Pandemic stress talk time! While I could go on about human stress for a long time, I won’t because that’s not my area of expertise (well, at least not giving advice on it.) A lot of people got new pets during the pandemic. A lot of schedules changed during the pandemic. Many schedules aren’t back to normal. Assuming we are able to return to more normal schedules at some point, our pets are going to go through a huge adjustment which will involve a lot of anxiety.
Anxiety isn’t unique to the pandemic, but it is going to be an added problem. We see this frequently in the fall when kids and teachers return to school after hanging out with the animals all summer. Our pets have a pretty small world view. They wake up, eat, go to the bathroom and hang out with us. When they hang out with us a lot, then suddenly not at all; things become scary. This response depends a lot on inherent animal personality. One of my dogs is happy to hang out at home alone. The other goes into a full-on panic if my car pulls out of the driveway without him. They both lead the same life but have different personalities.
I recently did a continuing education course and heard my favorite line ever. I’ll tell you now and likely reiterate it to my clients ongoing. “Your pet is not giving you a hard time, they are having a
hard time.” It makes so much sense. I often hear that pets do things out of spite. Spite is an entirely human construct. Our pets live in the moment completely, for better or worse. Your cat isn’t mad that you moved their litter box or that you love the new baby more, they are stressed about the changes. Your dog isn’t mad that you are leaving them, they are in a panic about the fact that you left them alone forever. Why forever? Because they just know right now and right now can be all they know.
That isn’t to say that you can’t train them to recognize that you return each time you leave. That sleeping downstairs while you are upstairs doesn’t mean you’ll never be back. There are several things we can do for separation anxiety dogs. I recommend that you start doing some of these things now.
You may work from home and only leave the house to get groceries weekly, but if your dog relies on this as your schedule and you start going in every day it’s going to be a big change. All behavior modification takes time, so never leave it for the week before your schedule change. Not all pets will have developed separation anxiety during the pandemic, and ideally, most have not. See how your pet reacts when you take a drive without them. If they nap and are delighted that you are no longer bugging them, then don’t worry. If your pet does get anxious, read on for tips.
The first thing to do is identify leaving “cues”. These are things like brushing your teeth (ok hopefully you do this even if you aren’t leaving), grabbing your keys, and putting on your coat. Start doing these things, but not leaving. This will help your pet stop associating them with leaving. Next, go ahead and do leave. But just walk around the house and come back. Grab the mail or take a tour of your property boundary line. Make these intermittently longer or shorter, so your pet can rest assured that even if the time seems wildly variable, you’ll be back.
I really like having a camera on them in these situations. So many home securities have them linked to your phone, or even an inexpensive baby monitor placed in an area where you can see the most. This will help you suss out if your dog is really panicking, or just doesn’t like the first 5 minutes but then calms right down. Next, work up to longer trips. I know that I don’t go anywhere right now, hate driving, and can’t imagine going for a walk without my dogs. But hopefully, you guys are more imaginative or enjoy a scenic Sunday drive. Increase the time of these trips gradually with intermittent short trips thrown in.
I always like giving a special treat or toy on leaving. This not only makes it a time to look forward to (sorry) but also serves to distract them during the initial time. My favorite are treat toys — toys
that dispense kibble or hold frozen canned food so that they take a little focus and time. Just tossing a treat that’s gone before you’re even in the car isn’t as helpful. A toy that takes 10 minutes to get all the goodness out really helps bridge that leaving period.
Some dogs need more help, like medication for anxiety during this training period. If you are at this point, the best thing to do is speak with your vet to help create an in-depth plan unique to your situation. These are basic tips that are a good idea to start so your pet can cope with new schedule changes, but it isn’t an end all be all. Individual plans for pets that need extra are a great idea and the sooner you start one the easier it will be.