One of the positive aspects of the Covid 19 situation is that we get to spend a lot more time home with our dog. However, unless handled carefully, spending all this time together could potentially lead to issues with separation anxiety down the line. As we return to work/school/external life, our dog will be expected to stay home alone for periods of the day. I'm keenly aware of separation anxiety, probably because it's one of the issues I routinely look for with new (especially young) boarding dogs. Dogs with separation anxiety get stressed, upset, loud and/or destructive if left alone. It can can lead to behavior change, illness, psychological issues and neurotic behavior (like obsessive paw licking, tail biting). There are simple steps you can and should take to make sure your dog becomes - or remains - well adjusted and happy when alone.
Most importantly, don't let everyone smother the dog with attention all the time
Doing this will cause an unnecessarily dramatic change when you are apart. If you think about it, most dogs regularly spend time alone and and it's really important that they don't lose the ability to do that. Give your dog time alone, even (or maybe especially) when the whole family is at home. Let him relax on the other side of a baby gate, in another room or outside in the garden while you're in the house. This will diminish the contrast between human presence and absence. Be sure he doesn't see it as a punishment, leave a kong or treats for him but do let him chill alone from time to time.
Physical & mental exercise:
Providing plenty of physical and mental stimulation is a vital part of treating many behaviour problems, especially those involving anxiety. Exercising your dog’s mind and body can greatly enrich his life, decrease stress and provide appropriate outlets for normal dog behaviors. Additionally, a physically and mentally tired dog doesn’t have as much energy to expend when he’s left alone.
Here are some well accepted suggestions:
Kongs and brain games:
Those of you that follow the adventures of Happy Dogs Aigle know we love kongs and snuffle mats to keep dogs occupied during hot/rainy weather, recovery from injury or home alone time. A Kong stuffed with something really tasty like chicken, doggy peanut (peamutt) butter, tinned tuna, tinned dog food and/or some healthy treats like Archies Bonbons or RiRaw is a godsend. I highly recommend freezing the Kong so that getting all the food out takes even more of your dog’s time and energy. Change what's inside frequently and be sure to remove the Kong as soon as you get home so that your dog only has access to them - and the high-value foods inside - when he’s alone. You could feed your dog breakfast or even all of his daily meals this way. Keep in mind, though, that this approach will work best for mild cases of separation anxiety because highly anxious dogs usually won’t eat when home by themselves.
Another option is a snuffle mat (purchase here) which forces the dog to use his nose to seek out the food, thereby tiring and relaxing him. Alternatively a simple, zero cost idea that works well is to put your dogs favourite toys into a box and throw a handful of treats in. They will have great fun using their brain and nose to find the food and that is actually as good, if not more so, than a stroll for a dog from time to time.
Finally, I often scatter a handful of treats or dry kibble in the garden (don't do this if your dog is a digger but sniffers will have a lot of fun!).
Ensure your dog CAN sleep alone: it's ok to share the sofa and/or bed with your dog if that's your preference, but making sure that he/she can actually sleep alone happily is also important. Some day your dog is going to need to stay without you, perhaps at a boarding facility or a friend's house or the vet. Crate training, whilst controversial in Switzerland, is (in my opinion) a great way to provide a safe, enjoyable space for your dog to relax. I find that crate trained dogs usually settle really well at night in my boarding facility. There is lots of advice available online on how to crate train. It's really important to do it correctly, otherwise you can make things a whole lot worse and have a very distressed and/or destructive and/or noisy dog. But whether in a crate or not, you should ensure your dog is capable of sleeping alone, because some day he may need to.
If all else fails and your dog cannot stay alone happily, it would be worth considering the professional guidance of a behavioural expert, the sooner the better. Good luck!
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Aileen Woulfe, Irish expat, lifelong animal lover, Swiss qualified with a diplôme cynologique in breeding, grooming and kennel management and owner of Happy Dogs Aigle boarding and daycare in Vaud, Switzerland.