09/15/2014 03:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Separation Anxiety and Seasonal Enrichments

Today, my pets and I are mourning summer. As a parent of elementary-age children, summer is a breezy time with excessive foot traffic and constant interaction. Currently, though it's not yet 9 a.m., the house is deathly quiet, and after packing lunch bags, surveying homework and taking my human puppies to the bus, I have little time for play.

Seasonal change is inevitable, this much I know. To prepare for it, we humans reorganize our wardrobe, modify our home décor, and reorient our schedules to meet the flow of new demands.


(Meet Dart, a puppy who is available for adoption at the SPCA in Briarcliff NY.)

But what of our pets? While they may seem to do little to ready themselves by all outward appearances, don't be fooled. Each one of them is mindfully aware of our seasonal transformations and is disposed to their own metabolic shifts.

Summer to fall is perhaps the sharpest contrast to recon with. Fall morphs many of us into scurrying beings, overtaken by busy schedules, afterschool programs and weekends filled with social obligations away from home.

Of course, as a dog trainer, this seasonal shift spells c-l-i-e-n-t-s, and plenty of them. Many dog lovers are mystified by their pets' sudden behavioral swings and reactionary tendencies.

  • "Casey seems so happy and relaxed all summer at our summer cottage. We came home, and in one week he's like a different dog! He's barking his head off when we leave and scratches frantically on the door if we close him in the kitchen."
  • "Rosy peed on my son's bed last night and pooped in the living room right after I took her out this morning. She's been totally house-trained for over a year!"
  • "Bosco, our 7-month-old, husky-mix, destroyed the couch. The couch! He's been such a sweet and easy puppy until now. My husband is flipping out and wants to get rid of him, but honestly - he looks so sad. He hides when we come home now, and my husband is convinced he's destroying things out of spite. Is he?"

Almost overnight, these dogs and others exhibit frantic behaviors, the most common of which are separation anxiety, barking, destructive chewing, house-soiling, and over-reactive greetings.

What is a pet owner to do?

I always encourage my clients to look at their life from their dog's perspective. Many of my current complaints can be traced to the August to September transformation, with dogs suffering the worst bouts of anxiety and frustration when suddenly left alone. Unlike cats, who are nocturnal and sleep the better part of the day, your dog is not only up with the sun, he prioritizes inclusion. Sociable and adoring by nature, it pains him to be left alone. A dog, just like a person, copes with isolation stress in predictable ways that are both unique to the individual and often problematic with humans. Destructive chewing, marking, and frantic barking are effective canine coping skills.

Before you quit your day job, however, it's helpful to know that dogs -- especially as puppies -- need far more sleep than people: between 14 and 18 hours a day depending on their age and breed. Though dogs prefer company when they are awake, you can further displace their tensions creating interactive playscapes.

Remember this: the top two things that test your dog's emotional well-being are silence and boredom. Nothing announces social isolation as well as stillness, and boredom needs little further explanation.

While you may not be able to stay home this season -- or perhaps any season -- you can rethink life from your pet's perspective and make a few changes that will help condition him to accept the time you're apart.

To help ease the quiet there are a few options. Consider downloading or finding pet-centric tunes. Musicians have studied and created music for your pets. No joke -- you can find them on iTunes or as CDs. I've gone from scoffing at the idea to purchasing my own collection. Sound machines can also be used, especially if there are disruptive sounds outside the home. TV now offers channels with pets in mind.

It doesn't take a lot of time or money to embellish your dog's containment with appropriate displacement toys and enriching activities.

Wait -- displacement toys, enrichment activity? Are you struck by the terminology?

These terms were first popularized in zoos, where concern was taken for predatory animals who'd grow depressed and unwell in captivity. Toys, balls and puzzles were introduced to spark their natural instincts, and a movement began to create enclosures laid out with various stimulations.

Displacement Behavior
Dogs often feel afraid or frustrated when left alone. Caught between what they want to do and what they can't do, they'll attempt to self-sooth using displacement activities that may include grooming, scratching, chewing, drinking, or vocalizing.

Creative pet owners can reflect on their dogs' natural drives -- does your dog chew, pee or bark to alleviate tension? Bones and busy toys can be used to urge household-friendly displacement activities.


Photo Credit to the Company of Animals

Enrichment Activity Initially in zoos, activities were conceived and offered to each species' residents in order to stimulate their brains and enrich their emotional well-being. It didn't take a decade for the pet industry to get onboard, offering products, toys and busy cubes to be used to the same end. For cats, you can go beyond your generic cat tree to include faux jungles, bridges, and platforms that turn a generic white wall into a scalable bluff. For dogs, there are toys that urge your pet to work for his food, cubes that will, when pawed, release food pellets, and mazes that can be reorganized to stimulate interest and fun. The top manufacturers of these toys include the Company of Animals and Premier Pet Products.

Who knew?

So what does a dog trainer think of all this? Is it worth your consideration? Do I own these interactive toys for my pets?

Yup. Yup. Yup. While there are many things I suggest to help a dog adjust to seasonal changes, none beat increasing your dog's activity level, both when you're home and while you're away. Social activity -- walks, doggie playdates, trips to the park -- both tire your dog and satisfy his social needs. Busy toys, rigged for those first trying moments when a dog senses solitude, are a fantastic way to ease the tension and introduce a more positive association to your departure.

Please note: I do not recommend leaving a young dog (under nine months) alone for more than three to four hours at a stretch, or five to six hours as an adult. If you must leave your dog for longer periods, hire a dog walker to break the time with social interactive play or walking sessions.