“Will going back to work after lockdown create separation issues with my dog?” This is a question I am being asked on an almost daily basis.
Whilst every case is different, I want to tell you a story about a dog called Daisy and my observations of her behaviour before, during and after lockdown.
I met Daisy when she was just 9 weeks old. I was hired to visit her on a daily basis shortly after she was adopted by her new family. At the time, I had been off work for four months recovering from an injury and her family were my first new clients when I reopened my business! Daisy essentially got me back on my feet and helped me heal after surgery, so I have always had a soft spot for her. To return the favour, I was there for her when her family were working. We bonded very quickly over our morning cuddles and puppy training sessions.
As the weeks went on, Daisy began to show signs of distress when her family left her in the morning. She became more and more destructive to her surroundings and started to damage the space she was kept in. This destruction was occurring in a very short space of time, sometimes in the 10 minutes between her family leaving and my arrival. It only ever happened when she was left alone, and it became clear that she was feeling extreme distress when separated from her people.
The pictures above show the beginning of a long series of destructive behaviours. Starting with minor objects like tearing up her puppy pads and paper, her behaviour over time started to become more extreme. When left alone she took chunks of plaster out of the walls with her teeth, destroyed furniture, ripped up clothes, shoes, DVDs, the children’s precious toys and smashed eggs that she’d pulled down from the side. Neighbours had reported constant barking and she also started refusing to eat and lost weight.
The problem became so intense and her behaviour so destructive, that at twelve months old, she came to live with me.
Behaviourist Dr. Karen Overall states that re-homing a dog with separation related issues (with someone they do not know) can cause more harm than good to their psychological state (Overall, 2013), so taking Daisy on myself seemed like the best option. With my husband and I both working from home, there would always be someone to keep an eye on her and she wouldn’t need to be left alone.
We started with confidence building – scentwork, gundog games and any fun training that she enjoyed (all 100% force free). We taught her how to retrieve items, play tug of war with our other dog Olive and kept all cuddles and grooming on her terms. Thankfully, her appetite came back and some of her other anxieties started to diminish. Her excessive drooling during the appearance of the hoover stopped and she started to choose getting into the bath when she was once terrified of getting wet. We were still not able to leave her alone, but her confidence had started to grow!
And then Covid-19 arrived.
Alongside feeling fear and disbelief at what was happening in the world and going into lockdown in the UK – I started to worry about Daisy. I was worried that a big change to her routine would create more insecurity and acclimatise her to constant companionship – something we really wanted to avoid!
But something interesting started to happen…
The more time we spent together in lockdown, the more Daisy started to wander off and do things by herself. By week 7 of being together 100% of the time, she was happily taking a chew outside in the garden and being in the sunshine by herself, something that she had not done before. She even started creating distance between herself and Olive – they’d settle down in separate rooms instead of always being together. She was also following me around the house less and less.
What I began to see, was a dog who had grown in confidence, not just in herself but in feeling secure with her relationship to us all. Instead of fearing or anticipating separation, she was actively choosing to create that distance herself, and she seemed to be enjoying the independence!
The forced togetherness of lockdown has helped make her feel secure for the first time in her life.
As lockdown started to ease, I started challenging her with forced separation by leaving the house in short increments. Not only was destruction now a thing of the past, but as I left she was actively taking herself off to her bed, settling down and falling asleep.
For our little family, lockdown has been a game changer in helping Daisy overcome her separation anxiety. Not being able to leave the house and spending extra time together has strengthened our bond and created the secure attachment that she desperately needed. Last night, we went to meet friends (the first time since March!) and she was left alone for four whole hours. This is the maximum limit I would ever leave my dogs for – and to have got to this stage with Daisy in just a few short months seems like a miracle! But why has this happened?
What do we know about Separation Anxiety (SA)?
Whilst there is no definitive cause, some researchers believe that attachment to a caregiver and separation anxiety are related concepts. According to John Bowlby, securely attached children have the confidence that the attachment figure will be available if needed, thus they are less anxious during separation (Bowbly, 1958). Some behaviourists believe the same could be true for our companion animals (Smolkovic et al, 2012). This would suggest that the more bonded and securely attached a dog is to their primary caregiver, the less distress they are likely to feel when separated. This certainly appears to be the case for Daisy. Lockdown has been the perfect opportunity for us to bond and be available for her 100% of the time, which in turn seems to have eased her anxiety around separation.
It’s important to remember, that not every case is the same. Daisy’s experience is unique to her and cannot be directly applied to other individual dogs. With this in mind, what else could be causing separation issues in our dogs?
Some researchers believe that some dogs may have a genetic predisposition to developing issues around separation. Studies have shown that some breeds and categories of dogs, such as gundogs may be more likely to develop these issues (Storengen et al, 2014). Some studies have also suggested that males are more likely to struggle with the condition than female (McGreevy, 2008). New research also suggests that some forms of SA are actually more accurately described as frustration behaviours instead of anxiety. We are learning more and more about it all the time, and this is why we need to listen to the experts and move with the science when it comes to treatment.
So what do we do about it?
New research from the University of Lincoln states that separation anxiety in dogs should be seen as a symptom of underlying frustrations rather than a diagnosis. Understanding these root causes could be key to effective treatment (LS de Assis, 2020).
The research identified four key forms of motivation behind behaviours commonly associated with SA, and suggest that animal behaviourists should consider these underlying reasons as the issues that need treating. These are:
“Exit Frustration” : Where the dog finds the event of the person leaving aversive. Common symptoms are reactivity towards the owners on leaving, or redirected aggression towards furniture and doorways in an attempt to get the owner back. This is potentially less about separation and more about reacting to someone or something leaving the “group” (seen more often in herding/pastoral breeds)
“Redirected Reactive”: These dogs want to escape, and become frustrated with barriers that stand between themselves and getting to their “thing” (this could be their owner or something else outside like a fox or cat). These dogs seem to have a lower tolerance for frustration and redirect this frustration onto other objects.
“Reactive Inhibited”: These dogs are more socially anxious and are frightened to be left alone. They are also more likely to experience other forms of generalised anxiety and are more likely to toilet indoors when left alone than the other groups. Sometimes dogs in this category need an intervention with medication before any behaviour modification or confidence building can begin.
“Boredom”: Dogs that are simply bored and looking for an outlet/something to do. This is less about anxiety and more about dogs not having their needs met.
Each of these categories shows a different motivation behind the problematic behaviours, meaning that each category requires a very different treatment plan. This can include anything from basic training, medication, a change of diet, a small change in their environment, extensive behaviour modification, a slight change of routine or simply making sure the dog is getting its basic needs met. An expert will be able to advise further and create personalised plan for you and your dog.
I believe that at the height of her distress, Daisy fit into Category C – “reactive inhibited”. Whilst I never went down the medication route with her, a big part of her treatment was confidence building, overcoming multiple other anxieties through counter conditioning and focusing on building a secure attachment.
If you find yourself struggling with separation related problems with your dog please reach out to your local APBC or CCAB registered clinical animal behaviourist or ask your dog trainer for a referral. Separation issues go far deeper than training alone and should always be overseen by a specialist.
I wanted to write this article to give any of you struggling with separation issues hope. You and your dog CAN overcome this, but it’s important to find the right professional to assist you and the right treatment plan for the individual that is your dog.
Becki Gude PACT-KSA
ABTC Registered Animal Trainer
LS de Assis (2020) “Developing Diagnostic Frameworks in Veterinary Behavioral Medicine: Disambiguating Separation Related Problems in Dogs” Frontiers in Veterinary Science (online access) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6978995/
Bowlby, J. (1958) “The nature of the childs tie to his mother” International Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol. 39, pages 350-371 Overall (2013) Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats, Elsevier, page 244
Smolkovic et al (2012) “Attachment to Pets and Interpersonal Relationships” Journal of European Psychology Students, Vol. 3
Mcgreevy (2008) “Risk factors for separation-related distress and feed-related aggression in dogs: Additional findings from a survey of Australian dog owners” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Vol 109, pages 320-328
Storengen et al (2014) “A descriptive study of 215 dogs diagnosed with separation anxiety” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Vol. 159