Dog gone: how to handle your pet's post-Covid separation anxiety

With more people returning to the office after months of working from home, owners should start preparing for a wave of stressed out pups

Over the past few months, with Covid-19 restrictions seeing families spending more time with their pets, or adopting new ones, many dogs and cats have been enjoying the company, stimulation and exercise.

They have started to rely on the extra attention (including all those new puppies that expect us to be around all the time), but with more people returning to the office or going on holidays dogs are going to feel the absence more than ever, creating an anxiety pandemic among our dogs that we may not be prepared for.

Separation related behaviours, including anxiety, are a major cause of concern for many dog owners.

Separation anxiety in dogs is similar to what a human experiences when having a panic attack, causing destruction and self-harm. I cannot tell you how often I hear an owner saying their dog has been “acting out” or “getting back at them”, when I know their dog is feeling an overwhelming sense of panic.

For the naysayers out there, think about this: a dog’s cognitive ability is around that of two-and-a-half year old toddler. They aren’t able to put subjective spin on things like we adults do, they are acting purely out of an emotional state, led by their feelings, that they have no conscious influence over.

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: One survey found that 81 percent of cat owners let their felines sleep on the bed, compared to 73 percent of dog owners.

Separation anxiety can be extremely hard to overcome if it is not addressed in the very early stages, so needs to be recognised and must be treated with understanding. So how do you ease your dog’s separation anxiety now, so that it doesn’t become a bigger problem later?

Introduce some independence training

Teaching your dog that it is OK to spend time on their own is really important at all stages of a dog’s life to build their confidence and comfort in being left alone.

Even if you are at home all day, create frequent separations from your dog. For most dogs, three to five times alone per day can be enough to help.

Ensure your dog has their own special place where they feel safe and secure, where only good things happen. Crate training your dog is great for this, or giving them their own place in the house or yard with their bed and favourite toys.

Use positive reinforcement behaviour training to put it on cue, such as “go to your crate” or “go to your place” and send them there with a treat, toy or long lasting chew to keep them mentally and physically stimulated while spending time alone there.

The importance of human company and interactions

Create a Barrier to Keep Your Dog Out of the Litterbox. Does your dog go straight for the littler box? He’s not alone, lots of dogs are attracted to kitty litter. Keep your dog from getting into the litter by elevating the box or creating a simple barrier so they can’t get in.

A dog looks out the window, waiting for its owners to return


Dogs are watching our every move from the moment we wake up, so can work themselves up into quite an anxious state before you have even left the house. Photograph: Image by Marie LaFauci/Getty Images

The most powerful solution to treating dogs with separation anxiety is human company. Owners often think their dog misses them exclusively, but generally as long as someone is around, they are much more content. Talk to neighbours, family, friends, or hire a dog walker or doggy day carer to help. There are some great apps now that can connect you with people desperate for some canine companionship at no cost to you.

Desensitise your dog to your departure

Dogs are watching our every move from the moment we wake up, so can work themselves up into quite an anxious state before you have even left the house if you always have the same routine when you head off to work.

There’s a couple of ways to manage this, including changing the order of your departure routine constantly, as well as normalising some of your departure sounds and movements by rattling your keys and grabbing your bag, but not actually leaving the house. That way, they are not associated with you leaving every time.

Make Your Own DIY Pill Pockets with Peanut Butter, Milk & Flour. One of the most useful life hacks for dog owners is finding a way to get your dog to swallow pills. If you’re having a hard time getting your dog to swallow pills you can make your own DIY pill pockets.

Ensure their exercise needs are met

Dogs need daily exercise, yet sadly many dogs aren’t walked daily – the cause of many dog behaviour issues I see as a trainer. A tired dog is a good dog, so make sure your dog is getting the level of exercise they need for their breed, age and size. This includes plenty of family “play” time and games as well.

‘Scenting’ and interactive toys

Tapping into your dog’s love of “scenting” brings out their natural hunting instincts. It releases pheromones and keeps their brains and bodies moving, like they would when foraging for food all day in the wild. Too many dogs are left to languish away on their own all day with nothing to do.

Games like hide ‘n’ seek, where you hide treats or their kibble around the yard or home, are perfect for this. If you put this on a cue such as “find your treats” you can also use that instruction when you are departing the house, to help create a positive association with your departure.

Leaving your pets with a couple of treat-release and food puzzle toys when you go out is also a good way to keep their brains and bodies moving when they are alone. Make sure you rotate these regularly.

Let them inside!

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: More than half of all U.S presidents have owned dogs.

If you can’t arrange human company, the next method for treating separation anxiety in dogs is to provide an environment in which the dog can relax when nobody is home. For many dogs this is achieved by having access to inside the house.

Calming sprays and accessories

Calming pheromone sprays, collars and diffusers may assist in helping to reduce anxiety in dogs and cats. Anti-anxiety weighted coats like a Thundershirt works to calm their nerves if they are feeling anxious, so together they may provide a physical comfort.

Eat Play Love Your Dog coverPhotograph: Hardie Grant Books

Seek professional help

If your dog’s separation anxiety is getting worse, or is already severe, then do seek out professional help from a trainer and/or a vet behaviourist, as it won’t go away over time, it usually gets worse if left untreated. And, of course, never punish your dog for being anxious, or any behaviour that indicates this, as it will make it worse.

  • Lara Shannon’s book Eat, Play, Love Your Dog provides tips and advice to help create healthy happy dogs from puppyhood through to their senior years. Available now. RRP $29.99. Hardie Grant.