How was your family affected by the COVID 19 pandemic? Many Edmontonians had their lives change drastically since the beginning to middle of March 2020. With non-essential businesses, schools, community centers forced to close, and Dr. Hinshaw (chief medical officer of health of Alberta) requesting that all citizens stay home to mitigate the spread of the virus, many people spent much more time at home. Not only was this a change for people, but it was also a change for pets.
Don’t get us wrong we know you and your pets appreciated each other’s company during this period. But with relaunch well underway, Edmontonians are returning to work which, can be tough on your pets after having you home so often.
We were lucky enough to sit down with Certified Dog Trainer and Behaviour Consultant, Alecia Muirhead, to chat a bit about separation anxiety. Alecia is the owner and operator of Muttlife, and offers private training, Muttlife support group training, and also the Walks ‘N Wags Pet First Aid course as an instructor. Her experience includes working as a dog trainer in a dog daycare and volunteering for local rescue groups.
Alecia specializes in reactivity and helps dogs who struggle to cope in their environment by setting them up for success. Her dog Jack, experiences reactivity in some circumstances, which is what set her on the course to becoming a Dog Trainer. Currently, Alecia also manages Sadie’s K9 Stay and Play, a dog daycare right here in Edmonton. They offer dog daycare, grooming, and training services.
Watch the interview here or read on for our interview with Alecia and how COVID may affect your pup.
DJ: What have you observed over the past few months since COVID, and how it has affected our families?
AM: COVID has brought many changes in daily routine for us and our dogs. It’s shown us how much we crave social connection, and those weeks of isolation showed just how hard staying at home can be!
These last few months have presented major changes to our world as a whole, I’m finding it hard to cope when everything is so far from normal, so it’s only natural our dogs would be having a hard time too.
DJ: Can you explain to us what separation anxiety is?
AM: Basically- separation anxiety is a blanket term used to describe dogs who have a hard time being left alone or being away from their people.
Some dogs are content as long as someone is with them- another dog, animal, or person, and some dogs are more particular and have owner separation and struggle when they are away from their particular human, no matter who else may be around.
It can present as destructive or disruptive behaviour when left alone, but determining whether the pooch needs a brush up on house manners or needs better outlets or is truly suffering from separation anxiety may need the help of a professional, like me!
DJ: Are there various degrees of separation anxiety?
AM: Absolutely! Separation anxiety can vary from mild – subtle signs of distress to more extreme- trying to escape from the house, chew through doors/walls, and in some cases, I’ve even heard of dogs breaking through windows to get out of the house and injuring themselves.
I’d like to mention also- separation anxiety, and confinement anxiety are different. Some dogs struggle with crate training and that can be mistaken for separation anxiety, but its more about their crate and being confined.
If you are struggling with crate training, you may find your dog settles better in a larger confinement area, such as an x-pen or a mudroom where they would be safe and secure with more space to roam.
If your dog is housetrained and not destructive, they may do well with access to the home. Every dog and situation is different.
DJ: What are some signs of separation anxiety?
AM: Dogs are masters of observation. They have all the time in the world to sit back and watch and learn our routines.
Some dogs with separation anxiety can start to get upset with the morning routine of their people getting ready for work or preparing to leave the house.
Barking, howling, chewing, digging, and trying to escape can be signs of separation anxiety, but they can also mean your dog is bored or hasn’t been shown better things to do with their time!
Things I look for to determine if it is anxiety or just a pooch with too much time on their paws are:
Distress behaviours when left alone- drooling, frantic barking/howling that escalates and doesn’t settle, pacing, destruction at exit pints, house soiling, etc
DJ: What can we do as pet owners to help?
AM: Make sure your dog has plenty of healthy outlets for their natural drives and desires. Many of the common challenges that dog owners face are very natural dog behaviours, the only problem is when they don’t fit in our human world.
The goal with any training is to motivate and reward them your dog for doing the things you would like them to do and prevent them from being rewarded for the things you don’t want them to do.
Set them up with the skills needed to meet your expectations. Training and behaviour work is part of everyday life and there are no quick fixes.
Being proactive and setting your dog up for success pays off much more than being reactive and trying to correct a situation after the damage is already done.
We people have a tendency to micromanage our dogs. It’s so natural for us, but it creates dogs that can be really codependent. We can encourage our dogs to be more independent but giving them hobbies!
We have so many (too many?) things to keep us occupied and busy, and they only have what we give them. Imagine if going out in the backyard or looking out the window was your only connection to the outside world?
Many of us have lived that reality with COVID isolation and look at how people did! It was hard to stay at home and not have access to our usual social outlets for only a few months, some dogs live that way their whole lives.
I’m a big believer in brain games and enrichment for dogs! There are endless benefits and it’s wild to see the trickle-down effect you can have on many challenging behaviours when you start to add enrichment feeding into your dog’s routine!
Think outside the bowl! Check out my Instagram highlights for some inspiration for daily enrichment for your dogs! Mental exercise is just as important as physical exercise.
With anything, we want to start small, shaping, and building important life skills before your dog actually needs to use them. It’s a lot like swimming- you start in the shallow end with a life jacket to practice and learn before you can move to the deep end. When things get harder and you want to move from the pool to the lake, you wear your life jacket again.
Get in the habit of making time away from you be more rewarding than the times when you are around. Give your dog meals, a stuffed Kong, or yummy chew and leave the room.
Start small by having your dog get comfortable with you in a separate room before they are comfortable with you leaving the house altogether.
Don’t make a big deal of your comings and goings. Dramatic goodbyes do more harm than good! You can end up creating a rollercoaster of emotion for your dog when you get excited and shower them with affection as you leave, and then do the same when you come home. The routine is more for us than your dog, I promise you!
In a perfect world, you would work on building these skills before you need them, but if you are spending more time away from your home and noticing your dog is having trouble, there is support!
I can think of some fantastic dog walkers and daycare providers that can hang out with your dog while you’re away!
Working with a force-free trainer can help accelerate your progress and talking to your vet about medication or to rule out any health issues may be necessary in more extreme cases.
We thank Alecia for taking the time out of her busy schedule to sit down and go through the intricacies of separation anxiety and for breaking it down for us. Also, for even giving pet owners a few practical takeaways that they can put into action with their pups. With many people heading back to work, it’s important to help your pups adjust to not having you home as much to reduce the possible effects of another drastic change. Like Alecia mentioned, dogs can experience different degrees of separation anxiety, meaning there are numerous things owners can do to help alleviate some of that stress. If you would like to ask Alecia any questions or are interested in services that she offers, you can find her at her website or on Instagram.
With mental and physical exercise being such critical factors in your dog’s ability to cope with things like being left at home, it’s important to stimulate them mentally and physically, daily. Don’t have time? We can help physically exercise your pup when you are not able to. Dog Jogs offers Pawty Breaks, Dog Jogs, and Dog Walking in Edmonton as well as surrounding areas. Our team will help tire out your pup and customize their sessions to their physical ability. If you are working with a dog trainer, keep us posted, and we will follow any program that your family is working on with your dog. It is important to us that we stay as consistent with your practices and cues, as best we can. Let’s create a care plan for your pets today!
Not sure what to do for mental enrichment or feel like you don’t know how to help your pup? Let’s chat, and we’ll connect you with the appropriate professionals such as dog trainers like Alecia to create a plan that will help your family and pets understand and work to alleviate the root of the problem.
Let us know how we can help you and your fur babies!