Returning to Work: How to Reduce Your Dog’s Separation Anxiety

As you head back to the office, here are steps you can take to help your pet transition back to solo time smoothly and happily.

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Tips to help your dog’s separation anxiety

There have been plenty of downsides to the pandemic for nearly everyone except pets. Dogs have been having the time of their lives over the past few months. I know my dog Gus has for sure. He has only been alone long enough for us to grocery shop and, because we’re not eating out and cooking all of our meals at home instead, he’s gotten used to table scraps each and every day.

But his glory days won’t last forever. As businesses begin to open and pet owners begin to venture back to the office, Fluffy might experience some separation anxiety after non-stop togetherness for months. The good thing is that there are plenty of things you can do to make your pet’s transition back to solo time as smooth as possible if you can’t bring your bff to work with you. Here are some strategies to try to keep Fido happy as you begin to leave the house again.

First things first: Recognizing separation anxiety

While many dogs get up to a bit of trouble here and there while their people are away, separation anxiety is more than that — it’s a serious condition that’s tough on dogs and owners alike.

Does your dog get anxious when he sees you putting on your coat and grabbing your keys and doing other things that signal you’re getting ready to leave? Do you come home to shredded pillows and shoes, legs chewed off a table, or puddles of accidents everywhere? Does your pup get crazy excited — like really crazy excited more than normal — when you come home?

All of these and more can be examples of separation anxiety. According to PetMD, separation anxiety is what happens when a dog that is “hyper-attached” to its owner gets stressed and anxious when left alone. While many dogs get up to a bit of trouble here and there while their people are away, separation anxiety is more than that — it’s a serious condition that’s tough on dogs and owners alike. Common symptoms of separation anxiety include:

  • Excessive whining, barking, or howling
  • Having accidents indoors even though your pup is housebroken
  • Pacing
  • Escape attempts
  • Drooling or panting more than normal
  • Chewing, digging, or scratching things they shouldn’t

Consider a visit to your vet just to be safe

While separation anxiety is usually just that, it’s never a bad idea to consult your vet just to be sure that any underlying medical problems aren’t what’s causing it. Signs like accidents in the house can be symptoms of other issues. Accidents can also be the result of incomplete potty training. If you got a new pup during quarantine and they’re used to going out every hour and not holding it for very long, it could just be a transition issue. New medicines could also be to blame. If you have any uncertainty about what might be behind what appears to be separation anxiety, a trip to your vet could be the best place to start.

Try counterconditioning for mild separation anxiety

For pups with mild cases, counterconditioning — teaching your dog to associate the thing they don’t like with something they love — can often be the cure.
For pups with mild cases, counterconditioning — teaching your dog to associate the thing they don’t like with something they love — can often be the cure. When it comes to separation anxiety, the key is to give your dog something amazing every time you leave the house. From stuffing a hollow toy full of a tasty treat to giving them a small bone or other toy they love when you head out, you can begin to help your dog associate you being gone with a good time. The key is to pick up the special toys as soon as you get home to ensure that they’re only associated with your absence.

Of course, this only works with dogs who have mild separation anxiety. Dogs with more severe cases likely won’t eat at all while their people are gone.

Get a trainer to help for moderate or severe separation anxiety

Desensitization is more or less the idea of your pet facing their fear in order to conquer it. As you might imagine, it takes the right approach to ensure that your dog ends up less, not more, stressed as a result. For the average pet owner, tackling a sensitization campaign is something that will require the professional help of a trainer or behaviorist.

This is a general guide to desensitization which you will very likely have to substantially alter to fit your pet’s specific behavior and anxiety. First, for pets that freak out when they see you about to leave, you’ll want to start engaging in those behaviors even when you’re not leaving to break the triggering association.

Next, you’ll move onto very short departures, specifically ones that are shorter than it takes for your dog to become anxious. Starting with “absences” like going into a different room and closing the door, you’ll gradually increase the amount of time you’re “away.” Then, start doing the same with an outside door rather than an interior door. These absences can be as short as a few seconds at first. Before you step out the door, remember to give your pup the counterconditioning treat mentioned above!

It’s important to make sure your dog is completely relaxed before you go outside again and to remain calm when you re-enter. It can be tough to not get as excited as Fido is when he’s overjoyed to see you, but the goal is to make the whole experience an uneventful one.

Because most dogs’ anxiety occurs within the first 40 minutes that they’re alone, chances are this will be a long process of working your way up to 40-minute absences. However, with a dedicated approach, many people can accomplish this in a matter of weeks.

Try alternatives

If desensitizing your pup isn’t something you can commit to right now, all is not lost. Some dogs are happy to stay in a car rather than at home (as long as the temperature is safe to do so, of course). There’s always doggy daycare or pet sitters that can help too. Most dogs are simply anxious about being left alone and are happy as long as someone, even if it isn’t their person, is with them.

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