Helping Your Dog Survive Social Isolation

By Andy French, CPDT-KA. Andy is a member of the Humane Society’s Pet Behaviour Team

With this tragic pandemic going on and most people staying safe at home, it means our furry pals get to spend much more time with us, which I’m sure they are absolutely thrilled about! That being said, once this is all over and people go back to their normal routine and leave the home for longer days, our dogs may have an increase in stress and anxiety due to drastic change in routine, and being away from the person they spent weeks to months with daily. 

I can’t help but wonder how many of our companions will develop some level of separation anxiety throughout this crisis, and I think it’s crucial we ensure during this time, with having time during the day, we are working on reducing the chances of that happening. Underneath I have some tips for owners to practice at home, and I have also included some links for more info on separation anxiety, fun activities you can do with your dog, puzzle toys, and much more to check out!

-Practice keeping things routine. Feed your dog at the same times, walk them like you normally do, give them their own time, and leave the house a couple times a day (even to sit outside or walk down the street and around the block) and return. Ensure when you leave and return that you keep things calm, cool, and collected so your dog doesn’t get anxious. 

-Watch how much time you’re spending with your dog. Obviously cuddling and spending time with them during the day is absolutely okay and necessary, but just be cautious of how much they seem to be with you and ensure they are spending time doing things alone as well (see the links below for ideas).

-Use that crate!! Turn it into a fun experience! The crate can be so beneficial for a dog for so many reasons. Turning the crate into a fun game creates a great association with it, and the ‘crate’ cue becomes something very positive and valuable to follow. You can even make it more challenging by practicing the ‘crate’ cue farther away from the crate, starting just a couple feet away, then adding in more distance. How impressive would it be if you could cue your dog to enter their crate by running into it from another room!

-Practice a solid ‘stay’ indoors and work on increasing your distance and duration from your dog. Stay is so helpful to teach a dog patience and self control, as well as teaching them that being away from you is actually a positive experience. Check out this video for info about how to teach your dog to ‘stay’. 

-Use a kong and stuff it with a very special treat, and try and only use this treat for when you’re leaving. Stuff it with just a little, just enough for your dog to get through while you step out. Peanut butter is fine but make sure ingredients are free of Xylitol. Give it to your dog and then step out of the house for a little bit. When returning, if your dog is still working on their kong, call them away from it for some treats or toss a few valuable treats far away from them and their kong and remove it once they walk away from it to get the treats. Redirect them to do something else like play with a toy or do a small training session, so they aren’t looking for the Kong after they walk away from it and you remove it. Ideally you will have stuffed enough inside that they will be done with it by the time you come in the door. Save that special treat for your next departure. The goal is for the dog to know they only get this special treat when you leave, making your departure very valuable. 
*Please never force the Kong away from your dog. If your dog has any kind of posession issues with resources, please see here.

-Ensure you aren’t accidentally rewarding anxious, needy behaviours. Without realizing it, we as owners tend to give into our dogs demanding behaviours and then question why this behaviour keeps happening or has gotten worse. Well if your dog is constantly jumping on you for attention, barking at you for attention, whatever the pushy behaviour may be, if you give attention for these things (even eye contact is a form of attention), then the behaviour will keep arising.  If you’re noticing your dog is giving off demanding behaviours, try and be sure it is truly due to attention seeking (as dogs bark for many different reasons) and be sure to ignore it and not give in. The best course of action is giving a dog rewards for being calm or ‘saying please’ for things (Say Please Program is great to practice, link is attached). Ensure you are giving them the proper mental and physical stimulation each day, so they are getting the appropriate outlets and attention they need, hopefully reducing the chances of seeking it in inappropriate ways.

For more tips and info check out:

10 Brain Games to Play with Your Dog

6 DIY Food Puzzles with Materials You Already Have

6 Crate Training Games to Play with Your Dog

How to Teach Your Dog to Settle (video)

Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Helping Your Dog Survive During A Quarantine (from the New York Times)

Need more guidance? Andy is offering free online consultations to help you and your pet make it through the pandemic. Visit her site for more info.