How to deal with your dog’s separation anxiety when you go back to school

  • You’ve probably been spending a lot of time with your pet during Covid-19 lockdowns, so they might have a rough time adjusting to being alone
  • Tips from this veterinary behaviourist will help your dog adjust to its pre-coronavirus life
Doris Wai |
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We know it can be hard to leave that face.

Dogs around the world jumped for joy when Covid-19 lockdowns were put in place – finally, they could get the undivided attention and all the cuddles and belly rubs they want. But when you head back to school and your everyday routine, they’ll once again be spending much of the day alone.

Young Post spoke to Dr Cynthia Smillie, a veterinary behaviourist at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, about why our canine friends may have a rough time going back to their pre-coronavirus life.

“Dogs are very social animals that form packs. They see their human family members as part of the pack, and are more likely to feel the effects of separation,” explains Smillie.

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They can get so emotionally attached that they only feel secure and emotionally stable when their family is around physically.

Separation anxiety can also be triggered in an otherwise calm pet if they experience something they dislike or are scared of while alone; for example, a thunderstorm, or excessing drilling around the flat.

Some common signs of separation anxiety include excessive pacing, staying by the door all day, or trying to escape from the flat. There might also be lots of barking and causing chaos in the flat, such as chewing items, pulling things off tables, and destroying things.

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Urinating and pooping inside the house is another common symptom of separation anxiety, even among dogs that are toilet-trained.

The only expert in her field in Hong Kong, Smillie has seen countless cases of dogs suffering from extreme stress when left alone.

“When a dog is distressed or panic-stricken, it can do a lot of injury to its teeth or paws by chewing or scrabbling through bars and crates.” While no two dogs are the same, certain factors can cause them to be more prone to separation anxiety. “Senior [older] animals can get more anxious as physical senses like their hearing and eyesight start to become impaired or as they suffer from health issues like arthritis.”

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Adopted dogs, too, can develop separation anxiety much more easily, especially those that come from shelters or have been rehomed several times.

Smillie points to one mistake new dog owners often make: spending excessive time with the pooch.

“That’s not a good thing because it never gets used to actually being alone. They should be left alone for short periods, say 10 to 20 minutes every day for an anxious animal, and then increasingly longer periods over time,” she says.

“You can also practise doing all the things you do before leaving, such as getting your bag, shoes or keys ready, but then not go out. When you do have to go, don’t give the dog any attention for about half an hour before you leave. Don’t try to soothe them as you leave as this can reinforce anxiety.”

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She also recommends doing trial runs to see how your pet reacts to being alone or using a webcam to track its movements, instead of taking the easy way out by putting it in a crate for long hours, which can make them even more stressed.

But, Smillie warns, “Dogs should not be put in a crate for more than five hours. If your family is doing that, you should be asking your parents if it’s a good idea to have a dog in the first place.”

Other ways to help your furry friend cope with post-Covid-19 blues include asking a family member who can spare the time to take it out for a long walk in the morning to tire it out so that it will sleep and relax once home. You can also give it plenty of toys so it can entertain itself, or leave some unwashed clothing on its bed so it can smell your scent – a source of comfort for many dogs when they are away from their owners.

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Another unlikely but useful tip is to switch on music when you go out. That said, it doesn’t mean you should do this only when you go out, because it then becomes a cue for the dog and it starts to think “I’m going to be left alone”.

If all of these above methods fail and your dog’s condition does not improve, it may need professional treatment, Smillie says. “When you get to the stage where your dog is just exhausted from barking, pacing and salivating all day, it needs to see a vet.”

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