Helping Your Pet Overcome Separation Anxiety, Part 1: Dogs
In the first of a two-part feature, check out the advice of local animal behaviorists and trainers about pet separation anxiety in dogs, as well as one Newtown family’s personal experience.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted everyone’s daily routines — and that includes pets.
Many dogs and cats adjusted to their owners being home with them 24/7 for months, but now that their human family members are returning to work or taking vacations, pets are suddenly experiencing separation that can be an issue for these former round-the-clock furry friends.
As a result, dogs and cats are having separation anxiety more frequently than before and exhibiting stress-induced behaviors stemming from their mental health.
In the first of a two-part feature, check out the advice from these local animal behaviorists and trainers about what your dog or dogs may be experiencing, as well as one Newtown family’s personal experience.
Abby Hill is a certified professional dog trainer and owner of The Exceptional Pet in Newtown, a group that offers private behavioral consultations/training for dogs and group obedience classes.
In her experience, she finds it is more common for rescue dogs to develop separation anxiety with their owners compared to dogs from breeders, due to the potential trauma they experience early in life switching homes and traveling.
All dogs, however, can experience mental health challenges, including symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and grief over the loss of a person or companion, according to Hill.
“If they are used to having a sibling around, particularly when people adopt two littermates or two puppies the same age, those dogs can have separation anxiety with each other pretty significantly,” Hill explained.
Now, more than ever, there are dogs showing signs of some sort of separation anxiety resulting from families quarantining during the pandemic.
“As [people] start to go back out, even dogs that were well established and had no separation anxiety before are showing signs. It’s a definite problem and it’s one of the hardest to fix from a behavior perspective,” Hill said.
It is important to spot early warning signs before full blown separation anxiety develops, because it becomes increasingly difficult to fix.
Signs To Notice
As for what to look for, Hill explained, “Separation anxiety really is when the dog starts to show extreme physical symptoms, such as drooling or excessive licking, or they’ll injure themselves trying to get out of a crate, or they’ll damage your property — that’s really when it turns into separation anxiety versus general anxiety in the dog when people leave.”
She continued, “These animals can’t speak to us. It’s us problem-solving and not really knowing what they feel about what we’re doing. It’s kind of luck of the draw when you find something that works for your dog. I’ve had a bunch of dogs not benefit from a certain technique then one dog does, so you never really know what is going to help the dog.”
One of the best ways to help a dog with separation anxiety is to not make a big deal with coming and going.
From there, the pet owners should work on leaving their dog for very short periods of time, then slowly build up to more substantial time apart.
“They need to learn how to be alone and that is something over the past year that the dogs have missed, because none of us have gone out... You do it slowly over a long period of time, where you can give them something fun to eat in their crate or in the room you are going to leave them in. You can leave them for just 30 seconds the first time, then you build up to a minute, then you slowly build from there and continue,” Hill said.
Some dogs can benefit from CBD oil and probiotics, as well as canine enrichment.
“Dogs love to use their brains... Anything that makes the dog sort of work and problem-solve, they really enjoy. That can then translate to lower anxiety in general,” Hill said.
Medication also has helped dogs with separation anxiety.
“Usually when there is separation anxiety, we combine medication with the behavior modification plan, and that’s the rest route to success,” Hill said.
She recommends pet owners talk with their veterinarian and consult a veterinary behaviorist to work through the problems they are encountering and find what works best.
“Just like people, we have dogs on Prozac; but sometimes Prozac isn’t the best thing for that particular dog, just like in people. We see a lot of clients start Prozac and it doesn’t work, and they give up on medication — and that isn’t really the best route to finding out what works best for their dog,” Hill said. “They really need to work with somebody that understands medication, dogs, and separation anxiety, and usually that is a veterinary behaviorist.”
Hill adds that pet owners should not discipline a dog for its anxiety-fueled behavior.
“You never want to correct a dog for anxiety; it’s just going to make the anxiety worse, so a corrective measure should be avoided. It should all be about making the dog more comfortable in their situation,” she said.
Instead, focusing on being patient and providing a safe space for the pet (so they do not injure themselves in their panicked state) is important.
Ultimately, fixing separation anxiety in dogs, Hill said, “could be as simple as trying a new room or moving the crate to a different corner of the house, or it could be as complicated as you need 12 steps before you leave the house.”
She recommends people reach out to a certified dog trainer. These professionals can be found through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, at ccpdt.org, and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, at iaabc.org.
Hill adds that she understands that pet owners may feel discouraged, with many services and dog trainers not being available due to a huge influx of animals from the pandemic. She reminds people that so many people are doing the best they can to care for the growing needs of pets right now, and that help is out there.
For more information about The Exceptional Pet and to receive advice from Hill, visit theexceptionalpet.com or call 203-270-DOGS (3647).
Newtown Resident’s Experience
During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a huge surge in pet adoptions from shelters and purchases from breeders.
After Newtown resident Heather Symes and her family went through the passing of their 14½-year-old Labrador in October 2020, the house was not the same.
“We have three young kids that didn’t know what life was like without a dog, so we knew we wanted to get another dog,” Symes said. “We started looking relatively quickly, because I heard earlier in the pandemic that it was really difficult to find a puppy.”
After running into wait lists with different breeders and searching for adoptable puppies through shelters, Symes connected with Danbury Animal Welfare Society (DAWS), where the family had previously adopted their cat from years prior, and filled out an application.
Not too long after, they got the call that a puppy in the foster program seemed like a good fit for their active family. They all visited the puppy the weekend after Christmas — telling their children that they were just socializing the dog, so as to not get their hopes up if it was not meant to be.
Upon connecting with the dog, the family adopted her and was able to bring her home in early January. They named her Kawi after Kawasaki dirt bikes, which the children enjoy riding.
Now at 9 months old, Kawi has only ever known the family’s lifestyle during the pandemic. She had access to family members 24/7, especially when the children were distance-learning through late April.
“We were always home and around,” Symes said.
Even if Symes went out to the grocery store, someone would be home with Kawi, so the dog never experienced what it was like to be alone until recent months.
Symes reached out to The Exceptional Pet and got advice from Hill on how to work with Kawi. She started crate training Kawi every day, but saw concerning behavior from her.
“In the crate, she would just be barking her head off, scratching, trying to get out. She would try to bite her way out, and she was really frantic. I talked to Abby about it, and she let me know that this isn’t a puppy tantrum anymore; she is really panicking, and she can hurt herself trying to claw and bite her way out,” Symes said.
Anything that was left near the crate, like a blanket or a bed comforter, Kawi would chew up. Symes even set up a camera to watch Kawi while the family went out to pick up takeout one day and witnessed her acting out in distress being separated from them.
Private Guidance Helped
Seeing that Kawi was experiencing such severe separation anxiety, they set up three private lessons with The Exceptional Pet for a certified dog trainer to come to their home to help.
They were taught different techniques and given assignments to continue with Kawi until the next lesson.
“We actually wound up doing a spreadsheet recording for when she got in the crate, the length of time, did she whine, did she cry, and stuff like that,” Symes said. “We worked on leaving the house — walking out with her, walking in, going about business back and forth, ignoring her. By the third lesson, we were able to have her in the crate for about 20 minutes and she wasn’t frantic anymore. She didn’t necessarily like it, but she wasn’t panicking and frantic, so there was definitely a big improvement there.”
To anyone with a puppy, Symes recommends working on crate training early on, even if the family is home a lot, to allow the dog to experience some alone time.
They have also seen positive results after shifting from having Kawi in the crate to giving her access to limited areas in the house when they leave.
“We have done that and she has been a lot better. She’s not frantic when we leave, and we still have the camera on her,” Symes said.
They are grateful to have received help for Kawi with her separation anxiety to the point where they are now able to leave the house.
“There has definitely been progress,” Symes said.
Next week, look for our feature on how to help your feline friends through separation anxiety.
Reporter Alissa Silber can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.