Over the past 15 months, we’ve all gained some extra time with our furry four-legged friends. But are you worried about what’s going to happen now that restrictions are easing? Your precious pooch has become used to seeing you at home constantly. And this might become a challenge if you’re returning to the office, going on staycations or simply hanging out more with your friends and family.
With over 30%1 of dogs in the UK showing obvious signs of separation anxiety, it’s important to understand how you can prepare your pup for 'life after lockdown'. In this guide, we’ve partnered with animal behaviourist Helena Hale to take a closer look at the issue of separation anxiety in dogs – including the what and the why, the tell-tale signs and how to get post-lockdown support…
What is separation anxiety in dogs?
This is the term used when dogs show signs of distress when separated from their pet parents. Untreated, separation anxiety can seriously compromise our dogs’ welfare, and the problematic behaviours associated with it can undermine the dog-owner bond.
Why do dogs get separation anxiety?
Simply put dogs love spending time with us. They’re social animals, so being alone is not natural for them. A change in their routine – like you being at home 24/7 for 15 months and then returning to life as normal – can trigger different behavioural issues.
This is exaggerated in puppies who have grown up during the pandemic, who don’t know life without you.
The best time for them to learn that being alone is normal is during the ‘socialisation period’ – when your pup is between three and 12 weeks old. At this time, puppies’ brains are still developing, and they are learning what life is all about. Because lockdown didn’t give them the chance to be alone, they’re more likely to experience separation-related problems now everything is returning to normal.
The signs of separation anxiety in dogs
Dogs express how they feel through body language, behaviour and vocalisations. Here’s a few common indicators of separation anxiety:
This could be chewing your furniture or belongings, scratching at walls and floors, or digging at doors. It’s important to remember your dog isn’t doing these things to spite you. This is just a simple psychological symptom of separation anxiety.
When left alone, some dogs may urinate or poop inside – or in unusual places.
Barking, whining, or howling
Anxious dogs are likely to make loud vocalisations when alone in an attempt to regain contact with you, or to simply get your attention.
A dog with separation anxiety might attempt to follow you out of the house. In the worst cases, they’ll try to dig and scratch their way out of your home. This could cause some serious damage to their teeth, paws and nails!
An anxious dog may struggle to settle and relax, even when you’re around. This is because they’re worried you may leave again!
Loss of appetite
Leaving treats or meals untouched can be a sign your dog is anxious without you around.
Shivering, shaking, or cowering
As you try to leave the house – or after you’ve already gone – your dog may shiver, shake or cower out of anxiousness.
Other signs of separation anxiety include trying to prevent you from leaving the house by blocking your exit or using attention-seeking and aggressive behaviour. Some dogs will make themselves scarce as you prepare to leave, to avoid the situation.
But how can you tell if your dog is suffering from separation anxiety or just being naughty? If it’s separation anxiety, these destructive behaviours probably won’t happen in front of you – your dog’s likely to be calmer simply by being around you!
What to do if your dog suffers from separation anxiety?
If you’re unsure how your dog responds to being left alone, we recommend setting up a video camera to record their behaviour when you leave them. If they behave differently to how they normally would in your company, they might be suffering from separation anxiety. It’s important to never punish your dog’s anxious behaviour as it will only add to their emotional distress.
Like people, dogs are individuals. They all respond differently to changes, and these behaviours aren’t necessarily indicators of separation anxiety. If you’re concerned about anything, please contact your vet first to rule out any underlying issues.
How can you prepare your pup for life after lockdown?
Try these handy tricks in the next few weeks to prepare your dog for being alone when lockdown lifts. Just so you know, these are preventative measures, if you think your pup suffers from separation anxiety it’s always best to consult your vet.
Our top tips:
- In the next couple of weeks, try and get your dog into a similar routine to life post-lockdown, with the same time of day for meals, exercise, comfort breaks, play and rest.
- Don’t be tempted to keep your dog by your side at every moment just because you like the company – give them unrestricted access to places where they can be alone. This way they won’t rely on constant company.
- Plan time apart. For instance, a trip to the shops, time in separate rooms, or spend time in the garden while your dog is inside. Pair these times with something positive, such as a long-lasting treat. Ensure your dog is comfortable alone by videoing them to see how they behave.
- If you’re working from home, provide stimulation for your dog during your breaks and encourage them to settle when your attention is unavailable. You can do this by giving your dog something interesting and enriching in their bed, like a dog chew or a puzzle toy. This can be in the same room as you if your dog finds it hard to settle elsewhere. Gradually increase the space between you if your dog is happy to do so.
- Create a ‘safe space’ in a calm, quiet place. Provide independent activities that your dog enjoys, to reinforce them feeling good by themselves – such as puzzle-feeders, toys that they like playing with alone, or long-lasting treats.
- For puppies, do this while you’re nearby, and gradually increase the distance. Make sure your puppy is still engaged with the activity. And always return before they stop to make sure they keep feeling secure. If they show signs of distress, you’re taking things too quickly!
How to get support if your dog has separation anxiety
If you think your dog is anxious when they’re all by themselves, remember, you’re not alone. Separation anxiety is one of the most common behaviour problems in dogs and often goes undiagnosed and sadly, therefore, untreated. The good news is that it is treatable, and help is available for you and your dog to turn things around. The next few weeks provide the ideal time to get support for you and your dog in readiness for your return to the big wide world!
Our top tips:
- Minimise the time that your dog needs to spend by themselves, since repeatedly feeling anxious in isolation makes the problem worse, not better.
- If you see any of the signs that your dog has separation anxiety, such as toileting indoors or destructive behaviour, remember not to tell them off as this can deepen your dog’s distress and cause emotional conflict in their relationship with you.
- Ask your vet to refer you to a Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist who will provide a full diagnosis and bespoke treatment for you and your dog.
- Treatment will include teaching your dog something new and positive about being alone – and always takes your individual dog’s emotional state, behavioural responses and living circumstances into account.
- Try a calming supplement. YuMOVE Calming Care for Dogs is one of our premium supplements, designed to support natural calming pathways in the brain. A simple but effective way to help reduce anxiety or stress and support dogs to become happier and more playful.
1Blackwell, E. J., Twells, C., Seawright, A. & Casey, R. A. (2008). The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behaviour problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 3, 207-217.