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Dog lying by the front door

Life after lockdown: help your dog with separation anxiety

As we head back to our normal routines and spend more time out of the house, our dogs may need a little help to readjust, particularly when it comes to coping with separation anxiety.

Many of us have spent an unprecedented amount of time at home over the last twelve months – and we're sure our pets have loved it! Unfortunately, as we begin to return to our offices, schools and hobbies, they may be left feeling anxious and confused.

How common is separation anxiety?

Unfortunately, separation anxiety is a lot more common than many of us think. Estimates and various surveys suggest that the incidence of this condition is one in every four to six dogs – and it is even more common in senior dogs. We must remember that dogs are social animals, so for most of them spending time alone is not something that comes naturally.

What are the symptoms?

By its very nature, separation anxiety happens when your dog is not with you, so it's more than possible that some of these behaviours are happening without your knowledge. Others, however, will be easy to spot. Pay attention if your dog:

  1. Starts following you around, particularly if they sense you are getting ready to leave.
  2. Tries to leave with you.
  3. Barks, whimpers, whines, pants or drools (a sign of stress) for extended periods.
  4. Stays close to the door.
  5. Displays destructive behaviour, such as chewing or breaking things, while you're gone.
  6. Demonstrates a loss of appetite.
  7. Toilets indoors, even though they are fully trained and haven't been left for too long.
  8. Starts over-grooming (including excessive licking) or shows general restless or compulsive behaviour.

How to help your dog

Unfortunately, it's not a case of being able to cure separation anxiety – but there are lots of things we can do to gradually help our dogs realise that being left at home needn't be a negative experience.

Firstly, it's important to keep your dog's routine as consistent as possible. Even if routine has fallen by the wayside during lockdown, start a routine today that looks as similar as possible to their life after lockdown. If this involves big changes, make them gradually, so as not to cause further stress; the idea is to get them into a new routine as gradually as possible. Think about the times you feed them, go for walks and play with them. If they have a consistent routine, they can predict what's going to happen next, thereby reducing their stress.

If you have been working from home and your dog has been glued to your side, gradually move their bed further away from you – and reward them for settling down calmly. Eventually, you will be able to place their bed in another room. Start with your door open, then progress to closing it.

Try pairing these quiet times with an exciting toy or a delicious, long-lasting treat (like a puzzle they have to play with in order to get the food out) so they don't get bored. If they have exciting things to do when they're on their own, they won't be as concerned about you leaving the house.

Dog sitting in front of food

Notice if there are any changes to your dog's appetite – it can be a tell-tale sign that something is amiss.

It can also help to make sure that your dog has had some exercise before you leave – but remember that if they have got used to a quieter world, the hustle and bustle of more people, dogs and vehicles out and about can take their toll.

Older dogs are likely to be particularly nervous, so consider calmer routes and remember that exercise requirements can be supplemented with games in the garden.

Long-term actions

  • Consider whether it's possible for family members to stagger their return to their normal activities, or even change parts of their routine permanently. It might be possible, for example, for some family members to work one day a week from home.
  • Leave and return quietly, to help convey the message that your absence isn't anything to worry about. Prolonged goodbyes, in particular, may increase their anxiety – and however tempting, don't make a big fuss when you arrive home (but of course you can give them plenty of attention and affection later on).
  • You can also leave your dog with a blanket or piece of clothing that carries your scent to help comfort them, and leave a TV or radio on.

Most of all, remember that this process will require patience, love and commitment on your behalf, and you should never punish your dog's anxious behaviour as it will only make them more distressed.

It is also possible that the symptoms you're attributing to separation anxiety have a medical cause, so always speak to your vet if you're concerned. Take a list of the kinds of behaviour you have witnessed as well as details of when it tends to happen.

Joanna Dyer is a content writer and editor at Healthspan.

Healthspan pet supplements are not intended to replace a well-balanced diet for your pet.