For me, there is nothing better than self-isolating in a company of dogs. Spaniels, to be precise, for I adore them so. They are the light, the warmth, the soul and comfort. They know when I am down or happy, and do their ultimate best to be in the right place at the right time (besides, there’s always a chance of a biscuit!).
I know that many people feel exactly the same about their pups. I’ve heard so many say that they are having the time of their lives because it’s like a dream to be with their dogs 24/7.
And this is where I casually pop into your life to get you out of this reverie and unceremoniously bring you back to earth with a flashing lights that spell two words.
It has been one of my main concerns since the lockdown started. I knew that suddenly a lot of cockers will find themselves in a situation where they camp with their much loved family for many days and nights, finally living in what any cocker would refer to as “the perfect world”.
So if one day (and this day will eventually come) this world comes to an end, many dogs will find themselves alone, without the company and attention they’ve been indulging in for weeks, if not months. For a dog who is naturally prone to separation anxiety, this will come as an unbearable life-changing blow… and potentially the starting point of a psychological condition that can be very difficult to resolve.
What is SA? The long explanation would be “a psychological syndrome” consisting of many symptoms with several potential psychological and physiological underlying causes, which are not always easy or straight forward to diagnose or treat. In short, it’s a panic attack. You know the one when your brain shuts down, you are struggling for breath, feel limp and the ground starts to spin? That’s the one. If you’ve ever experienced it you know what I am talking about (and for the sceptics – yes, I get them myself, the worst happening a few years ago at, wait for it, the tower inside the Sacre Coeur – so no dome panorama for me, thank you very much). The worst thing about SA in dogs is that it takes hours and days for the poor pooch to return to normal, with every new episode adding up to the mighty cocktail of emotions and hormones – not simply happening as a single occurrence.
You might have seen the symptoms already without even knowing what SA really is. They can develop gradually and take many forms, but most common include excessive barking, whining, howling, destructive behaviour (think ripped carpets, chewed shoes, furniture and skirting boards etc.), changes in toilet habits (the dog starts to eliminate indoors), self-mutilation by excessive licking, chewing or biting (typically paws or rear end) and signs of stress (salivation, pacing, heavy breathing, “blowing bubbles (when the cheeks move in and out), enlarged pupils, red eyes as if the dog hasn’t slept, changes in body posture and position of the ears, elevated pulse and heart beat). The dog exhibits these signs as soon as he senses that you are about to leave – and continues getting worse whilst alone.
By the time you return, he is a hyperventilating wreck because ultimately, he is attached to you so much that if you, as his point of love, care and safety, are not there, he is broken physically and emotionally. In most families this form of dog to person attachment is stronger than the other way around, that is why it can be hard for people to comprehend the seriousness of the problem unless they look at it from the dog’s perspective.
Naturally, I have my concerns and fears that dogs who have never experienced SA may develop SA in one form or another, when their families can resume their normal activities and return to work.
If you are one of them and dreading the moment of leaving your spaniel alone, here are a few things you can do now to prevent potential problems.
Stick to the routine
Dogs love routines and schedules, especially the ones who are particularly sensitive and prone to SA and hyper-attachment. They know the time you get up, can read the signs for departure (putting on make up, or wearing high heels, or picking up a certain bag or set of keys) and remember your habits and even certain body language.
Try to mimic this to a degree. Put on mascara, wear different shoes, jacket, or pick up keys a few times a day as if there’s absolutely nothing special about it. Then walk around the house, sit down with a cup of tea or watch a movie. Repeat until your dog absolutely does not care about his mum waltzing around the house in her PJ’s yet the prettiest and most inappropriate footwear.
Spend some time apart
You can put on proper clothes, get outside and sit in a car with a book or a movie as if you went to work. You can stop the dog from following you to the toilet, sitting nearby when you are having a bath or taking out the bins.
If you work from home, shut the door to the room for an hour or two (the timing will depend on your dog’s behaviour because you must make sure that he is absolutely content and relaxed at all times!).
If you have a garden, dedicate some outside time to your plants – and leave the pooch at home.
Time these activities to imitate your regular “work away” schedule whenever possible.
Build up on separation time.
If your spaniel absolutely cannot be alone, build up the distance gradually. You can still do all of the above, but stop your dog from following you with a help of a free-standing barrier. This way the dog can see you, yet cannot follow you, but he knows you are there and it’s ok. Calmly praise him with words and a treat when you return even if it was a minute or two.
It is very important to vary the length of your departure when you first begin to part with your pup. This will help to avoid predictability of the routine and expectations. As you leave your dog, return within a few minutes, then (and only if he is definitely fine with not being with you) – 10 or 20 minutes, next time – come straight back within seconds, followed by a longer departure… If you notice any signs of stress in your dog, switch to a pleasant and fun activity that involves both you and the dog to help him relax.
Next – and only when he is calm, you can leave him with a stuffed Kong toy or a few bits of kibble scattered around the floor to be occupied and pleased with himself. However, when you do this, make sure that your spaniel knows that you leave and come back – don’t just sneak out!
You can even roll out the good old friend Furbo at this point. It’ll let you observe your cocker – and shoot out treats whenever necessary.
Never ever make a big deal of any of the above activities. You don’t have to fuss when you leave the house. Act as if it’s nothing special, as if you simply walk from one room to another.
Do the same when you return – as tempting as it is to fall down to your knees and get covered in kisses – don’t. Quietly say a few words to your pooch, stroke him gently if he calmly sits down waiting for attention – and carry on.
The only exception to this rule is when your dog has already been accustomed to jumping up, doing “the wiggle bum” dance, cuddling with you, and kissing you as soon as you return. If you suddenly stop and change to someone indifferent, it will not only confuse the dog, but can make him anxious and stressed.
If you see any signs of stress in your dog just before you leave – do not get frustrated, raise your voice or punish him. Just think how you’d feel if you had a panic attack and people shouted at you instead of helping you to calm down.
Remember that dogs can smell our emotions and raise their stress hormone levels in response. If you are truly calm – they are likely to remain content, too.
If necessary break any of the above steps into smaller portions and steps measuring the “dose” carefully and always making sure that your dog is relaxed.
Don’t postpone this until the last moment. The sooner you start, the better chances you have to have everything back to normal, the old normal, just the way your dog remembers…
Image credits: Coop photographed by me, Off the Leash via Facebook official page