How to Address Separation Anxiety

Although dismal for humans, 2020 has been a pretty good year for pets. During the pandemic, pet adoptions have skyrocketed, leaving shelters across the country nearly empty. Shelter Animals Count, a database that tracks shelter and rescue activity, recorded 26,000 more pet adoptions in 2020 than the previous year. That accounts for a 15% increase year over year. It’s not especially hard to see why this happened – if you’ve ever wanted a furry companion but felt you spent too much time at the office to care for it, that excuse was eliminated during the pandemic. Likewise, at a time of increased anxiety and loneliness, people found solace in these new additions to their families.

Regardless of whether you adopted in 2020 or were already a pet-owner, your dog or cat probably got used to having you home all the time during quarantine. Many positions have permanently embraced a work-from-home lifestyle, but what about those that haven’t? As companies gradually ease back into the office routine, you may find that your dog has a difficult time adjusting to your new schedule. If your neighbors are complaining about excessive barking or howling in your absence, you’re coming home to destroyed furniture, or you’re seeing an uptick in accidents throughout the house, your dog may have separation anxiety.

According to research published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, the symptoms caused by separation anxiety are among some of the most common reasons owners get rid of their dogs. We don’t want to see our shelters overcrowded again, so it’s important to understand what separation anxiety is, its causes, and how you can address these issues with your dog to maintain a happy, healthy pup.

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety goes beyond boredom chewing and the occasional whining you might hear when you’re walking out the door. A dog with separation anxiety is extremely fearful of being left alone, to the point of panicking in your absence. Think of it as your dog’s version of a panic attack – they may drool or pant excessively, howl or whine uncontrollably, scratch at doors in an effort to get to you, or even injure themselves trying to escape from their crates. A dog with separation anxiety who is otherwise house-trained may urinate or defecate around your home while you’re away.

What causes separation anxiety?

There isn’t one single cause for this malady. It could be triggered by a single traumatic event, such as a home invasion while you’re away. It could simply be part of your dog’s personality – dogs can be just as neurotic as their human counterparts. Or it could be caused by leaving your dog after they’ve become accustomed to your constant company, a very real concern if you’ve spent the majority of 2020 at home with your companion only to return to the workplace in the coming year.

How can I alleviate separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety can be a frustrating thing, but there are steps you can take to alleviate it. Start small by leaving the house for short periods of time and gradually increase the length of your absence. While your dog is getting used to being alone, consider trying the following:
Don’t make a production of coming and going.

If you’ve gotten into the habit of excitedly greeting your dog or making dramatic goodbyes, it’s time to put a stop to it. Remain neutral when you enter or leave the house, without too much eye contact.

Crate train your pet.

A crate is a powerful tool in establishing routine with your dog. It can aid in house training and gives your pup a safe place to stay in your absence. Dogs are den creatures and often come to love their crate with proper reinforcement.

Exercise before you leave.

Try taking your dog on a long walk or ball-throwing session before you leave for work each morning. A tired dog is less prone to destruction. If your dog habitually gets exercise before you leave, they will have a positive connotation with your leaving as well.

Try medication or a supplement.

There are some over-the-counter products that are said to soothe an anxious dog. You can also refer to your veterinarian for prescription medications if your dog isn’t responding well to training techniques.