Dogs are some of the most loyal, loving creatures around—it’s no wonder 94% of Americans consider their dogs part of the family. And one of the joys of being a dog sitter is becoming an honorary member of each dog’s pack.
However, in order to form that bond, you may have to go through some growing pains, separation anxiety being the most common. The good news is there are things you can do to help your dog clients feel more comfortable.
What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety occurs when dogs become upset because of separation from their owners. It’s not fully understood why some dogs suffer from separation anxiety and others don’t, but it’s important to realize the destruction and poor behavior that often occur with separation anxiety are part of a panic response.
One thing to keep in mind: Dogs with separation anxiety exhibit distress and behavior problems when they’re left alone—it’s not normal or their typical behavior.
The 6 Signs of Separation Anxiety
Urinating and Defecating
Even after going outside, some dogs may go to the bathroom inside the house. Put down pee pads and have some Nature’s Miracle handy to clean up the mess. If you can make arrangements to stay home the first day or two of a stay, that could help too.
Barking and Howling
Even dogs who aren’t big talkers might be noisier than usual. They may also be jumpier and more sensitive to noises and quick movements. You can help ease a dog’s anxiety by leaving the radio on a low volume and talking and moving quietly until they get acclimated.
Chewing, Digging, and Becoming Destructive
Chewing on objects, door frames, or window sills; digging at doors or doorways; or destroying household objects when left alone—we’ve seen it all! Help alleviate their urge to gnaw by leaving them with a chew toy, bone, frozen Kong, or anything else they can hold and lick. Of course, check with their pet parent first to make sure it’s okay.
Always, always place a second barrier around doorways, like a baby gate. Never leave a dog alone in a fenced yard. Even if a dog in your care doesn’t suffer from separation anxiety, they may get a whiff of a delicious squirrel and give it a chase. You might be shocked to know what a motivated dog can jump over or squeeze under.
We’ve all caught ourselves pacing when anxious, and dogs do it too. Some pacing dogs move around in circular patterns, while others walk back and forth in straight lines. You can help the dog burn off that nervous energy by taking them on a long walk or jog.
Some dogs defecate and then consume some or all of their poop or other dog’s poop. We know, this one’s a little gross, but it’s also easily preventable—just make sure to clean up their poop right after they go to the bathroom. At the very least, it ensures a clean yard.
3 Ways to Help Ease Separation Anxiety
Dogs and humans have many similarities—including what helps ease their anxiety. In the moment, we know it may seem overwhelming, but it’s all about creating a calm and predictable environment, and there are three easy ways to do that.
Most dogs pick up the energy of the people around them. Even if you’re frustrated, keeping a calm demeanor will help your Rover dog relax. Go for a walk around the block, or turn on some your favorite reality TV and veg on the couch.
Establish a Routine
Set a fixed schedule for feeding, walking, playtime, leaving the house, coming home, and more. Routine helps show them that you will return and that being alone is all right. It could take a couple of days to establish this routine, and that’s okay.
The art of distraction goes a long way. Give them a task, like getting frozen peanut butter out of a Kong or giving them a toy. Or take them on a long walk—it’s good for both of you!
4 Things to Avoid with Separation Anxiety
The most important thing to know: Dogs with separation anxiety are not trying to be “bad,” and punishing them will only make it worse. We promise your compassion and understanding will pay off—there’s nothing more rewarding than winning over a dog!
Getting your dog a companion usually doesn’t help an anxious dog: Their anxiety is the result of her separation from their pet parent, not just the result of being alone. If you plan on caring for Rover dogs from different families, make sure to clear that with their pet parents. Before the stay, make sure to ask how their dog interacts with other dogs. Remember—pet parents may not always know if their dog experiences separation anxiety.
Crating a dog that is not used to crating won’t help. The dog will still engage in anxiety responses inside a crate, and may urinate, defecate, howl, or even cause injury in an attempt to escape.
Making a Big Deal of Coming and Going
Avoid getting super excited when you return or super empathetic when you leave. Some dogs will recognize the signs (trigger actions) of your getting ready to leave, like you putting on your jacket or picking up your keys. Doing those trigger actions and then not leaving right away can really help ease separation anxiety. Put on your shoes before you brush your teeth, pick up your keys before you make lunch, and put on a jacket before watching Netflix for a bit.
We strongly encourage sitters to ask pet parents during the Meet & Greet if their dog has experienced separation anxiety in the past. Many pet parents may not know that their dog suffers from this, and you can test their anxiety level by taking them for a walk around the block while their pet parent stays behind. Again, dogs with separation anxiety are not being “bad,” and your compassion and patience will pay off in the end.
The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional veterinary help.