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Return To 'Normal' Could Spell Anxiety For Dogs Left Alone. Here's How To Help.

Bailey Rae Weaver
Flickr / CC-by 2.0

Routines are changing, as COVID-19 vaccinations become more widely available and public health restrictions gradually ease. People are ready to get back to pre-pandemic normal. But their pets might have a hard time adjusting to being alone again.

Bob Ryder is a dog trainer who owns Pawsitive Transformations in Bloomington. He said stay-at-home orders and school closures changed dogs’ daily lives—and they’ll feel the impact again as things reopen.

Bob Ryder is a Bloomington-based dog trainer who owns Pawsitive Transformations.
Pawsitive Transformations
Bob Ryder is a Bloomington-based dog trainer who owns Pawsitive Transformations.

“Dogs are likely to experience, from their perspective, sudden changes or overwhelming changes to a routine that they've become somewhat accustomed to,” Ryder said. “One of those stressors is likely to be, ‘Oh my gosh, I'm home all by myself, I'm uncomfortable with this.’”

Separation anxiety is when a dog has the canine equivalent of a panic attack when they’re by themselves, said Ryder, adding it's a specific condition that’s becoming better and better understood.

“There's a certain number of dogs with just a genetic predisposition to the condition,” Ryder said. “For a dog in this category, you would expect to see the symptoms happen at whatever point the dog was first left alone for any significant amount of time.”

Ryder said dogs also can develop separation anxiety when they experience dramatic changes—like a new home or guardian. An abrupt change in schedule can cause the problem, too.

Ryder said some dogs do better with that kind of change than others.

“There's any number of factors that contribute to it—whether they're well-bonded with their families and have an enriched environment, versus if they are generally stressed out and have lots of difficulties in life otherwise,” he said. “That stress can probably make the dog more susceptible to (anxiety) when there’s a sudden change.”

Ryder said one of the best ways to avoid the issue is to practice alone time before returning to the office full time. He recommends starting in small increments.

“Go out, just for a few minutes—maybe even for a quick walk up and down the block—and give the dog a chance to have a very brief period of alone time and see how they do,” he said. “It could even be shorter than that. They might just walk out the door, be gone for 30 seconds and then come back in.”

Gradually, owners can build those increments over time. Ryder said they also can work to desensitize dogs to signals they’re leaving, by practicing things like putting on their coat and shoes or jostling their car keys without actually leaving the house.

“Go out, just for a few minutes—maybe even for a quick walk up and down the block—and give the dog a chance to have a very brief period of alone time and see how they do."

To assess the severity of the anxiety, Ryder said it may be helpful to find a way to watch the dog while it’s alone — by setting up a video stream on a smartphone or home security system.

“See if the dog tends to be comfortable and relaxed or if they start to show some signs of pacing, panting, drooling, house training accidents, any destructive behavior,” he said. “That would be an early sign that the dog is saying, ‘Hey, I'm not cool with being all by myself. I feel really vulnerable, I'm scared.’ If there's any opportunity to start helping the dog with that before the absences have to happen, they've got that buffer.”

Ryder said to also make good use of the time you do have at home with your dog. Playing fetch or tug of war, going for runs or hiking all help the dog get some energy out, he said, while brain teasers and games like hide-and-go-seek help alleviate boredom.

Ryder said that way, by the time the dog is going to be left alone, they’re ready for a nap anyway.

“As much fun and joyful, active physical and mental exercise as you can provide for your dog is a game changer,” he said.

Ryder said addressing separation anxiety can be a slow process, but don't get discouraged. He said the condition is widely treatable—in extreme cases with the help of a vet who can diagnose separation anxiety and potentially prescribe medication.

“If the symptoms are long lasting or especially severe—if the dog is hurting themselves, trying to dig through the edge of the door, trying to break through the windows to get out and find their person, or injuring themselves trying to get out of a kennel—it's definitely a great first step to contact the veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist,” Ryder said.

He also recommends education through resources like Malena DeMartini’s book “Treating Separation Anxiety In Dogs.” DeMartini is a trainer who specializes in anxiety disorders. She also runs an online course for owners.

Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.