Dogcharmer: Post-Covid separation anxiety

Girlie is in good company, after the pandemic.

Girlie's separation anxiety and fear of loud sounds may be overcome with desensitization. — Courtesy Tom Shelby

Dear Tom, 

I got my dog, Girlie, from the Susquehanna SPCA last December. She is a Rottweiler/Australian shepherd mix, about 7 years old. She has separation anxiety that has worsened in the past few months. Fortunately, she does accept being in a crate when I am gone, after she ripped up the plastic tray that originally formed the base of the crate. 

She is afraid of the sounds of strong wind, gunshots, or any sudden, loud noise, and tries to hide around my legs or under furniture. 

When I am walking her, always on a leash, and we see another dog, she growls and barks and lunges at the dog, so much so that I have to step off the walk and hold her back. Does she want to play or fight? 

Girlie’s Frustrated Companion

Dear Girlie’s Frustrated Companion (GFC),

First things first — thank you for being one of the good guys and adopting from the shelter. You are not alone when it comes to separation anxiety, because of people staying home due to the pandemic. The quantity of separation anxiety complaints has increased dramatically over the past two years.

GFC, the first thing I want you to do is get Girlie to love the comfort and security of the crate. It’s the ONLY place she gets people food. Several times in the course of the day and evening, toss into the crate little pieces of chicken, or ham or whatever, as you tell her to go to her house. The crate door is left open. Feed her one of her two meals a day in the crate with the open door. 

Next, I want you to seriously de-emotionalize leaving and coming home. No sorrowful goodbyes. Just “See ya later, Girlie” as you toss a few of the “special” treats into the crate, in addition to a couple of hollow marrow bones, one with a piece of meat wedged in the middle and the other with peanut butter or whatever wedged inside. When you come home, you don’t run over to the crate to let her out with hugs and kisses. It’s a casual, “Hi, Girlie,” as you put on a cup of tea, or whatever, and then let her out of the crate, no big deal. Then remove the special marrow bones. She only gets them when nobody’s home! Period. Soft classical or, believe it or not, country-Western music in your absence may help. The old saying, “A tired dog is a well-behaved dog” has some validity to it. A walk before you leave can’t hurt. 

There are now many products on the market to help all kinds of anxieties, from thundershirts to Adaptil diffusers, to calming hemp, in addition to CBD calming products. I have seen some of these products help with some dogs and not help with others. You may want to ask your vet, who knows Girlie, what she recommends. However, be aware that what you don’t want to do is reward the fear response by telling her, “It’s OK,” and giving her treats as she’s cowering. My search and rescue dog Michelle was afraid of nothing until age 14, when she shocked me by being extremely fearful for the first time during a nasty thunderstorm. Instead of commiserating with her fear response, I conned her into a great game of tug of war with a rope toy while the thunder was booming. She flinched when the thunder boomed, but continued to play. 

In lieu of drugs, if you want to actually desensitize Girlie to loud noises, go on the internet and get a recording of the sounds that often scare dogs, such as thunder, sirens, gunfire, etc. Then have her lie down on one of her favorite comfort spots and play the recording softly enough for her to tolerate it as you give her tiny pieces of people food. With patience and repetition, slowly increase the volume, increasing her tolerance and desensitization to the scary noises.

In the great majority of cases, dogs are more aggressive on leash than off leash. And while you may think they are protecting you, in actuality they just feel more secure being attached to you with that leash. It’s like the little kid who acts a lot tougher with his big brother standing behind him. The first mistake that most people make is reacting negatively the moment they see another dog. Imagine you’re standing in a park, and Girlie is sniffing for gossip, and oblivious to the person who just entered the park with their dog. You, seeing the other dog and anticipating a problem, tighten the leash, and say, “Girlie,” with great anxiety in your voice. So now Girlie hears your nervousness as she feels the leash tighten on her collar, and what’s she going to relate all this negativity to? The other dog that she now sees for the first time. You’ve actually exacerbated the problem by anticipating a problem and sharing that feeling with Girlie through your voice and the leash. 

So in the future, when you see another dog you want your response to be positive, coupled with treats. Con Girlie. “Look at that, Girlie, there’s a strange dog coming who could turn out to be your best friend …” as you’re giving her treats, as long as she’s not acting aggressive. But to be realistic, this is much easier said than done. So I’m going to suggest that you get a “gentle leader,” and look at the video on acclimating her to it. I’ve acclimated several hundred dogs to them for a reason: It eliminates 90 percent of a dog’s ability to pull on a leash. And it works on the principle of leverage, not pain like a prong collar. 

Girlie also needs to be taught the “Leave it” command, the command to ignore whatever she’s focused on, be it a squirrel, a dropped slice of pizza on the ground, or an owner approaching with another dog. For that command, I suggest you read the “how to” in my book, or get a trainer to help you.

Once again, thank you for being an adopter. And BTW — there are plenty of dogs who have great lives without being social butterflies when it comes to being with other dogs.

Good luck,


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