When it comes to stress--for better or worse--dogs are just like us. According to the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, up to 40% of dogs are seen by vets for anxiety disorders. And just as back-to-school season can cause stress for humans, it’s much the same for dogs. In fact, now that many states have been releasing COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions, many Americans are heading back to the office, leaving their four-legged friends at home.
So how do you help your dog cope with separation anxiety? It’s a matter of soothing stress--and even preventing it. Here are six tips to help keep your pup happy at home:
This is something you’ll want to do before anxiety kicks in, though it’s never too late to start. “Encouraging dogs to be independent decreases the likelihood of developing separation anxiety and can also help treat it,” says Leah Cowburn, DVM, a primary care veterinarian for the Last Chance Animal Rescue in Waldorf, Maryland. For starters: “Do not encourage your dog to be overly clingy and always by your side.”
So as much as you love having your dog follow you everywhere--encourage him to stay, and even play alone with toys.
Cowburn suggests signing up for training and socialization classes when your dog is a puppy. You can also bring your dog around new people and pets, or into different environments.This can help your pup build confidence that can translate across multiple situations.
You might be just as happy to see your dog as she is excited to see you, but keep calm when coming home. The same goes for leaving. “Making a big deal about coming and going can cause dogs to be triggered because they’ll learn what to expect,” Dr. Cowburn says. Instead, “prepare for your departure as much as possible while keeping your pet occupied.”
Cowburn suggests investing in enrichment toys to keep your dog mentally engaged. “If possible, try not to let your dog see items he can associate with departure, such as keys, shoes, and your coat,” she says. “And when arriving, act neutral. In some cases, you may have to ignore your dog so he does not associate positive reinforcement with your coming home.”
Exercise is excellent for helping pets beat stress (just as it’s much the same for us). And with dogs, burning off some energy can help them sleep while you’re away. Cowburn suggests making long, brisk walks a morning habit. It can help launch your day in a clear, calm way.
For those of you who run, if your dog is fit enough, enlist him as a partner. The extra exercise can do wonders for your mental and physical health as well.
Give your dog the creature comforts you love. “Soft bedding can help keep your dog comfortable and calm,” Dr. Cowburn says. “White noise or calming music can also be helpful.”
Yours truly can personally vouch for the Jack Johnson channel on Pandora, for successful canine calming. Choose what makes sense for you, and if you want to get really creative, make your pup a special mix.
You’ll also want to make sure your dog’s environment is safe. “If your dog is destructive, ensure there are items that are safe to destroy yet which are not potentially toxic, or which may cause a gastrointestinal blockage if ingested,” Dr. Cowburn says. And that goes for plants, too. Check out this ASPCA list of toxic plants, to help keep your dog safe while you're out.
Choose toys rated for tough chewers, and do not leave out anything that can easily be torn or splintered. If your dog shreds stuffed toys, for example, it’s wise to remove them until you’re home, as they can cause trouble if ingested.
Talk to your vet about your dog's behavior and ask if your pet might be a candidate for supplements. Ingredients like valerian root and tryptophan are known to help calm canine jitters. Your vet can help you determine what may or may not be right for your dog depending on his needs and health. If your pup has been cleared, a product like Vet Naturals Hemp & Harmony can help take the edge off stressful situations for your dog.
“Do not punish your dog if they misbehaved while you were gone,” Dr. Cowburn warns, “as this will create more fear and anxiety around your absences.”
If your dog exhibits anxiety, try to soothe him, and even better, do your best to prevent it. It may require patience on your part, but that’s just part of being a parent, even of the four-legged kind.