From howling to destroying furniture, expert gives pointers for dealing with your dog’s separation anxiety

Kaleah Mcilwain

At the start of the lockdown many people were all alone and there was little information about the virus. Loneliness, anxiety, and depression were all things many people felt during such tough times and as a result of this many people sought companionship.

Animal shelters, humane rescue groups, and adoption agencies saw an overwhelming increase in pet adoptions during this time.

“They’re going like hot cakes,” said an operator of an animal shelter in Maryland.

Findings from a recent study by the University of the West of Scotland (UWS) showed that people believe that their companion animals positively influenced their lives during the pandemic. It also showed that those who interacted with their pets more were those who felt lonelier and had poor well-being.

People who before the pandemic didn’t have the time to adopt a pet, now had the time to do so.

However, pet ownership is not without its challenges. As restrictions lifted many people worried about the welfare of their animals, mainly how they would cope with the separation once they returned to work.

Separation anxiety is when your pet exhibits extreme stress from the time you leave them alone until you return.

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Signs of Separation Anxiety

1. Excessive barking, whining, crying, and howling.

2. Chewing or destroying floors, walls, and doors, particularly around entrances.

3. Frantic attempts to escape, sometimes to the point of self-harm.

4. Soiling (especially when the dog is otherwise housetrained).

5. Getting anxious well before the owner leaves.

Dogs have been bred to want to be with us. They are companion animals, so it’s no surprise when you walk out the door, they are terrified, says Kathleen McClure, a certified professional trainer and behavior consultant, and separation anxiety pro.

There are two different types of separation anxiety: a dog that doesn’t like being left alone at all and a dog that doesn’t want their owner to leave them.

“Fear is fear and if a dog is exhibiting any type of fear I would offer to their family members that we need to help the dog feel more comfortable,” McClure expressed.

As a fear free certified trainer, McClure’s website “The Happier Dog,” offers positive reinforcement training solutions for dogs' unwanted behaviors.

When you recognize or have suspicions that your dog has separation anxiety there are some things to do right away. First, get a camera on them so you can see what they are doing when you leave and can identify exactly what triggers them.

“Separation anxiety is a panic disorder. It is critical to always work at dogs’ individual pace, with the goal of the dog not feeling the fear again,” shared McClure.

Next, you see what your dog is comfortable with and start there. If they are comfortable with you walking towards the door but not putting your hand on the door knob, that’s your starting point.

This is a time where slow and steady wins the race, McClure says. It’s very small incremental steps you take to work up to the dog being comfortable with you eventually making it out of the house and leaving them alone for possibly four to six hours a day.

Lastly, it’s important to keep track of the progress. At any point your dog shows fear in the process, you go back a step and make sure the dog is comfortable before moving on again.

It's a long process and becomes a challenge for the humans and sometimes requires family and friends to get involved so the dog isn’t left alone.

While it may be tempting to put your dog in a crate and let them cry it out, that is not the answer because it doesn’t heal the dog and that’s what needs to be done so the dog learns they are ok, McClure says.

Also, if your dog displays signs of separation anxiety, McClure does not recommend assuming your dog will grow out of it on its own.

“A lot of times we think that a still dog, or a quiet dog, is an okay dog, a dog that’s comfortable--that’s not always the case,” she says. “A lot of times the dog looks fine but instead they’ve completely shut down. They’re in a state of learned helplessness.”

Separation anxiety is very real for dogs and helping them to not experience the fear they feel requires lots of dedication. Can someone do it on their own without seeking out a professional? Yes.

Would McClure recommend someone do it on their own?

“Yes it’s possible to do it by yourself. But it's also possible for me to change my own sink, it’s also possible for me to fill out my own tax return, it’s also possible for me to be my own accountant,” she says. “Is it advisable? Are you going to get the best product? Anything is possible. But should we? No.”

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Journalist with a background reporting on local communities, now living in and reporting on the Baltimore area. Find me on twitter!

Baltimore, MD
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