• Take care not to over-indulge your pets during self-isolation, a behavioural scientist has warned.
  • When their owners spend a long time at home, dogs can get a false sense of security, worsening their separation anxiety when the owner goes back to work.
  • However, a study has claimed that separation anxiety in dogs should be seen as a 'symptom of underlying frustrations rather than a diagnosis'.

Dog owners should not shower their pets with attention during coronavirus self-isolation, a behavioural scientist has warned.

Being at home for an extended amount of time could give dogs a false sense of security, putting them at greater risk of separation anxiety when owners eventually return to normal working life.

Professor Daniel Mills, from the University of Lincoln, says people should focus on spending quality time with pets instead.

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“There is certainly some data and anecdote from clinicians that if people are off work for a prolonged period, for example if they break their leg and have to stay at home, then when they return to work, actually dogs may be at greater risk,” he told the PA news agency.

“Perhaps given that a lot of us are going to be shut up at home with our dogs, here is a great opportunity actually for you to spend more quality time with your dog, but not to overly indulge your dog. Instead of watching Facebook and the news and getting thoroughly depressed, use the time to improve your dog’s confidence.”

A new study into separation anxiety among dogs suggests the condition should be seen as a symptom of underlying frustrations rather than a diagnosis.

The research identifies four key forms of distress that can lead to separation anxiety in canines. These include a focus on getting away from something in the house, wanting to get to something outside, reacting to external noises or events, and a form of boredom.

More than 2,700 dogs representing over 100 breeds were used in the study.

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“Labelling the problem of the dog who is being destructive, urinating or defecating indoors or vocalising when left alone as separation anxiety is not very helpful,” Prof Mills added.

“It is the start of the diagnostic process, not the end. Our new research suggests that frustration in its various forms is very much at the heart of the problem and we need to understand this variety if we hope to offer better treatments for dogs.”

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Researchers, who published the study in the academic journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science, hope to investigate in more detail the influence the dog-owner relationship has on problem behaviours triggered by separation.

Reader Q&A: Do dogs have a concept of time?

Asked by: Fernando Garcia, Spain

Dogs have a sense of time but probably not a ‘concept’ of time.

Human episodic memory means we pinpoint times in the past and look forward to the future. Studies suggest that dogs live very much in the present but, like us, their internal clock or circadian rhythm regulates body processes such as when to go to sleep and get up.

Left alone they may become increasingly anxious, indicating that they have an awareness of the passage of time. Plus, they react to a plethora of behavioural cues as though they know that ‘it is time for walkies’. But don’t be fooled – dogs haven’t mastered time management yet!

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Sara RigbyOnline staff writer, BBC Science Focus

Sara is the online staff writer at BBC Science Focus. She has an MPhys in mathematical physics and loves all things space, dinosaurs and dogs.