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Preparing for the Storm After the Calm:Preventing and Treating Separation Anxiety in Pets

COVID-19 has forced many of us into home quarantine, essentially ending work, school, and social activities outside of the home. While this may be a quiet, lonely, boring, and understandably stressful time for many humans, it has likely been positive for many companion animals. Shelters and rescues across the country have reported record adoption and fostering numbers, as people feel they have enough time to devote to getting a new pet settled. Pets already in homes have been enjoying increased attention through walks, playtime, petting, and having their humans in sight all day long.

Photo Credit: Susan Schmitz

Our pets have certainly been a bright spot during this dark time, providing unwavering affection and companionship. As dog behavior expert and trainer Andrea Arden notes, “People seem to be making use of this time at home to really benefit improving their relationship with their dogs and improving their dogs’ manners.”

As we look forward to safely returning to work, school, and our normal social activities, it is important to keep in mind that our pets may suffer fear and stress from suddenly being left at home alone after weeks of constant companionship. This “separation anxiety” can manifest in destructive or troublesome behaviors, which may lead some frustrated or overwhelmed pet owners to surrender their pets to animal shelters and rescues. To help avoid this devastating scenario, Broadway Barks talked to dog behavior experts to get information and tips we can all use to help our furry family members transition back to normal life peacefully and safely.

The bottom line: Separation anxiety is highly treatable, and now is the perfect time to work on preventing and treating it before it becomes a problem.

Signs of Separation Anxiety

Some signs are obvious—a torn curtain, a scratched door, urinating and/or defecating indoors, or a chewed shoe. Other signs you might not see include excessive barking or whining, hyper focus on the door or out the window, and nervous pacing. Dog behavior expert Lauren Novack is even seeing signs of separation anxiety in dogs who were well-established in their homes and were considered “behaviorally average.” “Even dogs who did not previously have any issue being left alone are starting to have a hard time when owners leave. Even if it’s just to go to the store and come back. Where they were previously sleeping on the couch and having no problem, they’re now pacing and staring at the door.”

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So what can dog owners do to calm their dog’s separation anxiety or avoid it altogether? Novack suggests starting separation exercises as soon as possible and doing them often. “We recommend making it a regular part of your day, blocking out time to leave your apartment, making sure that going out and having your dog be alone is a regular part of their experience.” NYC-based dog behavior expert and trainer, Andrea Arden agrees and uses the sports analogy of “home and away games” to explain how to train your pets at “home” to prepare them to spend more time alone when you are “away”. The easiest way to do this, Arden states, is to “sprinkle it in” by making separation and self-pacification exercises a part of daily life. “Setting aside little moments here and there all throughout the day is a better way of dispersing that understanding into different areas of the home and different contexts,” Arden explains. Both experts recommend similar easy home separation exercises, which include the following:

Photo Credit: Christin Lola

Tether Time – Leash tether your dog to a table or a stable chair just a few feet from you for 5 to 10 minutes at a time several times a day. Give your dog a treat or chew toy so he/she can learn to entertain themselves. Once successful, gradually tether them further away until you are out of their line of sight.

Crate Break – For dogs that are crate trained, several 5 to 10-minute “crate breaks” with a treat or chew toy throughout the day will provide a similar opportunity for the dog to learn self-soothing. Dogs comfortable in their crate may naturally see their crate break as a perfect time for napping.

Daily Chores – Once your dog can handle tether time or crate breaks without signs of distress, pair their alone-time practice with one of your daily chores such as cleaning or paying bills. Chores might take longer than the 5 to 10 minutes your pup has practiced, so it will build more solo endurance and confidence. You can also choose to provide them with a treat or toy, or see if your dog will take a nap or rest during this time.

Photo Credit: Amelia Martin

Solo Mission – The next big step toward being home alone for a few hours every day is to be left alone for a minute. Practice “leaving” and “arriving” home (calmly and without fanfare) through the front door a few times a day. If your pup can handle a minute or two, move up to 5 to 10 minutes, and then maybe take a short walk around the block. This gradual process will help your dog practice the self-soothing activities he/she learned back during tether time and crate breaks. Make sure a treat or chew toy is available.

Cats Suffer, Too

It is a common belief that cats are not as social as dogs; therefore, they are more often considered loners or standoffish. However, cats do form very strong bonds with people, and they can be social animals who may suffer separation anxiety. Although it’s not as frequently diagnosed in cats, many of the indicators of separation anxiety are the same as seen in dogs—urinating and/or defecating indoors; loud growling or meowing; obsessive grooming; and swatting at, biting, or excessively rubbing on their owners. Just as the symptoms are similar, so are the treatments—practice “leaving” and “arriving” home (calmly and without fanfare) several times a day. Designating 5 to 10 minutes a few times a day to play with your cat and engage them with treats and toys will give them the attention they need. Toys are also important for cats because they allow them to practice their “hunting” behaviors, which is a way they can entertain themselves when they are home alone. Also, provide a cat tree or perch to allow your cat a place from which to look outside.

We love our pets so much, and we want to shower them with affection, but remember that how we interact with our pets is important for their well-being. As Arden explains, “People are not yet really aware of how their daily interactions with their pets can inadvertently result in a pet who suffers from separation issues.” Spoiling them with too much attention can set a bad precedent and raise our pets’ expectations to levels we won’t be able to meet once the pandemic danger subsides and we return to our normal schedules. The best thing we can do for our pets is to teach them how to spend time alone by entertaining themselves comfortably and safely. If the exercises discussed in this article are not resolving your pet’s anxiety you should contact a dog behavior expert or dog trainer. They can help through virtual training sessions and, once it is safe, through in-person training sessions as well.

Meet Our Consulted Experts:

Andrea Arden – Andrea Arden founded Andrea Arden Training in 1994 and has had tremendous success in New York City and beyond. With three Manhattan training facilities and one in Brooklyn, Andrea and her team are easily accessible; they can also do private classes in the convenience of your home or virtually. Andrea Arden’s trainers use reward-based training to help each dog meet his/her potential, while also supporting owners’ specific training goals. Andrea Arden trainers work wonders with puppies, but they are also effective with older dogs and those rescued from shelters. In fact, many of the trainers have rescue dogs and thus have first-hand experience of the behavioral issues related to welcoming an adopted friend into your home.

Andrea has gained a loyal following from her many public appearances including those on Animal Planet’s Pet Expert, The Today Show, 20/20, Dateline, The View and others. She is also the author of Barron’s Dog Training Bible, Dog Friendly Dog Training, Train Your Dog the Lazy Way, and The Little Book of Dog Tricks. She has been named the best dog trainer in New York by New York, W, and Time Out.

Lauren Novack – Lauren Novack is the Director of Operations and a behavior consultant for Behavior Vets of NYC. She founded Lauren’s Leash and provides personalized private puppy and dog training for much of Manhattan. Lauren trained at the famed Karen Pryor Academy and has a master’s degree in applied animal behavior analysis.

Lauren’s slogan is “dogs are people, too.” She demonstrates that through her positive, relationship-based training approach, using only scientifically proven techniques. She is passionate about helping dogs and their parents live the best life possible and provides the foundation for them to do so. For those who want to be hands-on, Lauren works on meeting your goals, providing homework, tips and email support. If you are a dog owner who is really busy, Lauren will even train your dog for you, working with your pup three to five times a week.

Lauren has been featured on Rachael Ray, Fox and Friends and Fox5 NY. Behavior Vets of NYC also offers free dog training webinars, which are available here.

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