Those of us with companion animals know how helpful they’ve been over the past few months. While social distancing kept us in our homes, our dogs and cats and rabbits and birds and snakes and goldfish kept us sane. They gave us someone to talk to, someone to hang out with who wasn’t a screaming child or partner for whom we fostered growing contempt. Someone to walk with and cuddle. Someone to provide us constant company.
When social-distancing measures were first enacted, I spoke with Dr. Laurie Santos, director of Yale’s Canine Cognition Center, about how our newly uninterrupted presence might be affecting our dogs. She told me that they were likely pretty happy about it, and they would adjust to the difference with the help of a steady routine. “Dogs are like people in this sense,” she said. “They do get used to changes over time.”
But now, social-distancing measures are lifting. On June 8, New York City began “phase one” of its four-phase plan to reopen, sending many back to work and others in search of something outside of their homes to do. But what does this mean for our sweet housebound animals who are now used to their pandemic-altered routine?
Dog fostering and adoption rates, it’s worth noting, reportedly surged at the start of the pandemic. This means there are many dogs out there who only know life with their caretaker as one of constant togetherness. How can we make sure they’re comfortable in their new solitude?
To find out, I spoke with veterinarian Dr. Danielle Bernal, who works with the pet-food brand Wellness.
What is separation anxiety in dogs?
Separation anxiety happens when our dogs become so attached to our presence that they become upset in our absence. “The thing about separation anxiety is that it is a behavioral issue,” Bernal said. “It’s not about them feeling sad — it’s really about them feeling anxious and nervous, and then exhibiting abnormal behaviors.”
We know our dogs best, so we have to be the ones to judge whether a behavior is abnormal for them. There are, however, certain universal warning signs signs to look out for. Note if your dog is nervously pacing around the apartment, barking excessively as soon as you close the door, causing damage, or going to the bathroom inside. Some dogs might even attempt to escape. If your dog’s behavior seems worryingly abnormal, or if they don’t adjust after a reasonable amount of time, Bernal says it would be best to make an appointment to see your vet.
The good news is that most dogs will be okay with the change (though they all could benefit with some easing into it). If they’ve had experience in the past with being alone while you’re away, they should be able to readjust fairly easily. But if they’re having difficulty, there are ways to help them.
Introduce leaving gradually.
We have the benefit of knowing that, even though we might still be working from home or staying indoors right now, we’ll eventually leave again. This foresight gives us the opportunity to gradually introduce, or reintroduce, our dogs to the concept of being alone.
“So we can say, Today I’m going to leave you for 20 minutes on your own, I’m going to go down to the shops or for a walk around the block,” Bernal said. Then you work up to an hour, and then two hours, and so on. When you slowly work up to being gone for a full day, your dog has a chance to get used to the concept.
“The big thing is to start gradually,” she said, “so it’s not like, We’re best buddies, we’re together 24/7!, and then suddenly it’s all over.”
Don’t make a big fuss about it.
Make sure you keep your cool when you leave. Don’t do a big — Oh, farewell my love!, as hard as it may be to resist. “Then the dog is like, Well, hang on, I wasn’t worried a moment ago, but now …” Bernal said. The same goes for when you return. Leaving can’t be the worst part of the day, and returning home can’t be the best. “You’ve got to keep the fanfare down in both of those cases.” After you’ve been home for a while, when the association isn’t obvious, you can indulge in your excitement about finally being around your dog again.
“Our reactions rub off on our dogs without us knowing it,” Bernal said. They can sense exactly what we’re feeling. Try your best to be calm.
Consider crate training.
Crate training your dog — which is, training them to spend time in their crate — can help let them feel they have their own safe, comfortable space. It can help keep them calm, and it can help keep them out of trouble. This is something you can also start gradually, while you’re still at home. Put your dog in their crate for gradually longer periods of time, and reward them for good behavior. This is particularly good advice for those new to having a dog. “If you’ve got a foster dog or a puppy,” Bernal said, “you can start doing that today.”
Make a fun treat.
“I love puzzle balls, for example, because they can keep dogs going for ages,” Bernal said, referencing dog toys that dispense treats slowly when your dog figures out how to paw at them the right way. Maybe fill up a Kong, or provide them with a long-lasting chew toy. It’ll help you get out of the house, and will provide them with some comfort in the first moments of your absence.
And what about humans feeling separation anxiety as a result of being away from their dogs who they love so much they can barely even look at them without crying at their sweet and perfect beauty? Well. I think that might be a little harder to fix.