Separation anxiety, reactivity emerge among dogs as owners travel or return to work

Animal experts say people need to remember that dogs don't have the benefit of knowing your boss has set a return-to-work date for the fall, or that your long-awaited B.C. holiday is happening next week.

Calgary animal behaviourist says some pets will suffer from attention withdrawal, others with socialization

Canine behaviourist J.C. St-Louis, who is based in the Calgary area, says attention is like a drug and dogs can go through withdrawal once people return to work in the office. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

Animal experts say people need to remember that dogs don't have the benefit of knowing your boss has set a return-to-work date for the fall, or that your long-awaited B.C. holiday is happening next week.

They say dogs just know they have been living their best life for the past 18 months of the pandemic, which equates to several years worth of development in dog years.

So whether it's a new puppy which only had a chance to bond with their family, or an older dog which got used to plenty of daily treats and affection, canine behaviourist J.C. St-Louis says some dogs won't adjust to the post-pandemic routines as easily as owners will.

"It can be overwhelming for them," said St-Louis, who said he's seeing double the number of dogs with anxiety these days — from about one in five to two in five.

Some in the industry are asking people to go slow and ease their pets into any new post-COVID routines.

"It's definitely a safety issue. We're having dogs that are coming into our facility where there's a lot of miscommunications because they're not on the same page as all of the other dogs," said Annie Cole, owner of Muttley Crue, a grooming and boarding facility in northeast Calgary.

Attention withdrawal 

St-Louis said attention is like a drug and going cold turkey is not easy for dogs.

He said during COVID-19, families had a lot of time to dote on their dogs, but as people go back to work or head out for holidays, that love and affection gets ripped off like a Band-Aid, and the change can lead to attention withdrawal symptoms.

"It could be exhibited in a number of ways, but typically they'll start pacing and panicking, some of them vocalize, some [make a] mess," said St-Louis. "Destruction is the one that gets people upset the most."

Cole said she's started to see some of those behaviours in her canine clients. 

One dog used to happily come to Muttley Crue's boarding facility full-time pre-pandemic, but after being at home for so long can no longer settle in.

"She's so anxious, she just cries the whole time [and] pants [and] she claws at the gate," said Cole. 

Rusty social skills

St-Louis said just like people, dogs need to learn how to communicate with others and pick up on social cues. If out of practice, those skills can get rusty.

Calgarian Kylie Brown said she didn't realize the importance of socializing her nine-month-old sheepadoodle Esme until months after she adopted her last December.

Kylie Brown says she didn’t realize how important socializing her pandemic puppy Esme was until it got scared by a delivery person. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

Brown said Esme was fine around the family. But alarm bells went off when someone came to drop something off at their house around Easter.

"She backed up, she barked, she was scared," said Brown.

Brown said afterward she started taking Esme to a daycare for playdates, which has helped.

"For other people who got COVID puppies, I hope they really take the socialization side seriously, because you don't want a two-year-old puppy, especially a big dog, who is afraid of others or afraid of dogs or afraid of situations," said Brown.

Still a good fit?

Cole said owners should ease their pets into a social environment to avoid any potential problems with other dogs or people.

She suggested half-day or overnight visits at a daycare before committing to an extended period of time.

Annie Cole, who owns the Muttley Crue dog boarding facility in northeast Calgary, says pets need to be eased back to daycare after COVID-19. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

Cole said it's also important to test the daycare waters to see if a highly stimulating environment is still the best fit.

"It's kind of like going to a house party when you're a teenager versus going to a party when you're in your 40s or 50s where, you know, you want to just be at home, in bed, at 7 p.m." said Cole.

Cole said there are other options for people looking for short-term or long-term care for their dogs, such as dog walkers, dog sitters or house sitters.

Hard to handle

Behaviourist St-Louis said in rare cases, people end up throwing in the towel, realizing they took on more than they could manage.

He said a couple in their late 60s recently surrendered their young, female border collie to St-Louis. When the husband went back to work, the wife wasn't able to handle the high-energy puppy.

St-Louis said when he first got her, the then six-month-old puppy lunged at people.

"She had not been socialized, so when she saw someone it was a big deal for her," said St Louis.

But he said with time and effort, she's improving.

Cole said she worries that down the road some people may find it too hard to help their dog adjust to the new normal, and end up surrendering it. 

"We're not seeing it just yet, but I'm holding my breath, hoping it doesn't happen moving forward," said Cole.

CBC News reached out to a number of rescue agencies and the Calgary Humane Society, which all said they have not seen an influx of pets being surrendered as people go back to work, following a spike in adoptions when everyone started working from home.


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