Coping with Separation Anxiety in Dogs During the Holidays
While we traditionally think of the holiday season as a time of joy and togetherness, for some it is a time where the stresses of loneliness, grief, time management, family dynamics, and financial strain come to the forefront. To add to all that, pet parents supporting a dog suffering from separation anxiety may see that their dog is struggling more than usual.
Let’s explore why holidays can be especially tough for our dogs and discuss some strategies for making the holidays go more smoothly!
The holidays often bring changes to your daily schedule. Whether it's hosting guests, traveling, attending events, or a change to your work schedule, these disruptions can be unsettling for your dog. Routine changes can result in things feeling different enough that you will see your dog wobble in their home alone training. This is a completely normal response to changes in routine.
If possible, it is always best to gradually acclimate your dog to changes before the holidays start. When this is not possible, arm your dog with the skills they need to be successful. Making training easier for your dog by reducing duration if not taking a break from training all together is advisable.
Whether you are hosting at your home or attending parties elsewhere, that means an influx of people- some of which your dog may be unfamiliar with. This can overwhelm any dog!
Know your dog! Does the environment the party presents (location, noise level, number of people, demographics of the guests, activities planned, etc) seem like something your dog would be comfortable with given past experiences? If not, determine if there are other options available for your dog. Planning ahead for your favorite sitter is super important around the holidays!
If you plan to travel during the holidays, the idea of leaving your dog behind can be less than ideal. It can also be difficult to find a sitter who would be willing to stay with your dog 100% of the time, particularly during the holidays. Bringing your dog with you presents other challenges.
Prepare your dog for the trip by considering what skills they might need to be successful and then teaching those skills. If you will be traveling by car, is your dog currently comfortable with that? Will they be in a crate? Are they currently able to settle at a dog-friendly restaurant and in new places? Teach any new skills in a low distraction environment, then gradually add distractions.
While traveling, put home alone training on hold and plan to either pick activities where your dog can join you or find sitters in the area. By planning ahead you will be alleviating travel-related stress for both you and your dog.
New Year's Eve and other holidays often involve fireworks and loud celebrations. These noises can trigger extreme anxiety in dogs.
Create a quiet, calming environment with soft music and brown noise to mask the sounds. Closets often provide additional muffling due to the lack of windows and clothes which absorb the sounds. Sit with your dog to provide social support. Speak with your vet about medication that can support them during these times. Do not leave them home alone during loud celebrations especially if they are fearful of loud noises.
It's crucial to recognize that if your dog is struggling due to holiday-related challenges, this is not a good time for home alone training.
Instead of pushing your dog to train during a stressful period, take a break from it. Spend quality time together, engage in activities you both enjoy, and provide support to ease their anxiety.
At the same time, prioritize your own mental well-being. If that is difficult for you, remember that taking care of yourself enables you to care for others, including your dog. What does self-care look like for you? Set boundaries, ask for help, stay connected to others, practice mindfulness techniques, go for a run, indulge in a massage, catch up on sleep, get artsy, eat your favorite meal. Do whatever helps you!
One last note, while it is likely that you have already discussed medications with your vet to support your dog through their journey towards being comfortable while home alone, times of increased anxiety and stress like the holidays can be a good time to revisit this topic. Even if your dog is already on medication, it could be that adding a situational medication for this period would support them more fully and allow you both to experience reduced stress and increased joy. Remember to always test medications before you need them to ensure they have the desired effect. It could be that the dosage and/or medication needs to be tweaked under guidance of your vet to come to the optimal fit.
The holiday season can be a challenging time for pet parents with dogs suffering from separation anxiety, and the increased mental health challenges during this period can compound the difficulty. Remember to prioritize both your dog's and your own well-being. This includes planning ahead, taking a break from training, and finding ways to relax and enjoy time together.
Feeling overwhelmed? Here is a checklist to condense things down a bit further for you! By following this checklist, you can help ensure a smoother and less stressful holiday season for both you and your dog.