How will your Pets cope when you go back to work?
COVID has been a huge disruption for many people. One of the biggest changes this pandemic has caused is that many people have been working from home. Not leaving the home much, if at all, compared to what was normal before this virus flared up like wildfire.
This means that many pets have had something that may seem to be beneficial: heaps more time with their humans! However, if you have a dog that had any sort of separation anxiety issues before the pandemic kicked in, then they may really struggle when things return (somewhat) to normal and you start leaving your home for work again.
I have noticed this with the dog next door. Max, bless him, has the most annoying bark in the Southern hemisphere, and he freaks out when left alone at home. He had been blessedly silent for months, and now he is starting up frantic, fearful barking as soon as his Dad leaves for work (at 5:30 am).
At first, he was a hell of a lot worse than he used to be pre-lockdown. More afraid. More frantic. Barking for longer and more loudly. Max is a funny dog- If I go to the fence he puts all his hair up and barks at me. If I talk to him from the back deck (just like his Dad does “Shut up Max!”) he does settle and be quiet after a little while. But it has taken a lot longer for me to settle him than it used to.
If you got a puppy during the pandemic (and many people have- the price of puppies has skyrocketed!), then you may have unwittingly primed them to have severe separation anxiety. More about that in a minute.
What is separation anxiety? How does it develop?
Separation anxiety is where animals become distressed when they are left alone. It’s more common when left without human company. It can happen when two dogs are strongly bonded and separated, too. Often in a multi-dog household, only one dog will have separation anxiety when the humans leave the house. It can be all of them in some cases.
Dogs are pack animals. They bond strongly to the beings they know as ‘pack leader’ – that would be the humans. Nearly always dogs will bond more strongly with one particular human in the household. Separation anxiety happens when they ‘over-bond’. This can sometimes be because the human needs the dog for emotional support in an unhealthy way.
The signs of separation anxiety may be obvious – panting, shaking, distress, panic, vocalizing, destructive behaviours, escaping or pacing the whole time they are alone. Often you won’t know if your dogs have separation anxiety until you set up a camera to record their behaviour while you are out of the house (highly recommended).
As with all forms of anxiety, separation anxiety causes a state of unhealthy over-arousal. Your dog’s fight/flight nervous system goes into overdrive. Adrenalin rushes through their veins, their heart rate skyrockets, and they experience severe mental and emotional distress.
Primarily, separation anxiety develops when puppies are not left alone to learn how to self-regulate to relaxation. Puppies need time alone. Humans, especially these days, often think that it would be awful and cruel to EVER leave that poor little cute morsel alone for a moment. But it’s important that you do, so that your dogs don’t become overly emotionally dependent on you being present.
You start off leaving them in another room. Then you let them have a yell and cry, until they go quiet. Then you open the door, give them lots of love. Over time the yelling will become less. The puppy will learn how to settle themselves. Once they get good at that, it’s really important to leave your pup alone in the house regularly. And you should start doing this as soon as your pup arrives. Crate training is another excellent way to help your pup build resilience and independence.
The younger you start, the easier this process is.
What if your dog already has Separation Anxiety?
There are a few things you can do. If your dog has full blown separation anxiety, it’s not a good idea to try to teach them to be independent by leaving them alone. That will make things worse.
My whippet gets distressed if she is left in the house without humans. She will destroy blinds and chew window frames. I take with me in the car when it’s cool enough, and leave her in the back yard if it’s warmer. She is ok in the back yard. I do a lot with her, and she is way better than she was, but I still have to take care to manage her anxiety.
I do a lot of bodywork with her, that helps a lot. The Whole Energy Body Balance method (my signature healing bodywork modality) is a fantastic support in training dogs with anxiety of any kind how to relax at a body level.
The WEBB Somatic Relaxation technique is especially helpful. I had one Staffy come to me who was tearing all the plasterboard off the walls when left home alone. After two weeks of WEBB Somatic Relaxation bodywork (and CBD, which helps, but not as much as the bodywork), he was so relaxed that all the destructive behaviour stopped, and he wasn’t even bothering to get off his bed when his Mum came home from her shift.
Once you teach them how to relax with healing WEBB bodywork, then you can start to work with getting them used to the idea of you leaving. Pick up the keys, get ready to go out, then when they get distressed, do the bodywork until they are deeply relaxed. Do this again and again until they stop freaking out and can regulate themselves to be calm even when you are preparing to leave.
Then do short trips out, just 5 minutes. Bodywork at the door before you go, then more when you get back. This is a unique way of training dogs how to relax, and how to relax themselves. It does take time, but this process can really help these dogs – and you may need to do this to help your dog cope with the transition back to more ‘normal’ life where you are out of the home at work again.
You can eventually buildup to longer trips. And have a MUCH happier dog when you do need to leave them alone.
Other things that can help:
CBD is great for helping anxious dogs – one of the safest herbal medicines in the world! It helps a lot with anxiety, and is well worth considering to help any dog with separation anxiety.
Thunder shirts, weighted blankets, and other herbal medicines may help. If your dog has a history of trauma, them the WEBB bodywork can help release and heal that, too. Nose work, positive gentle training, and plenty of healthy calming play is important. High arousal play is not so good for these dogs.
Prescription medication may be needed in severe cases. (This is a last resort for me.) And your dogs should be assessed for silent pain, as this can be an important factor in causation of anxiety.
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