and everyone is able to return to work, some dogs are likely to suffer a kind of shock at the sudden separation from the family. A dog who becomes distressed when suddenly alone can become very destructive in the home which becomes very costly and distressing for the family. But more importantly, it means the dog is suffering emotionally, due to the separation. The good news is that there are ways to prevent this from occurring for both the dog and the family.
What is Isolation Distress?
Isolation distress and separation anxiety are very similar, but somewhat distinct behavioral issues. Both share common symptoms, such as destructiveness when alone, excessive vocalization, house soiling, escaping, pacing, and drooling. Separation anxiety tends to be classified as a behavioral/psychological disorder (similar to phobias or OCD) and often requires pharmaceutical intervention, while isolation distress tends to be milder (relatively speaking). Both are still severe behavioral concerns and cause a great deal of stress for both pets and owners.
If your dog does show signs of isolation distress or separation anxiety, please contact a qualified behavioral professional. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has an excellent handout on how to choose a professional trainer that will give an idea of what to look for and what questions to ask. Find it at https://avsab.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/How_to_Choose_a_Trainer_AVSAB.pdf.
It is also important to rule out other causes of such behavior before diagnosing a dog with isolation distress or separation anxiety. There are many medical issues that could lead to house soiling or drooling. Many breeds of dogs (such as a St. Bernard or Bloodhound) just drool; it is just something they do. As far as being excessively vocal, hound breeds are just naturally more vocal than most other breeds of dogs.
So what can families do to make it easier on their dogs when they are able to return to the office or school?
The most important thing is to develop a routine. Dogs and other animals thrive on routines. A lot of anxiety can be relieved simply by making it possible for an animal to predict what will happen and when. Many health professionals also suggest that having a routine during quarantine is beneficial to humans as well. So everyone will win! Try to plan a routine that is as similar as possible to the one the family will maintain once returning to working outside the home. This will help maintain consistency and predictability for the dog and make the transition to the family leaving easier.
As in most dog training, begin before your dog is left alone. Be sure the dog is properly exercised and socialized before it is left alone. Some things you can do include:
- Continue a typical routine of waking up, taking the dog out, and getting breakfast ready. This is a great time to have quality social interactions with your dog.
- Take the dog for a walk or play a game in the yard.
- When feeding your dog try a puzzle feeder instead of a bowl.
- Use some of the morning’s ration in a training session or try scattering it around the house or yard for the dog to hunt.
- Once the dog has had sufficient physical activity try training calming behaviors, such as a place or station behavior.
Many destructive behaviors are caused by dogs who have pent up energy without an appropriate outlet. Be sure these needs are met before trying to leave any animal alone.
Giving your dog space
Once the dog is sufficiently exercised you should now be able to begin leaving it alone for short periods of time. Decide on a space that will belong to the dog while it is alone. Set up the dog’s space to be as comfortable for the dog as possible. Some dogs enjoying looking out a window, for others it can create a lot of stress and frustration. Always consider any activities that may arouse or frustrate a dog that is alone, such as passing cars or pedestrians.
Neighboring animals can also create frustration for a dog that is either unable to escape from or interact with it. A dog’s time alone should be as frustration-free as possible. A dog that becomes exasperated due to these factors will likely develop the very behaviors a family is trying to prevent, such as destructiveness, escape attempts, and excessive vocalizations. An outdoor dog that is excessively vocal or constantly escaping can become a nuisance to neighbors and result in complaints and neighborhood conflicts.
Be sure the dog has appropriate activities available to it. This is a great time to give the dog a favorite chew toy. Find a toy that is reserved for the time the dog is alone and not enjoyed in any other context.
When leaving the dog in these areas do not make a big production of leaving. Many owners will spend several minutes telling a dog over and over again that they are a ‘good boy’ and ‘I’ll be back, promise’ while lavishing lots of hugs, kisses, and pets on the dog in order to reassure it. This often has the opposite effect on the dog. Dogs tend not to understand phrases like ‘I’ll be home at lunchtime’. They are, however, very good at recognizing and mirroring an owner’s anxiety and distress. When you do leave the dog alone a simple, slow, and relaxed shoulder scratch and a treat or toy are sufficient.
Have patience as they adjust
Remember that the goal is not to isolate the dog during this time. It is simply to be sure the dog is accustomed to a routine that can be kept after the quarantine is over and will not become overly stressed once the family is no longer home all day.
If you start experiencing issues with your dog, even if it has never been an issue in the past, don’t panic. Isolation distress and separation anxiety may take a bit more work than you’re typically used to, but once in a routine everything will be ok! Please don’t think you have to surrender your dog if they start experiencing any of these symptoms.
If a dog is typically allowed free roam of the home it is perfectly fine to continue. But a dog needs to learn they don’t need to have someone in their sights at all times. They can learn to entertain themselves. They don’t need pets every other minute and don’t need to follow a person on their heels or be attached at the hip. The times a dog is typically left alone is a great time for a family to complete non-dog friendly tasks, such as working from home, housekeeping (especially vacuuming), or yard work. Preparing a pet to feel secure when alone now will benefit everyone in a family once life returns to normal.