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Pandemic-related shutdowns in 2020 gave many people who thought they didn't have time for pets the push they needed to adopt.

But with many offices haltingly bringing employees back and vacations, pet owners and people who work with dogs are starting to grapple with animals' separation anxiety and other problems.

"Dogs who are isolated or not socialized prior to 16 weeks of age are more likely to develop behavior problems later on," said Rachel Malamed, a veterinary behavioral specialist.

The stakes are high: Behavior problems are a leading cause of relinquishment and euthanasia.

Seeking help from a qualified professional early on can help keep pets in the home, improve pet welfare and repair the human-animal bond, Malamed said. Here are some ways to understand if your dog is experiencing separation anxiety and what you can do to help.

Understanding your pet

Malamed said she's seeing a lot of pets with separation anxiety as well as other fears and phobias — including fear of people, noises, walks and other animals. These fears, she said, can be due to a lack of early socialization caused by the pandemic.

Such fears also can result from a lack of training as well as genetic predisposition, said Ingrid Komisar, a certified trainer for Calm Canine Academy, a virtual dog training service. Coronavirus lockdowns halted in-person training for many dogs and stopped many pets from interacting with other dogs and humans.

Anxiety in pets can manifest itself in a number of ways. Physical changes may include loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea or house-soiling. Behavioral changes may include hiding and avoidance, shaking, tail tucking, ears back, licking the lips and yawning, not taking treats readily and not following commands. In some cases, pets will become aggressive to household members, unfamiliar people or other animals.

Don't wait to see if the problem will go away. Most behavior problems worsen if left unaddressed.

"The first thing that people should do when they notice any behavioral or physical signs or change, especially those that are sudden or uncharacteristic for their pet, is to consult with their vet to make sure that there are no underlying medical reasons for these behaviors," Malamed said.

How can a vet help?

Karen Sueda, a veterinary specialist in the behavior department at VCA West Los Angeles Animal Hospital, said illness can affect your pet's behavior, so it's important to rule out physical causes first.

A vet visit allows the doctor to make an accurate behavioral diagnosis and create a treatment plan.

If the problem behavior is mild, your veterinarian may refer you to a trainer who uses positive-reinforcement training techniques. Sueda said that if the problem is more concerning, you might be referred to a veterinary behaviorist.

Veterinarians also may prescribe medications that reduce anxiety. Lowering anxiety, Sueda said, allows the pet to learn new behaviors and coping strategies through positive reinforcement.

Training techniques

If your veterinarian recommends a trainer, Komisar advises finding a certified professional. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has tips on how to choose a trainer based on specialty.

While dealing with separation anxiety can be incredibly distressing for dog and its owner, it is treatable.

"If we put in the time, if we put in the effort, it is possible to see success and to see your pet start to be comfortable with alone time," she said.

How much time and effort? Komisar said she usually tells clients that the process can take months.

Try this now

If your dog is showing signs of mild separation anxiety or if you're waiting for your vet appointment, Ralf Weber, a certified dog trainer based in Corona, Calif., shared these suggestions:

  • For five minutes a day, ignore the dog. It may whine or bark but eventually it will entertain itself or lie down.
  • Once the dog is comfortable with five minutes, gradually increase the time. Don't rush it. Go at your dog's pace.
  • Crate-train your dog. And in doing so, create a space that's comfortable and secure for your dog.