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Separation Anxiety

This is a hot topic at the moment- with Covid-19, most of us are home for 4 weeks which is potentially going to be a huge change for our dogs. Something to be mindful of is what habits and routines we are creating, and how this is going to effect our dogs once we return to ‘normal’ life.

First off, what is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety can be defined as “A condition in which animals exhibit symptoms of anxiety or excessive distress when they are left alone” (Dr. Karen Overall).

Common can symptoms include:

  • Destructive behaviour

  • Toileting inside

  • Excessive vocalisation

  • Refusal to eat or drink

  • Pant and salivate excessively

  • Avoidance/ trying to escape confinement, with apparent disregard for injury to themselves

But, IS it separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety seems to be more prevalent these days, and that is caused by widespread misdiagnosis. With increased awareness of the condition, increased misidentification has occurred.

It’s important to remember that all the symptoms listed above can all be generalized within ‘normal’ stress levels.

Isolation distress and Separation Anxiety: What’s the difference?

Distress over being left alone is not always a full-blown separation anxiety problem. First, a dog may suffer from a mild distress to a severe anxiety disorder. “Distress” indicates a lower intensity of stress behaviours when the dog is alone, while “anxiety” is an extreme panic attack.

The distinction between “isolation” and “separation” is equally important. Isolation distress means the dog doesn’t want to be left alone – any ol’ human will do for company, and sometimes even another dog will fill the bill. True separation distress or anxiety means the dog is hyper-bonded to one specific person, and continues to show stress behaviours if that person is absent, even if other humans or dogs are present.

Preventing problems from arising

Prevention is ALWAYS better than a cure. And about 100x easier to implement to! Unfortunately, we are all faced with an unique situation where we are home for the foreseeable future. While this might seem like great news for you dogs, we need to be careful that we aren’t creating separation issues!

Here are some key things to consider:

  • Keep your routine. If you usually work and your dog spends a significant portion of his day alone, try to keep this up. Even though you are home, make sure you are setting aside time for him to be in his crate, kennel or out in the yard by himself.

  • Make sure they are being exercised- but be careful not to over do it. With daycare/beach trips no longer in play, it can be tempting to bring the ball out for a solid ‘fetch’ session. We really caution against playing fetch every day

A) If your dog is *ball obsessed*, you face the potential of over arousal. Over arousal causes physiological changes to your furry mate- think of it like the ‘runners high’. You know that awesome buzz you get after a great work out session? (Well, so I’m told... I usually am just red faced and tired after exercise )It is caused by a release of hormones like endorphins and adrenaline; and in dogs, it can take up to 72 hours to for their hormone levels to return back to base level. If you continue to engage in hyperarousal activities with your dog, you are going to create high levels of stress in their bloodstream. High arousal will become the new norm, and the dog is going to start having trouble calming down, or appearing hyper vigilant.

B) A massive cause of torn ligaments is the *stop-go-sharp turn* of playing fetch. Treat your dog like the athlete he is- games of fetch require an appropriate warm up and warm down. Try to limit the sharp turns- place your dog in a wait, and don’t release him until the ball has stopped moving.

When New Zealand moves down through the lockdown stages, make a plan for how you will introduce the idea that you are going back to work.

  • Exercise your dog well before you leave. A tired dog has less energy with which to be anxious and destructive. End exercise sessions 20 to 30 minutes before you go, so he has time to settle down.

  • Five minutes before you leave, give him a well-stuffed Kong to take his mind off your imminent departure.

  • Make your departures and returns completely calm and emotionless. No huggy/kissy “Mummy loves you” scenes. If he gets excited and jumps all over you when you return, ignore him. Turn your back and walk away. When he finally settles down, say hello and greet him very calmly.

  • Defuse the pieces of your departure routine by also doing them when you are not leaving. Pick up your car keys and sit down on the sofa to watch TV. Dress in your business suit and then cook dinner. Set your alarm for 5 a.m. on a Saturday, then roll over and go back to sleep.

  • Mix up the pieces of your departure routine when you are leaving, so his anxiety doesn’t build to a fever pitch as he recognizes your departure cues. We are creatures of habit too, so this is hard to do, but can pay off in big dividends. Eat breakfast before you shower instead of after. Pick up your keys and put them in your pocket before you take your dog out for his final potty break. Put your briefcase in the car while you’re still in PJ’s. Make the morning as unpredictable as possible.

  • Use a “safe” cue such as “I’ll be back,” only when you know you’ll return within the time period your dog can tolerate. As suggested in Patricia McConnell’s wonderful booklet on separation anxiety titled “I’ll Be Home Soon,” this helps your dog relax, knowing he can trust you to return.

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