Three Trainers on How to Reduce Your Dog's Separation Anxiety When You Return to Work

After many families welcomed a four-legged friend into their home during the pandemic, it's time to return to school and work. However, this may be difficult for dogs who never spent time away from their humans and who have grown accustomed to having constant company and attention.

Newsweek spoke to three dog trainers about the best way to manage your dog's separation anxiety, along with signs to look for, and which mistakes you should avoid while placating your pooch.

Brett Shelby, a dog behavior specialist and trainer, has been working with dogs for over 15 years. He offers private in-home training sessions, online lessons, along with boarding and training for all dogs. Shelby believes that "a well trained dog is a well behaved member of the family and of society."

Andrea Arden has been training dogs for over 25 years. She has appeared on the TODAY Show, CBS News, CNN and The View, and is the author of several books. The New York City based trainer offers private lessons, group classes, play groups, and individually tailored supportive services.

Kait Hembree, head trainer at GoodPup, emailed Newsweek with her tips for all things separation anxiety for our four-legged friends. GoodPup is an app which connects humans with custom training for dogs of all ages. Users are able to chat with their trainers whenever they need assistance, and provide flexible hours for their services.

Beagle Dogs Separation Anxiety
A Beagle is seen in a private garden on July 27, 2020 in Pfullendorf, Germany. "Newsweek" spoke to three dog trainers to find out the best way to reduce separation anxiety as people return to work. Harry Langer/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

What signs can owners look for to determine if their dog is experiencing separation anxiety?

Brett Shelby: "If your dog's going to be around your feet at all times, and if the dog doesn't leave your side, if it's following you from room-to-room, if you leave the house at any point of time and the dog is whining, that's generally the first sign. Some dogs, if you have them sleeping in your bed, and they can't be separated at all, then they might be going to the bathroom in the crate, chewing stuff, because they are away from you, that's usually going to be the first signal."

Andrea Arden: "If they haven't practiced good home alone skills with their dog when they're home to start, then it means it's very predictable that they're probably going to end up with some level or some degree of separation anxiety.

"Dogs are creatures of habit, and we have gotten them into a routine of being with their person or their people, for basically uninhibited amounts of time, that's what they're going to rely on. That's sort of the norm to them. If they haven't practiced good home alone skills with their dog when they're home to start, then it means it's very predictable that they're probably going to end up with the dog to some level or some degree of separation anxiety."

Kait Hembree: "Separation anxiety, which requires a clinical diagnosis, and/or separation related problem behaviors, known in many academic circles, refers to the variety of behaviors that are exhibited due to the distress of being left alone. Dogs who experience stress from being left alone begin to exhibit stressed behaviors within a few seconds to a minute following the owners departing. They can exhibit a wide range of behaviors that owners may see upon return and/or when recorded during the departure including, but not limited to, destructive behaviors, excessive salivation, inappropriate elimination, vocalization, pacing, panting, and self-injurious behaviors associated with an attempt to escape."

At what point should you start preparing your dog for separation anxiety?

BS: "Yesterday. The day you get your dog. That's the best bet. Since COVID started, I called these the COVID cases, separation anxiety and lack of socialization when they're not being around or with other dogs, because we're not going out meeting anyone new or any of their dogs. With separation anxiety in these case scenarios, what you want to do is you want to start creating separation from the beginning...You want to get started sooner rather than later."

AA: "In a perfect world, if people are adopting or purchasing a puppy at eight weeks old, they should start preparing them, and helping them develop along time skills at eight weeks. If somebody's adopted or purchased a dog when it's a bit older, you start then. In a nutshell, you start as soon as you bring that puppy into your family.

"The hard part for people is I think they feel guilty not spending as much time with their dog as possible when they can...But, the end result is that you've done a bit of a disservice to your dog, because you haven't prepared them for the future."

KH: "You can't prepare your dog for separation anxiety, instead, you want to optimize the success of your dog being comfortable alone but working to decrease the risk of developing stress from being separated.

"It is recommended that owners work to increase alone time success for their dogs by training with them from the beginning as puppies to be independent and comfortable when the owner is not with them. This can be done by providing appropriate outlets for mental and physical enrichment; working to reward dogs for calm behavior; helping dogs learn to play by themselves without the owner present and not making a big deal out of departures and/or arrivals."

Best tips for reducing your dog's separation anxiety?

BS: "Teach the dog that they will survive but without being next to you at all times. We need to get the dog to understand that, but words have no meaning. Dogs understand two things: body language and voice intonation. It's how you sound, and how you're moving in communication with the dog.

"So what you want to do is teach the dog when they're whining or complaining, that you're not gonna show them attention to that. You're not giving them any attention to that. Instead, when they separate themselves, lay down on their own bed, lay on the floor away from you, or whatever have you, then you show them more attention. They will naturally have inclinations to separate themselves to get your attention, which is now forced separation.

"You also want to teach them what their roles are. A lot of dogs are not there as household cuddle animals, and they weren't designed to be that way. We want to give them roles in life. If they know what to do, they'll be more confident and more comfortable. It can be as simple as not laying on the furniture. You want to create separation with your dog, which is by far one of the hardest things for most of my clients.

"I would also keep most dogs off the furniture and bed. At least for a few months, six months give or take. I wouldn't allow the dog on the furniture or in your bed, because that is the most prime real estate for them, so if you can create separation there, you'll probably have less issues in the long run with separation anxiety."

AA: "So there are some really easy things that people can do to prepare their dog. Let me speak first to dogs who either don't have a problem, or if they do have a problem it's still something we might consider low-level, and that's compared to dogs who have true separation anxiety.

"For the former, you can do simple things. So every time you're about to hop in the shower, or go into the garden to do some gardening for half an hour, or running to the grocery store for a bit of time, that's a great opportunity to give your dog a chance to rest calmly, either in a crate, if they're crate-trained, or an an area that's separated from the rest of the house, like a pantry or a foyer or a kitchen that's blocked off, or bathroom, and make sure that you give your dog plenty of opportunities to do the right thing.

"For dogs, the species specific behavior we always like is playing with chew toys. The best ones are toys that can be stuffed with healthy food, so they're more likely to keep the dog occupied, doing something right, and not so focused on the fact that they're not with their person.

"Even before that, or in conjunction with that, something as simple as keeping your dog on a leash, occasionally in the house, and using the leash to tether them to stable objects, just out of your reach, as you walk around the room and eventually leave the room, for little bits of time and come back. That's an alternative to using a crate or an exercise pen or a gate."

KH: "Make your dog more comfortable home alone: Use food dispensers, toys, and other stimuli to keep your pup entertained during the time without you.

"Use your dog's knowledge of cues: When destructive behaviors associated with separation anxiety begin, try refocusing your dog's attention by requesting he/she follow a cue like 'sit' or 'stay.'

"Provide your dog enrichment and exercise: Proper exercise and enrichment are the foundation for good dog behavior. Try exercising your pup directly before you leave the home to tucker him/her out.

"Familiarize your dog with the arrival/departure process: Don't make a big deal out of coming and going from your home. Instead, try to remain calm and not acknowledge your dog when leaving home. While it can feel challenging, it helps your dog to feel as though there is not a difference when you're home and when you are not."

Is handling separation anxiety different for a puppy vs. a dog?

BS: "Every dog is different. Most cases of an eight-week-old, 10-week-old, 12-week-old, it's a little bit easier, like how most people don't have their children sleeping in their bed at age eight, nine years old. They let the child cry it out.

You have to do the same thing with a dog. It hurts our hearts, and if we try to sweet talk them, like 'my baby, it's gonna be okay,' you're actually going to reinforce anxiety. Sometimes shutting off or ignoring them is the best thing you can do. You want to start it out as soon as possible with a puppy that age, and let them cry it out, and they generally tend to get over it.

AA: "The sort of base protocol, which is the dog learning to spend time quietly alone when you're home, using a crate, or using a tether, not letting them follow you all around the house, a velcro dog is the same. But the difference is you have a dog who has an extreme separation anxiety issue, you're not only going to have to be much more careful and more gradually, but you may need to use some tools while you're helping the dog build this alone time skill that you wouldn't necessarily have to use with the dog who's got low level issues."

KH: "Yes. The stage of brain development of a puppy is different than that of an adult dog. Given that, it is appropriate for puppies to display some kind of stress to being separated from their owner. However, owners can work to gradually introduce separation from their puppy which helps decrease any stress on puppies and increase the likelihood of success for being comfortable alone."

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What won't help a dog with their separation anxiety/what should people avoid doing in order to keep their dog calm?

BS: "Sweet talking the dog, coddling the dog, showing the dog attention at moments you don't want to reinforce...A lot of times, it's about ignoring the whining and complaining. Sometimes dogs will take negative attention over nothing as well, so if you scold them sometimes you're actually rewarding their attention. Sometimes just separating them isn't the right best case scenario, but it's just the way to get started. Put yourself in moments where the dog stops whining for a period of time, where you can go and reward the stopping of whining."

AA: "If you're lucky enough to have a fresh start with a dog you've just adopted or purchased, right from day one, rather than bringing the dog into your home and having him in your lap, and have your family spend the first 48 hours, basically nonstop with the dog, right from the get-go, I would say have the dog resting in your line of sight, keep them relatively close but preventing them from having constant physical contact with you. So that you're breaking it up. So right away you're starting that relationship in a way that will bode well for the future."

KH: "If owners believe that their dog is exhibiting separation related problem behaviors it is important not to push their dog to the panic point. Owners should work to limit the time the dog is alone by optimizing daycares, dog walkers, family and friends until they can get the help of a professional. It is also recommended that owners avoid getting another dog to try to help calm the dog with separation related problem behaviors. Rather than solve this problem, more often than not it only increases the likelihood that owners will end up with multiple problems."

What things do owners do wrong most often when they're trying to help?

BS: "You want to demotionalize entrances and exits. It's not a big deal that you're leaving or if you're returning, and then it's not that big of a deal for them, they'll tend to calm down a lot more. Don't sweet talk the dog when you don't want the behavior. Create separation. Do what you can to build separation for the dog where they're able to be away from you, even when you're home. So when you're home, have them in a separate room for a period of time until they stop complaining why you're doing whatever."

AA: "One of the things that people do, is that they will try and leave their apartment for like a minute and come back, leave for two minutes, come back, leave for three minutes, come back. That can certainly help in some ways, but that is, like, a little tiny drop in the bucket when it comes to the protocol to address this issue. So, if you do that but the same time when you're home and the dog gets to follow you around everywhere, that is probably not going to make any difference at all."

KH: "When dogs are experiencing high levels of stress due to being left alone, the best thing an owner can do rather than continuing to depart is to find a way to give their dog a break from being left alone. Unfortunately, the challenge with many lifestyles is that owners are unable to not leave their dog alone even if they are actively working on helping their dog deal with the stress of being left alone. This slows and can often regress progress in the dog becoming comfortable being alone."

What if the separation anxiety is more severe? What would you recommend?

BS: "It's a variety of factors. I would recommend keeping the dog off the furniture, giving the dog basic commands, creating separation with these commands, teaching the dog to go to a particular location that you desire.

"We can try speciality bones, like a bone with some peanut butter or something on the inside...Harpsichord music, there's different types of music that have been proven to help calm dogs down. Something going on in the background. I also keep them off the furniture, including the bed. I would absolutely keep them out of your bed.

"Use a crate, feed them in the crate...

"On the occasion, some people are not big fans of this, but I do use remote collars, whether it be a shock or a vibration. So what you want to do is, you don't want to shock the dog to injure the dog, or cause discomfort. You want to create a touch. It's more like a bump.

So my remote collar for my dog goes to a level 100. When I use it on my dog, I use it on a level 7. I don't even feel it, but what my dog feels is a touch on her neck, she turns, looks at me, and I'm smiling telling her how great she is. You create a connection with that light, low-level shock that's not jolting them. I'm not giving them negative association. You're creating a positive connect to you. Then when your dog is in that heightened state of mind and losing their mind, you can use the remote to bring them out of that state of mind."

"If you do use a remote collar, talk to a professional first."

AA: "Unfortunately, there is no quick fix to resolving separation issues. It's typically a long haul project, that requires you to be really diligent and patient with the dog. Some require that more than others. I will say that we are seeing a lot of separation issues now for three reasons. One, is because people have obviously been at home with their dog, that's the big one. Two, culturally, I think there is a real shift in how we see our dogs. Starting when I was a trainer a lifetime ago, people loved their dogs. But it's shifted to be they're our fur babies. Which I think is great, but I think it does a little bit of a disservice in regards to recognizing that you can look at them as your children if you want, but you also need to look at them as animals who don't really understand the world the same way we do.

"I think the third reason is that there has been an absolute flood on the "puppy market," dogs that are being bred really quite haphazardly to meet the demands and very little thought has been put into breeding for good temperaments. So we and many trainers we know across the country, we all chat about this sort of stuff, we're seeing more dogs that have sort of stressy and anxious temperaments.

"Those three things are really adding up to there being an epidemic of separation issues that people are dealing with, and in the coming 6, 7, 8 months, I think it's only going to rear its ugly head more as people start to leave the house more."

KH: "When a dog is displaying separation related behavior problems, it is highly recommended the owner consult with an experienced professional behavior consultant such as a Veterinary Behaviorist (DACVB), a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB), or a highly skilled trainer with a focus on separation related behavior problems."