Separation anxiety and returning to work

seperation anxiety dog

Separation anxiety and returning to work

With Australia having managed the coronavirus pandemic making us the envy of the world, we are being rewarded with our country opening up earlier than a lot of others. Like with all events and current affairs, at Southern Cross Vet, we consider the impact on our companion animal friends that share our lives, when significant changes cause shifts in established habits.

Many of us have done everything we can to make our pets cope with the lockdown – from exercising them more, teaching them new tricks and even letting them in on your video conferences. However, now we face a time that could present a lot more distress and heartache to ourselves and our pets if not properly managed. Well that’s for our dogs at least, some argue that cats will be delighted to hear we are finally going back to work (in the way many parents breathe a sigh of relief when school holidays end!)

For all pets it’s important to manage this time, but our attention has turned towards the most at-risk and vulnerable parts of the companion population – those dogs who have been born during and adopted during the COVID-19 lockdown. These little fellas have had limited exposure to the outside and normally fast-paced world and their ‘new normal’ is going to be the polar opposite of our ‘new normal’.
Not only will these COVID babies (AKA ‘Coronials’) have to get used to their best friends (US!) being separated much more from them, but as we go back to cafes and congregate in public areas with them, they’ll have to get used to so much more stimulation in the form of more noise, more activity, and more smells. Like a blind person experiencing colour vision for the first time, their little brains will be overwhelmed, and they will depend on us to help them feel safe and calm. With time, correct management and exposure over this transitional time, they will discover the world is so much more exciting and there is so much more to be had, and their ‘new normal’ will be phenomenal and extraordinary!
You can help them begin to adjust to the change in their lifestyle by following our 4-step plan.

The 4-step vet-approved plan: How to prep your companions for the transition from ‘WFH’ to office based work

Just as our companions have helped our anxiety levels and a plethora of information proves that the pet adoption boom is reducing stress levels in humans; many of our pets have benefited from our company too. They’ve enjoyed being next to their best friend and have enjoyed probably tastier home cooked food, and lots more  interaction and involvement, affection and being spoken to conversations.

Apart from both parties’ emotional wellbeing being at stake, there’s the risk of damage to the house through attempts at escaping, creative ways for our pets to relieve boredom themselves and the animosity to the relationship this could cause.

Both species must get used to reduced contact over the coming months, and thankfully there are hacks and tips we can start doing today, to make for a smoother, more comfortable and successful transition.

1. Start spending alone time right NOW

If you have a multi-room home: Try spending the first 30 minutes and the last 30 minutes of the day alone without engaging with your pet. But first give your pet an new interactive toy that they will like enjoy or ideally something that keeps them busy for a period of time to chew on or lick. This way they will start to associate their ‘alone time’ with good feelings and a dopamine surge to counter any imminent loneliness. If your pet gets distressed, try reducing this ‘alone time’ to just 5-10 minutes to start with.
It’s really important that once you emerge from being separated, you don’t shower your pet with affection, rather act calmly and when he or she is calm again, then you can slowly start to dish out the praises.
If you live in a studio:
Invest in some baby gates where you can physically distance from your pet for the beginning and end of the day as above or even go for a quick walk on your own without your pet (e.g. check the mailbox)

2. Go to ‘work’

Pets are creatures of habit and routine is important to them. Our routine work days are going to start slowly over the next few months, but while most of us are still ‘WFH’, we can still simulate the peak time-of-anxiety for most of our pets – leaving for work. By starting a ‘go to work’ ritual now, we can get our pets used to this frightening time of perceived abandonment. So once you have mastered step 1, we’re ready to start the ‘go to work’ ritual.

At or around your normal ‘get ready for work’ time, start doing the things you do normally. It might be jangling those car keys, getting dressed, picking up your bag and leaving through the garage or front door. Whatever the things are that you do – do it briskly and don’t dawdle! Also, ensure that you don’t make a big deal about it. This is part of life now, this is their ‘new normal’ remember. I emphasize normal!

Start with only leaving for 10 minutes and gradually build it up to be 15 minutes and an end goal of 45 minutes. The ideal situation is that when you arrive home, they’ll be sleeping soundly in their bed or at least chilling somewhere safe and calm.

Getting to this point is important and much more of a challenge than you think.

3. Come home from ‘work’

It’s vitally important that you don’t stimulate your pets when you come back home. As counter-intuitive as it is, just leave them alone. Resist the urge to praise them for being a ‘good boy’ or ‘good girl’ while you are away. Doing that will arouse them and increase their anxiety levels. Once they are calm and collected and just acting normal, then it’s time for gentle, calming pats and a soft, praising voice. You can acknowledge them calmly when you come home (so no need to ignore them as that can cause distress and frustration) but keep the big hellos until a sense of calm has been reached in the home.

4. Randomise the days

The final step to cement the ‘learned calmness’ is to randomise which days you choose to ‘go to work’. By not having any rhyme or reason to the day you pick to practice the ‘go to work’ ritual, your pet will generalise their mentality to this change. Generalising simply means they’ll get used to it being a possibility on any given day and their calmness will extend to 7 days a week.

Many of us are now used to the WFH routine and have made changes to our homes and lives to accommodate this. The impending change coming over the coming months as a lot of us will return to the workplace will be a time of great anxiety for our companions. By following these 4 simple steps, it’ll not only protect your pet from suffering from separation anxiety when you do return to work, but it’ll also have the inadvertent benefit of helping you mentally prepare for going back to work; something that many of us are overlooking. Isn’t it amusing to know that through all this training of our pets, we are also in fact training ourselves to not have separation anxiety from them! our pets!

A final note on managing the anxiety of us going back to work is one of our favourite sayings: ‘the devil finds work for idle paws’ – also remember the line from the comic series Peanut that ‘happiness is a tired puppy’. We must keep up the activity levels (for both physical energy and mental stimulation) that we’re currently doing with our pets. Remember the walk is for them, not just for us to get out of the house and alleviate our boredom. It’d be awesome if all the pets enjoying newfound exercise time have the levels maintained as we go back to work. Seeing the hours spent on physical activity drop will have a negative impact on the level of anxiety amount of for our companions.

Now that we’ve mastered how to help prevent the separation anxiety and manage expectations of both man’s best friend and ourselves, it’s time to consider the second aspect of the post-COVID world. How are our ‘Coronial’ pets going to adjust to experiencing the real world in all its colour, vitality and splendour?
There are a few considerations to manage hyper-stimulation and the key is to think about what ‘novel’ things they will be exposed to and then how to get them familiar with these stimuli.

1. Take them for a drive

With the state government restrictions easing, your pet might be going into the car for the first time – to a favourite dog park that might be half an hour away, on a holiday, to a change of landscape like a beach, or even just for a drive.
Most dogs enjoy the car but some dogs are scared, feel nauseous or unsettled and most cats panic.

We suggest to first put your pets’ breakfast in the area of the car that they’ll be sitting and feed them there while the car is stationary. This will get them adjusted to the close quarters of a vehicle environment.
If you have a combustion engine car, the next day feed them in the same area and start the engine once they have gotten through half their meal and gently increase the RPM to about 3,000 to allow them to experience the variety of tones an engine makes.
This exposure should be done as if it was a real setting so ensure that they are also wearing their car safety harnesses during the training times.

2. Food, glorious food!

With café’s and restaurants slowly opening, and with Sydney gradually becoming more pet-friendly nowadays, you may want to start taking your pet out with you to dine. We’re used to this activity as humans, but this will be the first time your pet has seen so many new people with different clothes (from various cultural or even lifestyle attire), smells, face covering and high-visibility clothing. All these new things could be scary as they’ve never experienced them before, so keep in mind the first few trips could be stressful for them as they discover their ‘new normal’.
We suggest you initially pick quiet places that don’t have too much hustle and bustle and very gradually over weeks to months, increase the level of exposure.

3. Freedom finally! But settle down tiger!

Coronials and those pets who experienced pre-lockdown Sydney both will be hyper-aroused when they go back to meet all their buddies. It’ll be tempting to let them off lead immediately so they can burn off energy and play. But remember, many of these fellas have to get used to playing again with so many friends and their recall may be pretty rusty if you haven’t kept up your training.

When going back to your dogs normal hangouts, lower your expectations on what they can achieve and make sure you set your dog up to succeed, so practice lots and lots of short recalls with low distractions and a high rate of yummy treats as a reward, and build your dogs response to you back to where it used to be.
If all goes well, you can gradually let them off lead for longer periods of time, but make sure they don’t lose that recall!

As the restrictions lift stage by stage and we hope to not return to lockdown, we’ve learnt some important lessons and one of the most powerful is that we depend on our pets emotionally as much as they do on us. We’re so happy to see the animal shelters empty for one of the first times ever. But we need to think about how to set our pets up to slide into the ‘new normal’ with confidence and smoothness. Without paying attention to their needs and how they will react to the change, those shelters we fear could fill up just as fast as they emptied, and this would be an unacceptable risk to their wellbeing and animal welfare generally. Plus, we owe it to our companions who don’t even know what’s coming their way over the next few months. Together we can help them have fun new experiences and allow them to jump into the post-COVID era with gusto!

Finally, I think we should call on all Australian workplaces to consider allowing more of us to take our pets with us to work. It’s good for them, good for us, great for productivity and morale. If you’d like help making your own ‘doggie resume’, contact us, our nurses would be delighted to help out and offer a good character reference also!