The World Returns to Normal, How Does Your Dog Feel?
By: Chelsea Murray, ATDI, CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP
Over the last year we have been trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy as our schedules changed and we navigated new stay at home orders. But now, vaccines are more readily available, offices and restaurants are opening back up, and we are getting a glimpse of what our lives used to look like. For us, it is exciting! It means time with friends and heading back to dog shows! But for our dogs, it means another drastic change in routine, and this time they are getting left out!
Dog trainers and behavior consultants are all getting a significant increase in new cases for separation anxiety right now, and it makes total sense! Over the last year many of us have barely left our house except for that moment of bliss where we can stretch out legs and walk the dog. Our dogs may have rarely left our side and have grown accustomed to a lack of confinement, and now we expect them to be confident on their own as we settle back into our previous routines.
While dogs with true separation anxiety (often characterized by extreme vocalization, destruction, loss of bowel movement, drool, panic, etc.) do require professional help, those that might just be a little alarmed by the sudden change, can often be helped by their owners at home with some new training activities and routine changes.
Create A Safe Place
We need to make sure that our dogs have a place where they feel comfortable and safe. This doesn’t need to be a crate and doesn’t even need to include confinement. This area should, however, include structured sessions to practice and reinforce relaxation. So, if my dog is relaxed in the bedroom, I would swing by while I work from home and offer the dog random reinforcement for relaxing in that space. I also work on increasing relaxation in that space by providing calming sounds, such as Through A Dog’s Ear classical music or white noise to promote relaxation and drown out external noises. Other calm-inducing changes include closing blinds for reduced stimulation, using Adaptil spray on bedding to promote calmness, and providing cool air for comfort. My goal is to not only create a safe and quiet space for the dog, but also to practice and reinforce relaxation in that environment (both under human supervision and independently).
For dogs that have previously been comfortable in a crate, I like to spend some time going back to the basics of crate training prior to leaving the dog alone again for the first time in a while. I work on using meals (for dogs that are easily motivated) or high-value treats (for those who are a bit more selective) to train “go to crate”. Once dogs are comfortable entering the crate, you can practice duration or relaxation inside with the door open, and offer special goodies like bully sticks and raw bones inside with supervision. This additional attention to the crate will help your dog boost their affinity to it!
If your dog has not been crated, rehearsing settle on a mat on cue is a great way to start to give them a defined place to be. You can put this behavior on cue and reinforce your dog when they find the bed on their own. Over time, with repetition, this bed will start to become a comforting place to rest, which is great. When we give dogs the skill of relaxation when we are around, it is easier for them to rehearse when they are alone as well.
Detach All Associations with Leaving
Often times for dogs, picking up car keys, putting face masks on, and putting on athletic shoes can be an indication that we are going somewhere. This can increase excitement if they think they are going along or it can increase stress for those who are worried about being left behind. Either way, we want our dogs relaxed when we leave. So, we want to work through a desensitization protocol where we help the dog eliminate any current attachment they have to our getting ready routine. So, our shoes go on and we sit down and take a Zoom call. We grab our mask and keys and then empty the dishwasher. With repetition and careful planning, we can teach our dogs that shoes, masks, and keys mean nothing. While this may seem insignificant to us, it changes how the dog feels as we begin to get ready so that they no longer start stressing. This gives us the ability to leave them in a more relaxed state, which increases the likelihood that they will be able to continue relaxing.
Practice Independence and Separation
Often times we only are separated from our dogs when we leave. This can turn crates, special toys, and us walking out the door into negative triggering events/items for our dogs. We want to eliminate that negative association and practice independent relaxation while we are home as well! By doing so, we can strategically work on setting up at-home stress-free moments where the dogs can thrive independently.
One way to accomplish this is through the use of food puzzles. Since dogs are generally motivated by food, we can use food puzzles like Slow Bowls and Kong Wobblers, to provide the dog with an activity that will not only keep them busy while we are in another room, but will also reward them for being alone! Fill the puzzle up, lay it down, and calmly walk away allowing your dog a few moments of happy independence.
We can also choose moments during the day to provide some structured separation in a crate or in a relaxing place for our dogs. It is important to set our dogs up for success before we leave, while also helping them when we remain in the house through activities such as offering food puzzles in their space for a nap. If your dog is settling out of eyesight, I would allow them anywhere from 30 minutes (for the youngsters) to 2 hours (for the pros) of alone time. If your dog is within eyesight, I would even offer intermittent reinforcement for calm and quiet behavior, randomly walking over with a quiet, “Yes!” and a dropped treat reinforce the quiet and down.
Setting Them Up For Success
When the time comes to actually leave our dogs we want to make sure that we do what we can to set them up for success. This process should start by making sure that your dog has both physical and mental exercise. A long slow sniffy walk and a quick training session will give your dog appropriate outlets for that energy, which will make it easier for your dog to relax while you’re away. Balancing mental and physical outlets is important for duration relaxation.
After some activity, we want to make sure that our dogs have an activity to not only keep themselves occupied, but to also build a positive association with your departure. Fill a rubber stuffable like a Kong or a Toppl with some food and a high-value topper like special canned food! If your dog is stressed, they might not touch the puzzle that you leave them with. This is actually great information. If our dogs are normally food motivated but will not eat when you are leaving, it tells you that they need a bit more help with their separation anxiety and that you may need to work with a trainer experienced in behavior modification training or a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer (“C-SAT”).
Another important factor in your training is to make sure that you remain calm yourself, both when you leave your dog and also when you return. While we love our dogs, sending out a barrage of “I love you, I’ll be back soon” and “Yes, I’m home!” will only further their excitement or stress with our coming and going. By remaining calm and ignoring any excitement and bouncing you help your dog learn that leaving and arrival are, in fact, no big deal.
Just like the transition into quarantine was hard for us, the transition back to the real world will be hard on our dogs. Be patient with your dogs and try to plan for gradual outings, independent activities alone, setting up calming environments, and gradually increasing the amount of time you are separated from them making the process smooth. And if you aren’t experiencing the desired improvement or your dog is getting worse, it’s probably time to get in touch with a qualified professional sooner rather than later to save your dog and yourself the added stress and get you both back on track.