Returning to work? Expert tips to deal with your dog’s separation anxiety

Posted: 13 October 2021 12:00 pm
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Our pets will need to learn to cope without us in post-lockdown life. Here are 5 helpful tips from experts.

This week, NSW became the first state to ease COVID lockdown restrictions for double vaccinated citizens, allowing residents to visit pubs, restaurants, gyms and return to work where necessary, setting in motion the roadmap towards fully opening back up.

Restrictions are set to be eased in Victoria when the state reaches 70% double jab, most likely around the end of October.

For many pets, having spent the last 100 plus days by their owner's side, our sudden absence from the house is likely to cause some stress, anxiety and even disruptive behaviour.

52% of dogs suffering from post-lockdown separation anxiety

It's a particular concern for dogs bought during lockdown; pet ownership has skyrocketed in the last 18 months. Research by Finder found that 34% of the estimated 12 million pet owners in Australia got their furry friend since the pandemic began back in March 2020.

Sadly, adapting to life after lockdown hasn't been easy for our pets. A recent survey by Royal Canin has found that 52% of Australian dogs are now suffering from post-lockdown separation anxiety.

The survey also found that 37% of dog owners don't feel equipped to manage their pet's separation anxiety successfully.

"It is [...] important to understand how traumatising separation anxiety can be for a dog. For many dogs, it can be similar to the mental and physical trauma that a human might experience when having a panic attack, for example," says dog trainer and host of Channel 10's Pooches at Play Lara Shannon.

Is your dog anxious?

Royal Canin veterinarian Dr Mina Hamilton said the typical signs of separation anxiety can include:

  • Following you around your home
  • Trying to leave the house when you leave
  • Barking, whimpering or howling when you leave or after you've gone
  • Staying close to the door that you left through
  • Pacing or unable to rest or relax while you're away
  • Destructive behaviour such as chewing or destroying things when they're alone
  • Reacting to noises that they wouldn't normally react to while you're home

If your dog has displayed any of these symptoms, here are some of the steps you can take to help stop separation anxiety:

1. Start spending time away from them

To help your pet adjust to being without you, practise leaving them alone for small periods of time.

"If you have a multi-room home, spend the first 30 minutes and the last 30 of the day alone without engaging with your pet [...] If your pet gets distressed, try reducing this 'alone time' to just 5-10 minutes to start with," says Dr Sam Kovac, owner of Southern Cross Vet in Sydney.

"It's important that once you return after being separated, you don't shower your pet with affection," Kovac advises. "Rather, act calmly and when they are calm, slowly start to dish out the praises."

"If you live in a studio, invest in some baby gates where you can physically distance from your pet for the beginning and end of the day or even go for a quick walk on your own without your pet," Kovac adds.

2. Establish a new routine

"Our pets thrive on routine. While you have been at home, you have established predictable times for high-value activities like walks, feeds, rest and playtime. This sudden and unexpected change to being alone for long periods may bring on separation anxiety in some pets," says Black Hawk Veterinarian Dr Lee Danks.

Dr Kovac says helping form new habits now will help our pooches transition to the new normal: "By starting a 'go to work' ritual now, we can get our pets used to this frightening time of perceived abandonment.

"At or around your normal 'get ready for work' time, start doing the things you do normally. It might be jangling car keys, getting dressed, picking up your bag and leaving through the garage or front door. Whatever the things are that you do – do it briskly and don't dawdle. Ensure that you don't make a big deal about it. This is part of life now, this is their 'new normal'."

3. Give them chew toys and keep them occupied

"Keep them occupied when alone with their favourite toys and puzzles. Rotate toys each day as a toy that is left around can soon lose its novelty," says Dr Danks.

It's important to give them chew toys that are clearly distinguishable from your own household items: "Something that keeps them busy for a period of time to chew on or lick," says Dr Kovac.

"They will then start to associate their 'alone time' with good feelings and a dopamine surge to counter any imminent loneliness," Kovac adds.

Pet behaviourist Lara Shannon also says background noise can be helpful: "Allowing your dog access to inside the house or even your room can make a big difference for some dogs, and help them keep calm when you aren't there as well, and leaving quiet music or the TV on. In fact, Dog TV is a great new subscription service that has scientifically created content just for dogs."

4. Establish a consistent exercise routine

Over the last few months, our dogs have likely been taken out for more walks than in pre-lockdown life. That's likely to change once the country begins to transition back into normal work life.

"Start creating an exercise routine that you can maintain once you return to work or study," says Dr Lee Danks.

Making sure your dog is getting a consistent amount of exercise ensures they won't become bored as you begin to leave the house more often.

5. Get help from an expert

"If their separation anxiety is more than just a mild situation then you really do need to talk to your vet or a qualified dog trainer or vet behaviourist ideally about the options available to you," says Shannon. "For some dogs, medication may be needed to help address the chemical imbalances going on."

We looked at 9 pet insurance policies and found 6 that can cover obedience training and behavioural therapy if you add routine care cover to your policy.

These policies can help pay for training your dog may need, including techniques for coping with separation anxiety. It can also contribute towards vaccinations, teeth cleaning, microchipping, desexing and general health checks.

You don't generally have to serve any waiting periods either, which means you can begin claiming back money for obedience training or behavioural therapy straight away.

In addition to obedience training, pet insurance can help pay for vet bills if your dog gets sick or injured. You can compare policies side by side here.

Get a better deal on pet insurance

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