Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Easing Separation Anxiety in Pets With Brittany Derrenbacher
[00:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for episode 382 of Live Happy Now. As we all settle into our post-summer routine, there are certain family members that sometimes get overlooked. I’m your host, Paula Felps. And this week, I’m welcoming back therapist Brittany Derrenbacher, a certified grief and pet loss specialist, founder of the special needs animal rescue, Luna Bell’s Moonbows, and owner of Sunshine Healing and Empowerment in Louisville, Kentucky.
Brittany is here to talk about how the end of summer changing routine can affect our furry family members, and she has several tips on what you can do to decrease their anxiety, make mornings more enjoyable for everyone in the home, and ease your pet’s stress of being left home alone.
[00:00:48] PF: Brittany, thank you for coming back on Live Happy Now.
[00:00:51] BD: Yeah. Thank you for having me. I’m so excited to be back.
[00:00:54] PF: We have been talking so much about back to school on the show, and this came out of a conversation you and I had because we talk about all these aspects how parents can take care of themselves, how they can take care of their children better. One thing that often gets overlooked is pets. Can you talk about how pets can be affected during this time of year as we go back to school, and there’s so much change going on?
[00:01:16] BD: Absolutely. I think in order for us to have this conversation, we have to address something pretty important first, and that’s that our animals have feelings, right?
[00:01:29] PF: Right.
[00:01:30] BD: Our animals can grieve. Our animals can have anxiety due to separation and routine change, just as humans do. I think like oftentimes, humans, we kind of feel like we own the copyrights to love and to grief, right?
[00:01:45] PF: All the feelings. We get all of it.
[00:01:46] BD: Yeah, yeah. But these emotions are so widespread among animals, and there’s plenty of research now proving that animals experience joy, that they experience love, fear, despair, grief. Daily, we’re learning more and more about their fascinating cognitive abilities, their emotional capacities. So we’re not alone in this. So I think this discussion is really cool, and it’s also kind of beautiful to consider that, right? That we’re not alone in this.
But kind of circling back to your question and really diving into the topic, I really think that this is a new conversation that’s being talked about. So I love that you want to address it, and I think the back to work shift during COVID really brought up a lot of questions for pet owners. Like how does this affect our animals? What happens when we leave and go back to work? Specifically, back to school time, for a lot of people, this year is like physically being back in school, right? It’s making that shift from virtual to going back to the classroom.
So our animals go from this sudden switch from these like long summer days, just playing with their humans, doing what they love most, being outside to being in an empty home for the day. That’s a really super tough adjustment. I think like, for us, it’s difficult, right? So consider our pets, who are so reliant upon that routine and spending those days outside and doing all the things with their human siblings and maybe their fur siblings, and having all of this extended family time. Then literally, with no preparation, like it just ends, right?
[00:03:27] PF: Yeah. That’s the difference because we know it’s coming, and we can kind of mentally, emotionally steel ourselves for what’s ahead. But for our pets, it’s just like one day, they’re there. Then now, they’re gone.
[00:03:39] BD: Yeah. It’s confusing, and it’s scary.
[00:03:41] PF: So what happens then as that occurs? What do you see happening to our pets, and how does it affect them?
[00:03:48] BD: So I think the biggest effect that happens with them is anxiety and depression. A lot of that is considering how that affects us as humans. So changing chaos, our nervous system really goes into overload, right? So we kind of go through this process of being like, “Hey, what’s happening here? We’re not used to this.”
Our animals are also going through the same thing. It makes sense, right? That they’re anxious, that they’re sad, that they’re confused. So when our pets have this normal routine of spending their day, doing all their things with their family, and then that constant stimulation is gone, that’s when the stress and the anxiety kind of kicks in because their nervous system is just confused.
[00:04:32] PF: Right. They can’t talk it out like we can.
[00:04:34] BD: Yeah.
[00:04:35] PF: It’s not just our absence. It’s also our morning routines change. Everything gets more rushed. It’s more hectic. People are anxious, sometimes yelling, and that’s affecting them too, right?
[00:04:46] BD: Right. That goes back to the nervous system point too, is when your routine changes to something that’s hectic, that’s rushed, or maybe you’re just overlooked altogether, right? That’s normal. It’s not intentional. But sometimes, our animals are overlooked in that process. That really sends a message to them that, “Okay, things are different. This is scary. So I feel fear now.” That sends their nervous system into overdrive, which can then lead to all the behavior changes that we see.
[00:05:20] PF: Yeah. So what kind of behavior changes do you start seeing as a result of this?
[00:05:23] BD: Yeah, absolutely. I will say that while this affects all of our pets in different ways, I think the most important ones to point out, our senior dogs and our high energy dogs. Those are like the two populations that are most at high risk for those behavior changes. I think, again, like drawing upon that comparison between our animals and humans, for senior dogs, just like humans, as we age, we become less malleable, less open to change. Maybe a little bit resistant there. So oftentimes, you see that huge shift in behaviors and maybe even physical symptoms, right? So that kind of lethargy, just an overall like mood of sadness, maybe confusion or withdraw. So that’s some normal stuff that you’ll see with senior dogs.
Then something that I see in rescue work a lot, where families return high energy dogs due to lack of time, and this is really sad because we both know that this is not due to the fault of the pet, right? To the dog.
[00:06:23] PF: Right, right. That’s like locking up a kid because they’re hyperactive. It’s like –
[00:06:27] BD: Exactly, yeah. But basically, humans get busy, and some may tend to spend less time with their pets, and less time with your dogs means less time for walks and for play. This can have a huge impact on a higher energy dog that’s like super reliant upon that outlet, right? To get all of that anxiety out, to get their excitement out. So it’s pretty normal that that leads to a buildup of both excitement and frustration for the dog.
That’s where you see like the shift in the behaviors that can lead to roughhousing, rough play. Maybe like the mouthing bites on the hands to get your attention or biting your pants or jumping up and trying to get your attention or being destructive in the home. But I think the next biggest sign in that that goes along with a lot of those behaviors is that separation anxiety.
[00:07:18] PF: Yeah, and that’s a big one. That’s one that brought us together because, as you well know, my dog, Josie, was originally in your care and was rescued from a breeder and has tremendous separation anxiety. Something that, as much as we worked with her, you worked with her first, and then I’ve had her now for three years, and it’s not going to completely go away. It’s just become something we have to manage and have to live with in so many ways. Like just you know this is a problem, and it’s going to go on. Yeah. Talk about how separation anxiety affects the animal, and then really what the owner needs to be looking for.
[00:07:59] BD: I’m really glad that you brought Josie up because I think that it’s helpful for not only just pet owners in general to hear about that. But I think for folks that have adopted animals in rescue because I think that separation anxiety is something a lot of rescue animals struggle with, especially those with a history of abandonment, breeder dogs, trauma, abuse, or just being passed around through multiple owners. So even with a solid and safe routine, like you’re saying, in their new forever home or in their foster home, this can still be an ongoing issue.
But basically, separation anxiety comes from our attachment to others. So this is also something that’s like very fluid between humans and animals that we can experience, and that can be characterized by symptoms of extreme sometimes anxiety and distress in our pets. So for dogs, this can look like digging and scratching to escape, like that intense desire to just flee, right? Vocalization, destructive chewing, a lot of times regression in potty training, which again is like something that a lot of times we see dogs returned and rescue for is that regression and potty training.
Then in cats, separation anxiety can look similar, but cats tend to do a lot of the shaking, more withdrawal, hiding, like very much a fear response in cats that kind of they tend to seclude themselves. They get a loss of appetite. They get upset stomach. So some of these are probably symptoms that you’ve experienced with Josie along the way.
[00:09:35] PF: Yeah. There’s like a – You keep the towel by the door because you just know, okay, if I walk down to get the mail by myself, it’s going to be a problem, so yeah. I’m glad that you brought up cats because we tend to think, “Oh, cats are independent. Cats are fine.” I’ve talked with people who get really surprised that their cat responds poorly to being left alone. Can you talk about that? I guess maybe that’s kind of a myth that we have.
[00:10:02] BD: Yeah. I think we have a lot of myths about cats, right? That’s –
[00:10:06] PF: They’re not evil, and they don’t steal our [inaudible 00:10:07].
[00:10:07] BD: Right. Cats get overlooked in our discussion about animals a lot, and I’m guilty of it. I mean, I’ve been on this podcast before and kind of reminded myself like, “Oh, we need to talk about cats, too. It’s not just about dogs.” But, yeah, cats, I mean, they’re also our best friends and our companions. So it makes perfect sense that they’re going to experience some form of grief and confusion when we leave them. They’re relying upon us, even though they may want us to think that they’re not.
[00:10:37] PF: That they’re in charge.
[00:10:38] BD: Yes. Right.
[00:10:41] PF: So what are things that we can do first as families to start working with our pets? Obviously, by now, we’re back to school. This routine has started. People are probably already starting to see some of the things that you brought up. So what are some practices that families can adopt to make this easier for everyone?
[00:11:02] BD: I think, first, we have to admit that perhaps we do some overlooking, right? I don’t think that we do this deliberately. We get busy. We get into autopilot. Our whole family does, and we can forget to be intentional in everyday life. I love talking about intentionality, especially with our animals, because I think it’s so important. So I really like to approach this as we know that this is going to be hard for everyone involved. Learning a new routine sucks, quite frankly.
[00:11:35] PF: And we’ve gotten really comfortable over the summer. Especially the last two years, it’s like, “I don’t need to wear pants.”
[00:11:41] BD: Exactly. So just getting dressed and leaving the house is hard. Yeah. So let’s make a plan, right? Let’s attack this with what works best for our family. Also, let’s make this exciting. So for the family, intentionality can look like brainstorming training methods. It can look like baby steps into the new routine. So that can mean like working on the brakes that your pet is going to be home alone and really kind of tiptoeing into that and ways to make our animals feel special and feel safe, using positive reinforcement training and then also teaching a new routine to them.
So that can involve taking our pets to do carpool. I don’t want to say all our dogs because some dogs do have anxiety getting in cars. But most dogs would love the opportunity to be able to take part in that, walking our dogs to the bus stop to pick up the kids. Really –
[00:12:34] PF: Does that help too in the sense that they see – Do they start equating like, “Okay. Now, he’s getting on the bus,” and, “Oh, good. Here comes the bus.”? Because we see all these great videos where the dog is like waiting, waiting. The bus door opens, and they just go crazy. So can that kind of add this value to that time of the day?
[00:12:51] BD: Absolutely. Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mean, really allowing them to take part and understand that when their humans leave, they’re always going to come back. So you’re spot on with that. It’s that reliability and that excitement build up. They are able to build those neural pathways that, “Okay. When my human leaves, this yellow bus is going to pull up at the end of the day, and they’re going to get off, and I get to like cheer them on as they run down the stairs.” It becomes a game.
So think about this in regards to the mailman or the UPS guy when they pull up or the UPS person. They know that my dog specifically and maybe yours know that a package is coming, and they get so excited and pumped to meet the person at the door. So we can teach those sounds and sensory things through bus pickups and carpools as well. It’s not just – Our dogs smart. So allowing them to participate in activities is a huge reward to them.
[00:13:43] PF: And it makes the greeting better for your child as well. Because I know I would have been thrilled to have my dog instead of my mom greet me, right?
[00:13:51] BD: Yeah.
[00:13:52] PF: Yes.
[00:13:53] BD: Yeah. I used to have a cat when I was younger. His name was Scribbles, and he would walk me to my friend’s house. He would hang out outside until I was done, and then he would walk me home. I have such a core memory of that. So, yeah, I think that’s so cool for kids.
[00:14:08] PF: Yeah, because that can reset a bad day, if you’re greeted with his unconditional love the minute you leave your school environment. I love that. I love that. So what about the mornings? I’m sure that’s a lot of where pets get overlooked and forgotten and become more anxious because of the rush nature of it. So how can people restructure their mornings so that it is a good time for everyone, and the pet does get some time?
[00:14:35] BD: I love to challenge us to like really think about things in regards to ourselves. So how unfair would that be if every morning, we woke up and we were denied our coffee, right?
[00:14:48] PF: Oh, no.
[00:14:50] BD: Not happening.
[00:14:50] PF: Homicides have happened for less.
[00:14:52] BD: Yeah. So for our dogs, to deny them their walk in the morning is so unfair. So my biggest advice is walks and walks and more walks in the morning. Establishing that morning routine where, yes, you may have to wake up a little bit earlier, but really connecting with your pets and leaving the home and taking them to do what they love most.
So when I think about what I love to do most in the morning, that’s to have my moment of peace with my coffee before I can attempt doing anything. Well, the same for our dogs and their walks. Maybe for our cats, it’s just sitting down with them in the morning and like spending time with them or letting them engage in whatever activity excites them. So giving them that moment of connection, that one-on-one connection in the morning.
Then I think, also, leaving the home, the physical home, is something that we need to do with intentionality. So don’t elongate the goodbye. I think that’s, again, where we tend to make mistakes when we’re leaving is that we kind of elongate the experience like, “You’re okay. Everything’s fine. I’m going to walk out really slowly.” This causes stress in our animals.
[00:16:00] PF: They’re like, “Leave, go.”
[00:16:02] BD: Like this is too much. This is taking too long. Because we have to remember that our animals are deeply intuitive, and they’re picking up on all of those emotional cues from us. So it’s important to stay calm and to not make a big deal out of our exits when we’re leaving. It signals to our pets that our departure is safe and that they can count on us to return.
[00:16:23] PF: What are some things that we can leave behind for them to do during the day that can help ease their anxiety?
[00:16:30] BD: There are so many options out there, and I feel like we have explored a lot of them here in our home, just by virtue of having had so many personalities in the house through rescue and then our personal pets, so just knowing that there is literally an option for everything.
The first thing and the easiest thing that you can do is offer them a puzzle toy or a Kong either stuffed with peanut butter or cheese, whatever they like before you walk out the door. Get them busy, get them excited about something, and then leave.
This past week, we actually got a back to school BarkBox in the mail for the dogs, and that was really fun. It was full of all these interactive toys, and the dogs just love getting that. They know when that box comes. They know that those toys are for them, and they’ve been good boys and good girls. So there’s like this whole ordeal about it. Then also, they have like boxes that are specifically for aggressive chewers out there. Shout out to all my Boston Terrier moms. Get this box. So that’s something that’s just very simple that you can do.
Another thing that you can do is leave a sound machine on playing white noise or relaxing music. You can also get fun with it and like make a playlist for your pet, right? Something soothing. There are so many playlists available out there on everything; Apple, Spotify, YouTube.
[00:17:47] PF: Yeah. I know Archie, my previous dog, who also came through Boston Terrier Rescue of East Tennessee, shout out, had horrible anxiety as well. Because of him, I have on my Spotify account, an 11-hour playlist called Archie’s calming playlist, and it’s – I went through. I curated it, specifically music designed for dogs. It’s helpful. It’s very helpful. So that’s what I do when I’ve got to leave Josie and Rocco behind. They’re in their crate, and I put on that playlist and hope for the best.
[00:18:17] BD: I love that because there’s intentionality in that too and meaning in that playlist. So that makes it even more beautiful. Something cool that we’ve done over the years is that our sound machine has like a rain thunderstorm option. So we’ve always played that, and we kind of realized over time that it actually desensitized everyone in the house to storms.
[00:18:38] PF: Oh, I need to get that. I need that.
[00:18:41] BD: They aren’t fearful of storms at all. In fact, they’ll sleep straight through them. Anytime it does storm, I mean, it’s almost like immediately they go to sleep. So it does have like more benefits than just playing it in the background. I think that sound and kind of drowning out any stressful sounds in the background is what the goal is, and that’s really what we’re trying to do.
There’s also dog TV options. There’s literal channels that are devoted, or you can just put on Animal Planet. But some animals love that. Then I think if we want to get more in depth here for like the folks that really are gone for eight hours a day, some pet parents are able to come home, walk their pets, have lunch at home, do a check in with their animal, and leave. Some aren’t. So what’s available to them, and I’m a huge proponent of this, is doggy daycare and dog walkers.
There’s an app for everything, right? There is an app for dog walking. There are so many doggy daycares now that literally specialize in kind of like a carpool drop off process for your dogs. So this can help because folks can come to your home. They can walk your dog, or you can drop your dog off at daycare. They can play with their friends, and then they can come home.
But I think thinking about going back to those senior dogs and the high energy dogs, the dogs with anxiety, having someone come and let them out and take them for a walk, give them treats, give them attention, this can have a huge impact on their day in a positive way.
[00:20:07] PF: Let’s talk – That’s going to make their whole experience better. It’s going to give you peace of mind. How’s it going to affect when you come home? What’s the difference between coming home to a dog who’s either been in daycare or who has been walking already versus coming home to one that’s been alone for eight, nine hours?
[00:20:24] BD: Yeah. They’re able to blow off energy. They’re able to have a resource and an outlet for their anxiety. All of that’s able to get out. Think about how you are and you’re just having to sit in your office chair for eight hours a day. Yeah. So when you’re done, I mean, there’s kind of like this moment of just like, “Oh.”
So it’s the same thing for our animals. Getting to have that outlet and have that human connection, be able to get some energy out and blow steam, that’s going to change your greeting when you get home. Maybe you’re greeted to a happy, tired dog, versus a dog that wants to jump all over you and just run all over the place and be destructive. Again, that’s not the animal’s fault. This is what’s going to happen. This is why I think it’s so important to have this conversation and create a plan because this is kind of like the unavoidable thing that happens when we have to leave our pets. So let’s set them up for success by doing all of these things for them.
[00:21:19] PF: One thing that sometimes seems counterintuitive because it’s like, “Well, get a second dog,” and it’s like, “That’s more work.” Yes, but it’s also a huge payoff, if you can get your pet a companion. Can you talk about the importance of that and what to think about?
[00:21:37] BD: Yeah. I think having a companion, a friend for your pet, takes the pressure off of you a little bit. But also, it makes it to where their interactions are endless with that friend. It also gives them that companion to feel safe and to feel comfort in. Sometimes, for a highly anxious dog, to get a companion for them that is not anxious, to be able to pull those cues from them and say, “Oh, okay. I don’t need to be nervous right now. I don’t need to be scared right now because you’re cool.” So that also teaches them that it’s okay to be calm.
[00:22:16] PF: If you can’t get another dog, if you don’t feel like you’re in a position where I can afford, I want to get a second dog, you can even do a coop thing. Like we – When I lived in my apartment in Nashville, we had a neighbor, and she would bring her dogs over, or she would hang out over there. It’s like our own little daycare pod to help ease their loneliness during the day.
[00:22:36] BD: I love that. That just goes back to the opportunities, and the options here really are endless. It just takes a little bit of intentionality on our part to look into that and to try to create that safety net for our pets that does set them up for success. It also sets us up for success in our relationships with them and in our overall happiness and that bond that we have with our pets. I think it just helps all of that.
[00:23:01] PF: Absolutely. So how’s it going to change things if we can kind of get this under control and make our pet’s time alone a happy time? What’s that going to do for our overall household?
[00:23:13] BD: I think everyone involved is going to be happier. I think maintaining that human animal bond is essentially not just for our pets, but it’s for our happiness, too. So it’s kind of that return, right? We pour into them, and what they get back to us is endless. So I like to think of that as a very collaborative happiness model, right?
[00:23:34] PF: Yeah, that’s terrific. So what would be like your number one piece of advice, the number one thing to take away from this? People are getting back into their routines and want to make sure that their pet is having the best experience, and their whole house is having a great experience. What’s the one thing you hope they remember?
[00:23:51] BD: Is to not forget about their animals in this. Don’t forget about their feelings because their feelings matter in this, and they are just as affected by the back to school, the back to work rush as we are. So just to have some intentionality and like kind of that reminder that we need to take their feelings into accountability when we’re making the shift.
[00:24:13] PF: I love it. Brittany, thank you so much. You always have so much great insight on the animal kingdom, and I appreciate you coming back and talking about it.
[00:24:21] BD: Thank you so much.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:24:26] PF: That was therapist Brittany Derrenbacher, talking about how to ease our pet’s stress as we head back to school and back to work. If you’d like to learn more about Brittany and the work she’s doing, or follow her on social media, visit our website at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab.
Now that we’re back in school, we’re just a few weeks away from World Teachers’ Day on October 5th. If you want to show your appreciation for a special teacher or maybe just earn a few brownie points, we’ve got you covered. We have an entire section in the Live Happy Store dedicated to teacher gifts, and you can check them out when you visit store.livehappy.com/teacher-gifts.
That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. And until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.