Ottawa·The Slow Return

Facing pandemic-related separation anxiety in your home? Here are some coping tips

Heading back to work or going out more to socialize? Separation anxiety can be a real challenge for humans and animals.

After being forced together for more than a year, some might find it difficult to stay apart

Abbey Baier's pandemic puppy Remy has successfully been trained out of separation anxiety thanks to mom and dad's early efforts. (Submitted by Abbey Baier)

Now more than a year into the pandemic, CBC Ottawa is looking at how people are adapting to new realities with its series The Slow Return.

Wendy Morton says she bought two pandemic puppy sisters for a reason: so they won't get anxious when left alone at home.

But her plan backfired  — one of her morkies, Riley, has severe separation anxiety anyway.

"The little one is fine, she'd say goodbye to anyone," said Morton. "The second one starts to shake and cry and run to the door, ignores her treats."

Riley gets "extremely anxious and agitated" at any sign of her owners leaving the house, says Morton. It's so bad that she sometimes weighs the pros and cons of leaving.

"Is the hassle of the departure and return worth what I have to do?" she asks. "As laypeople, it's hard to know how to manage this. And the reality is we cannot be home 24/7."

Rosie and Riley are sister morkies. Riley, right, gets extremely agitated every time her owners leave the house and is learning to not get anxious. (Submitted by Wendy Morton)

A year and a half into the pandemic, Morton is one of many who may deal with separation anxiety with pets or even family members as they head back to work, travel, or spend more time outside the home.

Ingrid Van Overbeke, an Ottawa pet counsellor, says she's seen an increase in pets with separation anxiety during the pandemic. Dogs, especially, are now "hyper-attached" to owners because they're around them all the time, she said.

"Pets really go into a state of panic when their owner is leaving," said Van Overbeke. It can take the form of howling, destruction, and panic.

She recommends video recording your pet's behaviour when you leave, and assessing how serious their distress is. Then start small — putting on shoes and grabbing your keys, gradually leaving for a few minutes at a time, then for longer periods.

She also recommends not making a big deal when you leave, or once you come back. If your pet's distress is too extreme, it may be time to involve a pet behaviourist or your vet, who can provide medication to give them "extra support" to overcome panic, she said.

"Now is the time to prepare your animal. It takes time," Van Overbeke said.

That's what Abbey Baeir did with her pandemic pup Remy. Baeir and her partner have both been back at work in person full time since the summer and her pup is doing OK, she said.

Almost immediately, they began training Remy for separation anxiety — taking short walks around the block and giving him space. There were a few hiccups, like chewed up drywall, but soon Remy began caring less and less, she said.

"Separation anxiety actually turned out to be a lesser issue," said Baeir. Now they're working on other behavioural concerns like Remy jumping on people when overly excited.

Couples, children can struggle, too

Separation anxiety can happen between couples, too, says Cheryl Harasymchuk, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Carleton University who specializes in relationships.

"Going back to this normalish lifestyle ... it's going to disrupt people's relationship routine — and routines, they're not just a bad thing. They're actually good for the relationship," explained Harasymchuk.

Carleton University professor Cheryl Harasymchuk says concerns for trust and security are at the heart of attachment anxiety for partners. (Submitted by Cheryl Harasymchuk)

After being confined at home for long periods of time together, some who are extroverted are going to like this change in routine, she said — but others could view it as overwhelming and feel uncertain about their relationships.

"At the heart of attachment anxiety is concerns for trust and security," she said. "If a person is in a relationship and knows that their partner tends to be more concerned about separation, then what's really important ... is to be responsive and promote feelings of trust and security."

Little reminders that you love them, or making plans to spend time together after work can be an added assurance a partner needs. 

Harasymchuk adds spending more time in the world could help some relationships as each partner builds autonomy again, and bring growth as they share new knowledge and experiences with one another.

University of Ottawa psychology professor Caroline Sullivan says she's seen a surge in anxiety in children during the pandemic, especially social anxiety.

Caretakers can help teach kids coping strategies as things reopen — like breathing deeply from the belly to help calm their bodies when anxious. Pay attention to your children's thinking patterns and help work through their worries by balancing anxious thoughts.

"A year and a half in a child's life is very long compared to an adult, so it's going to feel like it's really not normal," said Sullivan. "So really [prepare] them ahead of time."

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