Unless you’re an essential worker, it’s likely you’ve spent more time at home during the pandemic than usual. While this may have left you bored and restless, for our dogs, it’s been a dream come true!
Extra time with owners gives dogs the sense of security and comfort they often crave. As pack animals, pups have strong social instincts and would choose to spend 24 hours a day with their owner (their packmate) if they got to make the rules.
Why is spending lots of time with owners an issue?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with spending all day with your dog, but it does raise the risk of creating unhealthy routines. While dogs aren’t as routine-based as cats, they still build expectations about their home life. And when those expectations are broken, it can lead to the development of anxiety conditions.
Canine anxiety comes in various forms, ranging from specific phobias to things like water or the vets, to chronic anxiety conditions that result from past traumas and experiences. When dogs develop anxiety over time spent away from their owner, it’s called canine separation anxiety.
What is separation anxiety?
Canine separation anxiety is an inability for dogs to spend even short amounts of time away from an owner. Dogs suffering from separation anxiety are likely to become upset, depressed, or panicked when separated, and may display destructive behaviors such as scratching at doors or attempting to escape.
One thing that’s important to note about separation anxiety is that ‘separation’ can look different for individual dogs, and might not track with how we commonly understand the word. For example, dogs may experience separation anxiety even when apart from their owner for very short periods of time, or when their owner steps into another room.
Dogs experiencing separation anxiety don’t usually experience equal distress when separated from every member of their family. Instead, their symptoms are usually focused around one particular person (or fellow pet) to whom they’ve formed a hyper-attachment.
Why do dogs develop hyper-attachment?
Canine attachment issues are common, but dogs are more vulnerable to becoming unhealthily attached to their owners when a couple of factors are present:
- A dog has had more than one owner during its lifetime (so has experienced the loss of an owner).
- A dog’s routine changes, leading to them spending lots more or a lot less time with their owner.
During the pandemic, a very large number of dogs have experienced changes to their routine that give them far more access to their owners. For dogs already vulnerable to separation anxiety, this alone can be enough to trigger unhealthy attachment.
For other dogs, spending lots of time with owners in a novel routine can set up the conditions for issues later on, when that routine returns to something more normal.
What does hyper-attachment look like?
In dogs, hyper-attachment often manifests itself in signs of panic or distress, such as barking, whining, pacing, and panting. As intelligent creatures, dogs may begin to form associations between certain events, leading to anxiety triggers.
For example, a dog may learn that when their owner heads towards the closet where they store their shoes, it means separation is likely to occur. This can then lead to panic occurring every time the hyper-attached person goes near the closet.
It’s worth noting that many of the symptoms of hyper-attachment are also symptoms of other common conditions in dogs, especially boredom. To help decide whether hyper-attachment is the root cause, owners can look for patterns and triggers.
How to deal with a hyper-attached dog
As we attempt to return to normal life after the pandemic, even the most mentally tough pups are likely to struggle. To support them during the transition and minimize the chances of hyper-attachment, here are a few tips that owners can try out:
Even if you don’t have to spend time apart right now, artificially separating can be a good way to introduce periods of alone time back into you and your dog’s routine. How much separation owners introduce should depend on their dog’s level of attachment.
For dogs that have only become a little more clingy since lockdown, leaving a dog in a safe space during a trip to the grocery store or pop into the office might have a net positive effect. For those pups with more ingrained hyper-attachment, it can be a good idea to create short, artificial separations. Owners can even fake leaving for the day, before returning a few minutes later.
Increase the exercise
For humans and dogs, anxiety symptoms are often closely correlated with the amount of exercise a person gets. It’s important to ensure dogs have as many opportunities to burn off energy as possible, whether a hike up a mountain or just a walk around the block, leaving them ready to chill out back at home.
CBD oil for dogs is becoming a go-to for many owners with anxiety-prone pups, thanks to its soothing, anti-inflammatory effect. As a non-intoxicating cannabis extract, supplementing with CBD can make dogs calmer, and more receptive to commands or new training techniques.
Crate training doesn’t necessarily involve a crate, but it does mean creating a quiet, safe, and private space that’s just for your dog. The idea of crate training is to associate this space with feelings of comfort and security, which then gives dogs a place where they can continue feeling secure, if when their owners leave the house.