Pet Therapy: Easing Separation Anxiety in the Eventual Transition From Home to Office

Separation anxiety can cause various levels of distress in different animals. Cats are famously independent, and your fish won’t care, but dogs are highly social and emotionally dependent on their owners.Photo: Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images

With a return to normal work and school schedules possibly on the horizon, pet owners are wondering how their animals will adjust to being left alone and looking for ways to ease the transition.

We’ve spent boundless hours with our long-time pets or rushing out to adopt new ones during the ongoing pandemic. Animals have been a literal creature comfort. Struggling to keep up with the demand, one B.C. shelter reported 200 applications for a single puppy in 2020. However, with the majority of people poised to re-enter the Real World, the attention pet owners have lavished on their furry friends is not sustainable. So, how do we taper off the constant attention without upsetting our pets?

Separation anxiety can cause various levels of distress in different animals. Cats are famously independent, and your fish won’t care, but dogs are highly social and emotionally dependent on their owners.

With the cognitive ability of a two-and-a-half-year-old child, dogs, like toddlers, have zero control over their emotional state. They just have gut reactions. Feelings of anxiety in dogs are similar to what humans would experience as a panic attack, with symptoms ranging from pacing and panting to obsessive barking, peeing (or worse) inside, the destruction of toilet-paper rolls and throw pillows, and neighbours leaving you irate notes about non-stop yapping. Difficult to overcome if not dealt with early, it’s better to prevent the behaviour than to try to reverse it.

“I’ve already had a few clients recently with this issue,” says animal groomer and trainer, Lorraine Wilson, owner of Peticure Paws in Toronto. “The less training, the more issues your dog will develop. They need you to be the boss so they can relax.”

Wilson advises dog owners to exercise them “well” in the morning, then give them time to settle in before they leave. Keep goodbyes short and positive and leave a good bone or peanut butter-filled Kong toy, which distracts dogs from your departure while adding a positive spin — treats! — to your exit. She also recommends going through your departure routine a few times — brushing your teeth, putting on shoes, rattling your keys, whatever you normally do — and then not leaving. Also, acclimatizing your dog to your absence by going out for ever-increasing amounts of time before you resume your daily nine-to-five hours.

“There’s also an herbal remedy I like. It calms dogs for 15 minutes, which helps with the initial panic after you’ve left.”

If none of these remedies or the tips below, work, a good trainer is an excellent call.  One to three sessions, at an average rate of $95 per hr, should do the trick, says Wilson, adding that the behaviour only gets worse if left untreated. Money well spent for the well-being of your pet and yourself — not to mention your home decor.

 

Tips for Reducing Separation Anxiety

 

Independence Training 

Resist constantly interacting with your pets so they don’t become anxious when things change.

With dogs, create frequent separations, three to five times a day to teach them that being alone isn’t a negative situation.

Happy Place 

Maintain a special place in your home with a bed and favourite things where your pet feels relaxed and secure. Motivate them to spend time there alone using positive reinforcement such as “go to your place,” rewarded with long-lasting chew toys and treats. For some dogs, crate training can be ideal.

Exercise 

As the saying goes, “A tired dog is a happy dog.” Burning off energy alleviates stress and anxiety. A good morning run makes your departure much easier.

Calming Agents & Accessories

Calming sprays, collars, and diffusers an assist in reducing anxiety in dogs and cats. Homeoanimal is a good, all-natural homeopathic brand. The relaxing effects of CBD oil are well documented. Weighted, anti-anxiety weighted coats, such as the Thundershirt, originally invented for thunderstorm anxiety, soothes nerves as well.

Human Company

Obviously, the best remedy for separation anxiety is company. Your animal would prefer that this is you but, basically, anyone nice will do. If you can afford it, hire a dog walker. Talk to neighbours you’re friendly with. Many people love animals, even if they don’t own one, and may be happy to drop in to cuddle the cat or take Fido for a stroll. You may also have someone elderly in your area who’d love a doggy friend to hang out with while you’re at work.

Pro Training

If the dog is resistant to your coaching, hand things over to an animal pro. Because of the nature of the problem, this requires private sessions, which are generally more expensive than issues you can solve in group classes (‘heel’, “roll over”). Here’s an informed guide to choosing the right one for you and your dog.