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Written by Disha Ramanan
Almost three months ago, pet parents and their dogs first adjusted to a whole new normal - we were home all through the day and many of us had to cut down on walks with our dogs too. Now, as the lockdown is lifted across various places, more and more of us have been stepping out of our work-from-home routines. This means we must gradually get ourselves and our buddies ready and prepared for the way things were before.
In this changing context, separation anxiety could be a major issue that some dogs and pet parents might have to confront once again. We catch up with canine behaviour expert 𝗦𝗶𝗻𝗱𝗵𝗼𝗼𝗿 𝗣𝗮𝗻𝗴𝗮𝗹, 𝗣𝗿𝗶𝗻𝗰𝗶𝗽𝗮𝗹 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗗𝗶𝗿𝗲𝗰𝘁𝗼𝗿 𝗼𝗳 𝗕𝗛𝗔𝗥𝗖𝗦, to give us her invaluable guidance on what exactly separation anxiety is, how it relates to generalised anxiety, and how to prepare every dog to deal with the human closest to their heart getting out of the house.
"Separation anxiety," begins Sindhoor, "is basically when dogs don't know how to deal with being home alone. They almost panic when left alone. It could be because of something that has happened one of the days that they were home alone, or something in their history. It's hard to know why they end up having this."
Pointing out what's not to be mistaken for separation anxiety, she explains, "Of course all dogs to an extent feel upset and disappointed when we go out, but typically, they would settle down and usually use their alone time at home to just sleep. Dogs actually need 14-16 hours of sleep every day, which is hard to get when people are walking around in the house. However, for a dog that has separation anxiety, the dog's mind goes into a complete spin, feeling panic and completely unable to settle down. In fact, they get more and more worked up with the passage of time."
Sindhoor says, "One could say generalised anxiety is something that is without a specific context. A dog could feel anxious in many different situations. They may feel anxious about new people, new situations or novel objects. But separation anxiety happens in a very specific scenario, which is when they are left alone."
Despite this difference, she points out they may not necessarily be totally independent of one another. "They are usually interrelated. If you see a dog with separation anxiety, then it's quite likely that the dog may be somewhat more anxious in other situations. They may be unpredictable in other contexts too, i.e., they may get upset or angry or fearful in situations that don't seem to warrant that kind of an extreme reaction. They may be peeing all over the place, or chewing up and shredding up things. So one is also likely to see a lot of other related behaviours.
Separation anxiety is something that is experienced when the dog is left home alone, but when the body experiences anxiety in one specific situation, it doesn't completely recover from it as soon as that the situation is taken away. It takes time for the body to come back to normal and during that time the dog could be hypersensitive to a lot of other triggers. It's something like a vicious cycle and it starts spreading into many different aspects of their life."
"Not necessarily," reassures Sindhoor. "For example, my dogs have always known how to be home alone. And while I don't expect them to really have separation anxiety per se, they may need to get used to me going out a little bit more. So there's no harm in making the transition easier for them. If the dogs had no separation anxiety, to begin with, it's just the case of being home alone once again and just slipping into familiar old habits. I would expect them to get comfortable within the first few days. They may be a little disoriented or a bit more disappointed in us, but they'll settle down soon."
However, the story is different with dogs that have had separation anxiety in the past. "Yes for dogs having dealt with this in the past, it's highly likely that it's going to come back again. I would expect them to fall back into the panic of the past. It's like this old fear that just comes back."
We first ask Sindhoor if there are any 'warning' signs to look out for from now itself, whether a dog would go on to develop separation anxiety when we start leaving the house. "It's actually hard to predict," she responds. "But in general, if your dog is calm and relaxed, and has stayed home alone before, then it's unlikely that they're going to get it. But if you have hyper dogs, or if they have other kinds of, what we consider to be problem behaviours, such as being skittish or anxious, then you might have to prepare for it."
As for signs and evidence of separation anxiety when we've already started leaving the house? "You're going to see the tell-tale signs when you come back home. Scratching on the door repeatedly (some to the extent that their nails might break), or trying to chew the door, tearing up things - you can see that extreme reaction. You see that they've not been able to calm down and they've really driven themselves up the wall. You'll definitely see it."
"If we're just preparing dogs with no history of separation anxiety, we get them to transition to us being out of the house. You would start with probably stepping out for a little bit - a few minutes at a time and then slowly drag it out for a little longer. Start getting them used to the time at which you are likely to go to."
Sindhoor also points out, "Bringing in those related habits when we go out - for example, getting dressed, taking a bag etc - it's important. If you step out for one minute today, then make it two minutes tomorrow, five minutes, ten minutes and so on."
However, if your dog has separation anxiety, it might be tough. "That's not something that can be dealt with very easily. One would need a professional because there may be many aspects that need to be taken care of; overall anxiety levels have to be brought down. There might need to be more lifestyle changes, maybe diet changes involved, and so on. Also, it is entirely dependent on a case-by-case basis, not just in terms of the dog and his or her behaviours but also the family and their habits, lifestyle etc. And that's why one would need a professional."
There are a lot of medicines and suggestions for natural supplements available today which are touted to help with anxiety in dogs. We ask Sindhoor what she makes of this, and whether medication or any natural remedies could be the right way to go.
"I wouldn't suggest medication at all. Firstly, I'm not qualified to suggest medication and secondly, I think that is one of the things that people should be extremely mindful of, as the anti-anxiety medication is not something to take lightly, just as it is not to be in human beings. Psychotropic medication can go so horribly wrong. One can have completely unexpected side effects."
"Even in the case of humans," she continues, "there is a lot of work in trying to find out if a drug is working for you or should something else be introduced. It works primarily on our feedback to a professional. In the case of dogs, it's even harder to get right. For the dogs that I work with, I really try extremely hard not to get them on medication and I do everything else in my toolkit. I suggest using behaviourists if required and using nutrition/diet to work on reducing anxiety too. Calming diets will help aid behavioural learning. So, I would always say try every other trick in the book before heading into medication."
She warns, "I think even if you decide to do it, it has to be post consulting a professional who completely understands the situation. Just like you wouldn't go to a general practitioner or a paediatrician and get anxiety medication, it has to be somebody who knows how these medicines work on the brain. It has to be a competent professional who can look at your dog as an individual and work through the individual case. This is totally not something you can get online advice on."
Sindhoor points out why a holistic approach is warranted in dealing with anxiety in dogs. "We need to understand where this anxiety is coming from, and if there are other things going on in life that is sort of keeping them agitated. As I said, anxiety isn't confined to one little instance - if they're anxious about everything in life that kind of snowballs over. So, you need somebody to look at their life holistically and figure out where this is coming from and what lifestyle changes are required to bring down the overall anxiety. They must work slowly, gently and gradually as it's a holistic, rounded practice that might need one or multiple professionals."
Sindhoor breaks down for us the process of how one should ideally be addressing anxiety issues in dogs. "The thing is," she explains, "there is no easy, straight-out-of-the-box solution. Anxiety is such an all-encompassing thing and has such a cascading effect on so many systems in the body. We must slowly start breaking these vicious cycles created by anxiety, augmenting it with the right kind of input for the brain, and for the body."
She warns, "One has to be prepared for doing that full journey with them, not taking shortcuts because if you do psychotropic drugs and things like that, you may just end up numbing the dog and shutting her down. To us it seems like the problem is solved. But anybody who has been on these kinds of medications can tell you how badly it reduces the quality of life. It is not a nice place to be and a dog can't tell you this. It's a sad thing - they're stuck in a kind of shell that you've put them in. So it's not about containing that anxiety into a shell but it's about bringing the dog out of that anxiety so that they're able to experience life a little bit more fearlessly and learn that they do indeed have the tools to cope with every situation."
Very interesting article. It’s very refreshing to read, and educational about the importance of treating your dog as an individual being and not just a pet.
Very interesting article. Specially on the holistic, well rounded approach. Even if understand what makes my dog anxious, and it’s me stepping out without me. How best that can be managed. He gets really nasty at times