Dog owners have received guidance from animal experts at Hartpury University about how to reduce separation anxiety in their pets when they’re left alone at home.
Dogs accustomed to their owners being at home during lockdown may now start to show signs of separation anxiety – one of the most common behavioural disorders in dogs – when their owners return to their place of work.
Signs of separation anxiety can include destructive behaviour, loss of appetite, barking, trembling, and standing at exit points or windows, said Aisling Carroll and Sienna Taylor from the Animal department at Hartpury University.
Early indicators that the dog may be developing separation anxiety include when it continuously follows the owner around, or could show mild signs of aggression.
Dogs may also show signs of separation anxiety when an owner prepares to leave the house, or through an over-excited response to them returning home.
Animal Science lecturer Aisling Carroll, programme manager for BSc (Hons) Applied Animal Science with Therapy and BSc (Hons) Animal Behaviour and Welfare, said: “With the outbreak of Covid-19, owners have been spending more time at home with their dogs.
“But once people return to work, some dogs may be more at risk of suffering from separation anxiety.
“Separation anxiety presents a significant wellbeing issue for affected dogs, as it causes distress, can impact on recovery from infection, and may reduce its lifespan.”
Within the UK, approximately five million dogs are left at home alone for a variable number of hours every weekday.
In the UK, up to 80% of dogs exhibit undesirable behaviours, with up to 40% referred to behavioural clinics being diagnosed with separation anxiety.
Sienna Taylor, a lecturer in Animal Behaviour and Welfare, suggested a number of methods to help dog owners reduce the likelihood of separation anxiety.
“It is preferable to start training when the dog is still a puppy as this will help them prepare to be left alone, but you can also start this training with an adult dog and also one that is already showing signs of separation anxiety,” she said.
“Start by leaving them alone for a few seconds, whilst you are in another room with the door shut, and then return to the dog.
“You can provide them with a toy or puzzle feeder to keep them occupied during this time. If they remain calm, then you can build up the time apart from a few seconds to a few minutes eventually working up to 30 minutes.
“You can then gradually build up to leaving the house using the same method, leave through the front door and shut it for a few seconds and return.
“If the dog is calm then you can build up the period of time left alone, but do this gradually and only increase the time apart if the dog remains calm.
“Taking your dog for a walk before you leave the house, so they can exercise and toilet, may make them more inclined to sleep in your absence.
“When you leave your dog, you can provide them with a treat-filled toy to help keep them dog occupied while you are away from the home.
“You should provide your dog with a safe space, such as a crate or bed, where it feels comfortable and safe to relax, while leaving the radio on at a low level when you are out provides some background noise and ‘company’ for your dog.
“If you decide to use the radio, choose a station that is predominantly people talking rather than loud music.
“Be calm around your dog when you leave and return from home, so you don’t increase their anxiety, and never punish your dog if it shows signs of separation anxiety, such as damaging furniture, because this may trigger more anxiety cause the problem to escalate.
“You could consider a pet-sitter or dog-walking service instead of leaving your dog alone at home, but we advise against getting another dog for company. If your dog has separation anxiety because it is dependent on you, getting another dog is unlikely to help.”
If you are worried that your dog is showing signs of separation anxiety, it is always best to seek the advice of a veterinary professional to rule out possible underlying medical conditions that may mimic or exacerbate its symptoms.
They can refer you to a qualified behaviourist, preferably someone who specialises in this condition, who can support owners in helping their dogs.