Dogs can face anxiety at home as their owners return to the world. But there are solutions

Animal experts say pandemic pet anxiety is a real phenomenon, and many of the dogs adopted during the last few years simply aren't used to being left alone. Veterinarians offer suggestions for how to help.

Veterinarians offer suggestions for how to help pets adjust to spending more time alone

Cooper is a happy go-lucky goldendoodle — until he's left at home alone.

Jennifer Wright adopted him as a puppy just a few months into the pandemic and the pair quickly became inseparable.

"I didn't have anywhere to go, really. We're talking about the height of the pandemic — no work, no dinner with friends," said Wright, who lives in a small condo in downtown Toronto.

Now that Wright is going out more, she is taking steps to alleviate her dog's anxiety with the help of a trainer. She puts CBD oil on Cooper's food to keep him calm and sets up a doggy cam.

"Even for me to go grocery shopping, he'd start to howl and bark and it'd escalate from there. I got a noise complaint once when I left him for 30 or 45 minutes," Wright said.

Animal experts say pandemic pet anxiety is a real phenomenon. Many animals adopted in the past two years — and which served as sources of comfort during the pandemic — are now struggling as the world opens up.

A fluffly goldendoodle waits at the door

Andrea Dinan, a dog trainer based in Toronto, used to get just a handful of calls each month from dog owners struggling to leave their pets. Now, she said, she's busier than ever.

"Now people are going back and I get between five and six calls a week, people who are either worried about it or who have already tried to leave their dog and it didn't go well," Dinan said.

Tips and tricks

In the most severe cases, dogs can end up harming themselves by biting and licking excessively, barking excessively or causing damage to their home, said Dr. Larry Tung, a veterinarian at the Laird-Eglinton Pet Hospital in Toronto.

"I would say the most common would probably be the vocalization, which can progress and become destructive behaviour of tearing up carpets, sofas, that sort of thing."

If a dog owner gets the sense that their dog is suffering from separation anxiety, they should try to address it quickly, Tung said.

"The longer that behaviour goes on for, the harder it is to get rid of. It gets more ingrained into their psyche. And then it's hard to break those habits," he said.

He said owners should make sure their pets get sufficient exercise and have a place they feel comfortable in the home, with toys of their own and perhaps a crate.

Dr. Shannon Gowland, a veterinarian at the OVC Smith Lane Animal Hospital in Guelph, Ont., recommended that dog owners record a video to understand what happens when they are away.

"For really mild cases, sometimes we can just recommend some behaviour modifications or some special training for that dog in order to help," Gowland said.

A veterinarian holds the paw of a dog

She suggested practising departures to habituate the dog and then establish a "departure routine." When arriving home, she said owners should avoid a dramatic greeting.

"We all want to hug our dogs and say hello and that we miss them. But it's best to avoid a lot of excitement on your arrival back home again because that can reinforce that going away was a problem," she said.

"Trying to be as boring as possible at the moment that you leave and when you come back can be really powerful."

For some dogs, she said, medication may even be necessary. But before doing that, "we would have the dog come into the clinic, do a physical exam, maybe some bloodwork, make sure we're not missing any medical problems that might be making the problem worse," she said.

For her part, Wright is exploring all options for Cooper.

She said she always keeps in mind that most of us felt a high level of stress and anxiety in the last few years, even our dogs.

"You wouldn't tell a human to cry it out or get over their anxiety and that's the mindset I try to bring."

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