Recognize and Remedy Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Reader Contribution by Bruce Mcelmurray
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Lucy and her “friend”, hedgehog. Photo by Bruce McElmurray

The American humorist Josh Billings once said, “A dog is the only thing on earth that will love you more than you love yourself”. For more than 23 years, we have been with our canine family almost 100 percent of the time. When you are with your canine family members that much time, it is hard to avoid learning about their behavior and traits. Because of the COVID-19 virus and shelter-at-home orders, for those who have canine family members, there exists the unique opportunity to see more of your dogs’ behavior.

Dogs as Companions for Homesteaders

Always there. We have three German shepherds and are familiar with each of their traits and, more specially, their love for us. They can heal a wounded heart, brighten a boring day, or comfort us with their love for us. When I get up to do something at least one is right there by my side, and when I come back inside from working outside, there are generally two at the door with smiles and tails wagging. The third one is watching but at 13+ years old and his back legs weakened he will wait for me to come to him — I always do — which makes him happy. For 13 years, he was my constant companion and now it is my time to take gentle care of him in his advanced years.

Dogs attuned to our moods. When the cabin fever starts to take hold of us, they will distract us by play, forced affection or various other means to lighten our day. Those who have been sheltering in place at home may have observed how the canine family is acutely attuned to our every change in mood. They will be at your side for petting or belly rubs and the next thing you know your mind is focused on them and not your own concerns. Petting a dog is just plain therapeutic!

Dogs versus cats. Admittedly, I don’t know much about cats, but it seems to me that cats can consider humans an invader into their domains. Dogs are just the opposite: They just want to be wherever we are and any attention you can give them makes them extremely happy. Cats seem to decide when you should give them attention and appear more independent. Dogs have now become accustomed to having their family around all the time and can react differently when things slowly change back.

Separation anxiety. As life returns to semi-normal, your canine family member may not see it as you do and act out of character so be prepared. Our canine friends may exhibit excessive panting, more barking or, in some cases, destructive behavior like damaging things in the home. In extreme cases, they may drool, tremble or howl. They may scratch at furniture, try to escape from a crate or room, and exuberantly greet their dog parent as if they haven’t seen them in months or years when you return. I once knew a dog that tore the Sheetrock out all around a door due to separation anxiety. While they are smart, they don’t always adjust well to a change, like returning to work following a long absence.

Solutions for Solving Separation Anxiety in Dogs

We have always been able to resolve separation anxiety by taking measured absences from home. A few for 15-20 minutes and then make the absences gradually longer and longer so your canine family member realizes that you will always come back home to them. We also leave them with a distraction like a hard rubber Kong with peanut butter and dog biscuits frozen inside the cavity. That will keep them occupied long enough to establish a state of tranquility until you return. When we return we act like we never left and don’t make a big fuss over them.  

Dogs like routine. It was Martin Buxham, American poet, author and editor who once said, “A dog wags it’s tail with its heart”. Some dogs can smile (ours do) but all dogs can wag their tails when they are happy to see you. To your canine companion/s we are their entire world and they are a major part of ours. A sudden change in lifestyle or disruption can impact their conduct and lifestyle. Dogs like a consistent routine and when that routine is changed they can act out in various ways.

Dogs give all themselves. Canine companions will give 100 percent of what they have: loyalty, obedience and love — and most will protect you. I frequently read stories of the heroics of our canine companions. They will sometimes sacrifice themselves to protect you. Dogs put your safety and interest above theirs even if it may cause them injury or cost them their life. Mark Twain once said, “It is not the size of the dog in the fight, it is the size of the fight in the dog”.

Coronavirus reopening can impact dogs. Now with states reopening and starting to go back to normal it could present a challenge for some of our canine family members, so it is best to be aware of that possibility and be prepared ahead of time. Taking progressively longer absences from them will condition them to what used to be their normal life when you were at work or shopping.

Final thoughts. There are thousands of well deserved quotes from famous people regarding the attributes of our canine family members. All essentially true and wouldn’t it be nice in these current turbulent times if there were as many quotes about the outstanding characteristics of us humans? Will Rogers once said, “If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die, I want to go where they went”. And Billy Graham said, “God will prepare everything for our perfect happiness in heaven, and if it takes my dog being there, I believe he’ll be there.”

If our canine family members can draw such high praise from many well known people, then maybe we should be more appreciative of our canine family members while they are still with us. We need to let them know how important they are to us. A little extra attention never hurts.

Bruce McElmurray homesteads at high elevation in the Southern Rockies with his wife, Carol. For more on their mountain lifestyle and their observances of animals coupled with their strange behavior, visit Bruce’s personal blog site atBruce Carol Cabin. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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