It’s that time again, the end of summer. School is about to go back in session, and you know what that means. Peace and quiet? For sure! But there’s much more going on than that. Lots of school supplies and back to school shopping? Check. Getting the kids back to an early morning routine? Absolutely. Mapping out the any routes to school and work? Probably.
But it also means that your family pets, particularly the dogs, might start to become a bit bummed out. In fact, it is almost a guarantee that your dogs (and cats) will notice the absence of the kids straight away…and react to the change.
Suddenly finding themselves alone or their young human pals unavailable, dogs show how they feel about it. Some are clearly saddened when the kids leave each morning and overjoyed at the sight or sound of the bus as it returns in the afternoon. Some become nervous and edgy at this new routine, some seem distracted or even disconnected during the day, and some exhibit unwelcome behaviors.
Yet,all of these responses are signs of the same issue…anxiety.Described by some as separation anxiety, it can also be a time when depression strikes. As famed dog whisperer Cesar Milan has noted on his site, “While back to school is usually an exciting, fun time for the humans in the home, for your dog it can mean loneliness and boredom.”
Why Pets Feel Separation Anxiety
It makes perfect sense. The dog(s) have experienced roughly two months of hanging out with the kids in the family all day and night. No one gets on the big, yellow bus or leaves every day, and for hours on end. Instead, it’s all about time on the sofa, playing in the yard, swimming in the pool…oh, the joys of summer vacation for the family dog.
Then, kaboom, it’s over.
While my two dogs, Janice and Leroy, haven’t had any kids to experience the delights of summer vacation with, they have had brief bouts of “where’s Mom?” syndrome, aka separation anxiety. I remember that first instance, very clearly.
When Disaster Strikes…AKA Someone Leaves the House!
I’d dared to book my first lengthy vacation after years of weekend getaways and trips with the dogs. My brave and faithful pet sitter moved in for the duration, and just a few days in she phoned to say that the dogs were acting oddly.
“There’s something going on,” she’d said, “It’s like they’ve been replaced by alien pod dogs.” She went on to describe how their energy levels were low to non-existent, a condition that remains utterly alien in our home. She also said that pair was off their food,another impossible scenario (trust me, you should see them eat), and that Leroy had taken to howling when she’d leave.
I guessed immediately that it had to be due to the stress of my lengthy absence (a first in our lives together) and the shakeup it caused to their routine. And, to be honest, I was lucky. After all, separation anxiety often manifests in very challenging ways. The howling was an issue, but at least they weren’t whining and barking at all hours, destroying things in the house, soiling indoors, clawing crazily at the doors and windows, or starting to pant and drool (signs of anxiety) non-stop.
I called my vet and asked what the sitter could do until I got home and was shocked (more like disgusted) what she told me. First, she confirmed that it was probably anxiety and not medical, since it was both of them and coincided with my departure and no other changes.
Then, she explained that separation anxiety is one of the main reasons that people give away or decide to euthanize dogs. This is because once it starts, many owners cannot break the pattern of behaviors that occur whenever they try to leave (even just for errands) after that first experience. The dog(s) might become destructive, seemingly impossible to soothe or handle, and more.
How a Dog Thinks
My vet explained it had to do with psychology and the rather logical way the dogs’ thought processes were operating. According to the vet, it looks something like this:
- Mom usually comes home every day, and when she does it is absolutely amazing. She hugs and kisses us, supplies a few nibbles and we all go for a walk.
- Uh oh…Mom seems to be gone, she hasn’t come back for years (days, actually) – this is horrible…we’ll never see her again, and even worse, we might never get to eat or go for walks again!
- If she does return, and then tries to leave again, I’m going to put up such a fuss that she will never even thinkof doing that again. I’ll even whine and cry, pee inside and do whatever it takes to get her attention and keep it…ERGO (dog’s probably don’t know that word, but we’ll pretend they do) she’ll stay and give me comfort.
Is the drama there exaggerated? A little bit, but not much. Yet, as my vet explained, Iwas somewhat to blame for their reactions. How? She said, I had probably made my arrival home every afternoon such a big deal, such an out and out hoot, that the dogs couldn’t help but notice I wasn’t appearing anymore. That super amazing event that happened every day just wasn’t. Janice and Leroy immediately realized “something’s up”, and this created an initial sense of worry and unease. It worsened as time passed.
Leader of the Pack
My vet also reminded me about the issue of “pack thinking,” and though experts are constantly agreeing and disagreeing about the finer points of this issue, the reality is that Janice and Leroy saw me as their pack leader. Suddenly, I was gone. This did not leave a power vacuum as it might in a human setting. Instead, it triggered anxiety.
Their low energy levels and lack of appetites, the vet went on to explain, were probably the first signs of depression. Yes, I soon learned, dogs can be depressed. I asked what we could do, and she said there was not much to be done until my return but redirect the dogs’ worries and thoughts.
The short-term solution included plenty of exercise upon waking up each day, leaving the TV on when the pet sitter had to go out, adding an afternoon walk to help burn off the nervous energy, and then creating an evening routine that included a meal (with the pet sitter staying in the room) and another walk before bed.
As the vet explained, “Following this routine can help the dogs to stop noticing your absence so intensely, but when you get home you’ve got some changes to make.”
The Changes to Make
I signed off and let the pet sitter know what to do. When I finished up that vacation, I returned home to dogs that were happy to see me, ecstatically jumping about. Janice even tested out a new sort of long wailing howl/scream sound as she first spotted me, apparently it translated to relief at my return.
Everyone seemed to be just fine and settle into the normal routine the very day I returned. Yet, I knew the next day would be a time for creating a healthier approach to every day life for my anxiety-prone pups. The system we used to overcome their vacation separation issues are the exact same you can use if you fear your dogs are developing a bit of back to school separation anxiety and/or depression.
I should note that my vet warned me that if one or both dogs failed to behave like loons when I arrived home, they might have slipped into a more depressive state, which would have required different steps to overcome. Fortunately, they recovered from their separation blues almost as soon as they realized I was home.
So, what plan of action did I use? It was not that complicated, but it did force some changes. First things first, let’s be sure it is separation anxiety.
Recognizing End of Summer Separation Anxiety
If your dog(s) behavior changes with the first arrival of the big yellow bus or a return to the school year schedule, it could be anxiety that might worsen into depression. The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists says that nearly 20% of dogs suffer from separation anxiety, so it is a major issue.
It can strike out of nowhere, but there are some fairly common indicators that a dog presents a higher risk for the issue. These include:
- Dogs aged 18 months to three years seem to be the most responsive to changes of this kind
- Dogs that are overly attached to the kids, i.e. gets upset if locked out of a room that the kids are in – even the bathroom
- Dogs that wake from a sound sleep in order to follow the kids from one room to another
- Loss of another pet. Dogs are social creatures and even if it was a cat or other pet that has passed away, the loss of a social companion can cue higher chances for separation anxiety if someone else “leaves”. One loss causes stress, and then the unavailability of the kids can make things even more stressful
- Dogs that have figured out that simulated anxiety works
The last point is a fascinating one, and might result in you deciding your dog is an authentic brat. But, that’s not really the case. Simulated anxiety is not authentic anxiety. It is when you have reinforced a specific set of behaviors in your dog and they use those learned patterns to get the response they desire.
It goes like this: You crate the dog before leaving for a few hours of errands. The dog whines and barks, you return and let them out or give them a lot of comfort, toys and food. Guess what? That dog just learned that barking and whining equals loving and noms (i.e. treats).
Their cries are not anxiety. They are learned reactions. And undoing this learning is an entirely different issue from separation anxiety. There are authentic signs to watch for, and they include:
- Excessive or repetitive periods of whining, crying or barking. Generally, anxiety manifests as vocalizations at a pitch that is much higher than a dog’s normal “voice”
- Soiling inside the home or any type of inappropriate elimination (Note that this can also be a medically-related issue and should never be ignored as “bad behavior”)
- Chewing on everything from moldings and their own crate to furniture and clothing, but it is usually in areas where yours or the kids’ scent might be concentrated. Video game controllers, bedding, and even phones or books can be intense areas of scent and attract the dog’s anxiety response, i.e. chewing
- Jumping fences or crossing invisible fencing (if this has never been done before)
- Pacing, shaking and even drooling
Of course, it goes without saying that you cannot see these symptoms and think “anxiety,” leaving it at that. Any radical changes in behavior should be first explored as a medical issue, and then steps can be taken to overcome the anxiety that might be causing the changes.
Overcoming Separation Anxiety
Whether a dog shows signs of anxiety over the back to school change in routine, or at any other time, these are the things you can do to help them adjust and understand that everything is okay.
- Change your behaviors around leaving and returning. This one was tough for Janice, Leroy and myself, but it worked. I began making myself unavailable for about 45 minutes to an hour before leaving. I then toned down my reaction when I got home, keeping things quite boring for around 25 minutes.
- I began doing “practice” departures, walking out and remaining out of sight for about 30-45 minutes, and then returning. Why? It proved I was always going to return. It can take a lot of test runs to help dogs recognize that leaving is not permanent.
- I created a social area where my scent was heavy and where they could feel “in my presence” when I was not there. Lots of dogs get in trouble trying to reach those areas of scent, so don’t block their access to at least one.
- Overcome boredom by offering enrichment. Dogs love to do stuff with their bodies and their mouths, if you give them an activity that lets them feel “okay” when you are not the source of their comfort – i.e. a great chewing toy – they are less likely to succumb to feelings of anxiety.
Really, the tough part was not going overboard with love and hugs when I returned home every day. Slight changes in our routine was all it took, and today Janice and Leroy are just fine…even when they see a suitcase by the door!