While most humans have been agonizing over Covid-19 restrictions, our pets have been enjoying our presence; getting cuddles, receiving more attention than usual, and adjusting to new routines.
But what will happen when Covid restrictions are lifted? Students will go to in-person school, adults will return to work, and pets will be alone for longer periods of time.
Despite yearning social and emotional connection with other humans, pet owners will begin to see distressing symptoms reflected in their pets.
What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is when your pet shows anxious behavior after being separated from specific people. Pets that are undersocialized, have genetic predisposition, or have undergone trauma are more susceptible to anxiety, but symptoms can be triggered by changes in routine.
According to a research done in early March 2020, scientists studied over 2,000 dogs and found that separation anxiety is a syndrome made up of different emotional states. It was found that anxiety is triggered by separation, but the severity is influenced by several factors, like the dog’s temperament, the nature of their relationship with their owner, and how it interacts with other people. Since there is no separation anxiety diagnostic test, scientists urge us to look at the issue as a spectrum.
Scientists have identified these common signs of separation anxiety;
Destruction of household items
Urinating/ defecating indoors
Jumping up on the owner/ attention-seeking,
Avoiding confinement areas
Trying to escape
It is important to highlight that pets don’t need to have all of these symptoms to feel distressed during separation.
According to Alexandra Bassett, a lead trainer and behavior specialist, “the resulting frustration and distress activates a feeling of being lost or trapped, despite the fact that the dog or puppy is perfectly safe at home,” because of the puppy’s instinct to stay with the pack.
As pet owners, what can we do?
Toni Clarke, a certified separation anxiety trainer, states that before training a pet for separation anxiety, it is important to discuss it with your pet’s veterinarian. “He or she will rule out any other potential reasons for the behaviors you’re witnessing and determine whether medical intervention is warranted.”
As pet owners, we can alleviate some of the stress surrounding our departure by training our pets to adapt to our absence. You can start small by going through motions that are part of our exit routine without actually leaving. This can look like; jingling keys, putting on shoes, putting on a face mask, or grabbing a purse to try and get rid of the negative association. Then you can begin the independence training. These are some types of independence training:
You can train your pet to spend some time alone by setting time apart daily. Begin by assigning a mat or a bed and placing it in a specific location. Place an interactive toy on the mat and reward them with small treats for staying on the mat. The first few times, stay near the mat and keep the length of the exercise short and build up distance and duration as the days pass by. This exercise should train your pet to stay entertained while you are absent.
Go to Place
This exercise teaches the pet to move towards and settle into a designated space.
Start by standing right next to the place.
Point to the place and drop one treat on the place.
When your pet goes to eat the treat, click when they touch the place and drop another treat.
Toss a treat away from the place to reset the exercise.
Repeat step 1 and 2 until your pet easily comes quickly to the place when you point.
Fade the lure: Point to the place. Your pet will come quickly to the place. Click, drop a treat on the place. Now is a good time to add a word cue as well such as “Mat” “Bed” “Kennel” “Place” etc.
Toss a treat away to reset the exercise.
Add the step of “down” on the place.
Begin gradually stepping away from the place. Send your pet from one step away, then two, then three.
Repeat the exercise a couple of times a day until they understand that the point of the command is to get to the place and stay there.
You can practice progressive time apart from your pet so that they feel relaxed and comfortable away from.
Start by setting up a safe place (a crate or a room with a baby gate works perfectly). Lure your pet inside and close the space, throw some treats inside and toys they can play with and say something reassuring like “I’ll be back”. Step out of sight for a couple of seconds, and repeat the exercise while adding more time apart until they grow accustomed.
How can I prevent Post-Covid separation Anxiety?
Building and maintaining boundaries with your pet will allow for a smoother transition post Covid. Training your pet to spend time in a specific place while you’re cooking or watching T.V. can help with the eventual adjustment. Setting a routine that would be easy to follow post Covid where there is time to play, walk, and eat is also recommended.
Despite these training tricks meant to minimize anxiety, the safest decision to make when noticing symptoms is to see a veterinarian. Working under a vet’s guidance and receiving treatment will ensure your pet’s emotional and physical health.