Raisin, a Chihuahua mix named for her wrinkly skin, was rescued from a hoarder’s house packed with other dogs. Almost immediately after her adoption in 2020, the 8-week-old puppy became hyperattached to her new human, Kelly Hayden.
Hayden, a canine separation anxiety behavior consultant and owner of Seattle dog-training business Ardent Dog, couldn’t leave the room or even shower without Raisin panicking. Raisin would emit a barking, howling cry that sounded like a scream.
“Even if my sister, who she has known for the same amount of time as me, would try and take her away from me — she would just scream,” Hayden said.
She said her “pandemic puppy” Raisin is an extreme example of a dog experiencing separation anxiety, an issue facing dog owners in Seattle and beyond as they return to the office and more frequent out-of-house activities.
Separation anxiety describes an animal’s pathologically anxious behaviors right before and after their owner leaves, said Jessica Bell, community practice doctor at Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital. There are different levels of behavior involved and not all anxious behaviors are negative or indicative of separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety cannot be solely blamed on COVID-19, but the pandemic’s long quarantine period helped owners notice their pet’s behavioral problems earlier, Bell said, and people had more free time to deal with said behavior.
“One: People are home so they notice those behaviors. Two: They got these animals during COVID when everybody was home,” Bell said. “So now, you go to work for eight hours a day and they don’t know what to do.”
Pet adoptions soared during the pandemic, resulting in a 2020 shortage of adoptable pets in Greater Seattle. Approximately 23 million American households adopted a pet during the pandemic, per the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The ASPCA survey found that 90% of those adopted dogs remain in their households.
Finding a home does not prevent dogs from experiencing behavioral issues, though, as their daily routine shifts when their owners return to lives outside the house. A rise in separation anxiety among pets adopted during the pandemic was predicted during the adoption boom by professional animal caretakers and preventive measures were publicized, but both dogs and humans require a bit more training.
During the pandemic, a lot of dogs had negative behaviors reinforced by their owners, said Julie Forbes, founder and co-owner of Seattle training company Sensitive Dog. Some dogs got bored during quarantine, so they would exhibit negative behaviors, like barking to get attention, which they interpret as an award. Similarly, when a dog would begin showing signs of anxiety (and although anxiety is not a “negative” behavior), they would be comforted by their owners.
“Just the way that we respond to dogs intuitively as humans actually can end up really reinforcing the very behaviors that we’re trying to help the dog work out of,” Forbes said. “Part of working with people and their dogs is teaching people to be really conscious and mindful of how and when they interact with their dogs.”
After Raisin was adopted, Hayden began a behavior-modification technique called desensitization. The goal: reduce separation-related panic through repeated exposure until a pet is desensitized to the panic’s trigger. Raisin’s trigger was Hayden leaving her alone.
For desensitization to work, there needs to be no fear, Hayden said. Exposing a dog to their trigger until they have a panic attack will make their fear worse. Slowly and carefully, Hayden would leave Raisin’s side for steadily increasing amounts of time and to locations farther away. First, she would go down the hall of her home, then to another room, then to the door.
“The door can be a huge trigger for dogs with separation anxiety,” Hayden said. “If you walk to the doors, they might start getting anxious because they can anticipate that you’re going to leave them.”
Cheryl Frantz, owner and head trainer of Seattle dog training company Zoom Room, said dog owners should make coming and going neutral to teach dogs that neither is “a big deal.”
“We’re not excited when we leave and we’re not excited when we get back,” Frantz said.
People need to be aware of their pet’s emotional state and behaviors. It is normal for dogs to show excitement, but they should be able to greet their owner calmly when they come home, Frantz said. This also applies when an owner leaves: Dogs can bark for a minute or so, but they should be able to return to their normal lives.
Frantz said pet cameras can show owners if their dogs are exhibiting negative behaviors like excessive barking, destructive tendencies and “shutdown” moments that can include lack of movement, eating and drinking.
“Don’t just ignore that your dog has a problem,” she said. “Go ahead and work with them.”
Frantz opened Zoom Room in 2014. Before the pandemic, about 70% of private training sessions were dedicated to correcting reactive behavior toward humans and other dogs; now about 50% of sessions address separation anxiety or similar behavioral issues.
Hayden, who founded Ardent Dog in 2020, said “all” her clients request training for their dog’s anxiety and behavioral issues. She said separation anxiety is an umbrella term often used to describe different things: true separation anxiety, an attachment between one dog and one human; isolation distress, which occurs when a dog can be left alone as long as there is another person in the house other than their primary owner; and confinement anxiety, in which a dog that fears being alone gets more scared when they’re confined. Raisin experiences true separation anxiety.
Lack of socialization is also a side effect of the pandemic, Bell said. Missing normal routines and environments, dogs were not acclimated to other dogs or people. Frantz said her business has seen dogs that are overly excited, frustrated or fearful of humans and other canines.
Separation anxiety, and many general behavioral issues, can often be alleviated through confidence-building training, Frantz said. Common enrichment tools include exercise, scenting scavenger hunts and food puzzle toys, which encourage self-sufficiency.
“If you don’t give your dog a job to do, they will find what to do,” Frantz said. “And it’s usually not a job you want them to do.”
When leaving her dogs alone, Bell said she likes to give them a rubber toy filled with kibble and its entrance stopped with frozen peanut butter. Her dogs have to take the time to lick through the thawing peanut butter to get their food.
Giving dogs treats before leaving home can be a way to occupy and reward them for behaving well during their owner’s absence, Frantz said. Owners should avoid giving treats upon returning home because their return is a reward itself.
“Ask for the behavior you want. Instead of saying ‘no jump,’ say ‘sit,’” she said. “Reward the behavior you want.”
In some cases, behavior-modification training is not enough, or is not possible when a dog is extremely anxious. Frantz said some dogs receive medication to calm their brain enough until they are able to learn new ways of coping with their anxiety through training. Bell said small doses of medication can be prescribed to dogs, but drugs alone will not solve behavioral issues.
Separation anxiety can also be mistaken for a lack of boundaries between an owner and their dog, specifically boundaries around leaving, Forbes said. The pandemic broke down a lot of boundaries between pets and their owners simply because there was no space between them.
“Dogs really feel everything that we feel,” she said. “We always talk about the importance of self care, and one of the best ways to take care of our dogs is to really take care of ourselves.”
Hayden trained Raisin steadily for a year after adopting her. Now 2 years old, Raisin is able to stay home alone for about 5 1/2 hours without experiencing anxiety.
“She still has separation anxiety,” Hayden said. “She’ll probably always have it, but she’s comfortable being home alone now.”