It’s likely that no one has enjoyed the COVID-19 quarantine more than your dog.
The uninterrupted time together, the daily walks, and the extra attention lavished as you sought comfort during this stressful time are pretty much a dog’s dream come true.
While we’ve agonized over how long social isolation is lasting, your dog has been blissfully unaware of what is to come. Stay-at-home orders are being lifted, business is resuming, our schedules are getting busier.
Even if your “new normal” has you working from home or reduced hours, your dog is going to have to cope with more frequent and longer absences. Taking steps now to prepare your dog can help ease the unexpected loneliness, boredom and anxiety.
What Happens When We Go Back to Work?
I personally have a sinking feeling about how Georgia and Duke will handle being home alone again.
Georgia had severe separation anxiety when I adopted her 7 years ago, and I still can’t leave her alone for more than four hours. And Duke hasn’t been left unsupervised since his enucleation surgery in November. He is perfectly safe and capable of finding his way around on his own now, but the end of his recovery just happened to coincide with the beginning of Michigan’s stay-at-home order. After six months of constant togetherness, how will Duke react when he’s suddenly left alone?
I’m a little nervous to find out.
So I reached out to two local dog training and behavioral experts to see what I could start doing now to ease the transition.
It’s an issue that Jill Sackman, DVM, PhD, owner of Animal Behavior Consultants of Michigan, has already been working on.
“I’m anticipating lots of emails and phone calls once everyone goes back to work,” Dr. Sackman said. “A major life change like this throws our pets off. It shifts their behaviors.”
Start Now to Build Better Behaviors
Duke is a prime example of what Dr. Sackman sees a lot of in her clients: dogs who don’t know how to entertain or soothe themselves in the absence of people.
If your dog is with you all day, being entertained, enriched and cuddled, he’s not being encouraged to soothe or entertain himself. If you suddenly leave the house for the day, not only will he miss you and be anxious about when he’ll get his next meal and bathroom break, but he’ll also struggle with how to calm himself and find a feeling of safety.
Dr. Sackman works with her clients to build more independent behaviors in the home.
Simple things such as encouraging some alone time for your dog with a food toy or a sit and stay while you leave the room to get the mail or refill your water will help set the stage for feeling safe and secure during longer absences. You could also occasionally go for a walk without your dog, especially if you’ve been going for multiple walks per day with your dog.
Return to Routine
Kristie Swan, certified dog trainer and owner of A Dog’s Life GR, Grand Rapids’ first concierge dog training company, also recommends a return to routine, even if you have to fake it for a while. If you typically wear a uniform, pack a lunch or take a car to work, do things like putting your work clothes on or jingling the keys before calmly saying goodbye and stepping outside for a few minutes. You can even get in the car and start it up for a minute or two, or pull out of the driveway and drive around the block. Then return home calmly.
What’s important is to not make a big deal about leaving. By bringing back (or creating) short, routine absences now, they get de-escalated. Instead of feeling sudden confusion because you left, your dog feels safe, knowing that they’ve seen these behaviors before and that you always return.
Dr. Sackman also encourages making enrichment changes so that your dog feels less deprived when you’re not around. She suggests easy things such as taking a walk in the morning to get your dog tired before you leave; leaving a Kong filled with treats or hiding treats around the house; or running home at lunch to break up the day.
If you’re able, consider enlisting additional help by hiring a dog walker, visiting a doggy day care, or recruiting a neighbor to stop by during the day. Or turn to technology, such as Furbo or Wyze, which let you check in and even communicate with your dog over video. These don’t need to be long-term solutions, but if you’re able and your dog enjoys them, they can go a long way toward breaking up the deprivation of a day spent alone.
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Boredom vs. Separation Anxiety
If you are encouraging independent behaviors and your dog is still struggling in your absence, you might be dealing with true separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety looks a lot different than boredom and a little naughtiness.
“If it’s boredom, they may have escaped their crates, gotten into a little mischief, and then fallen asleep on their favorite spot on the couch,” said Swan.
“Separation anxiety happens soon after the people leave. You see the dogs trying to escape their crates, to the point of hurting themselves. You’ll see excessive salivation, urine, defecation, diarrhea—things that show a very stressful panic response.”
If you suspect your dog is experiencing true separation anxiety, start by video recording your dog while you’re away. Most likely, you’ll want to hire professional help at this point, and a video is the first step in understanding how your dog is reacting and how he can be helped.
I didn’t understand that Georgia was suffering from separation anxiety until I recorded it. The video showed her biting at her crate so desperately that she cut her gums, face and nose. She drooled so excessively that it pooled on the floor. And she made a screaming cry that I had never heard a dog make before. It broke my heart, and I want to do what I can to make sure she never feels that unsafe again.
If she experiences some separation anxiety after I go back to work, I’ll be prepared for it. But Dr. Sackman warns that even dogs who have never experienced separation anxiety before could be prone to develop it now. Especially senior dogs.
“When dogs are older, we can see an increase in separation anxiety. They are more sensitive to shifts in routine. They can have cognitive declines or sensory loss, which can add an anxiety component to [your absence].”
If you suspect new or returning separation anxiety in your dog, reach out for professional help from an animal behaviorist or a certified dog trainer. Chances are it won’t go away on its own.
Managing Anxiety—Yours and Your Dog’s
Finally, don’t forget to pay attention to your own anxiety.
“We’ve had a lot of stress, and our dogs sense that and know that,” said Swan. “They are able to smell stress on us because we have stress hormones. Start getting them back to feeling, ‘You’re okay. Things are going to be okay.'”
Given all the traumatic events of 2020, a lot of us have really leaned on that unconditional feeling we get when we bond with our dog or when we go on that walk, or pull them close when we cry.
For your dog’s sake, take an honest look at your own stress and anxiety level, and see if you can take steps to soothe and care for yourself.
Whether you do it for yourself or for your dog, taking steps to lower your own stress will be good for both of you.
We know our dogs feel what we feel, so above all, be patient.
Your dog is not “mad” that you went back to work; she’s genuinely confused and distressed. We can’t explain this unprecedented situation to our dogs, but we can speak to them with consistency, patience and understanding. Your calm, proactive approach to rebuilding a routine and supporting independent behaviors will speak volumes to your dog about how to navigate your new normal.
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Then let us know: how are you getting ready to go back to work? What suggestions could you add to this list? What has helped ease your dog’s boredom, or what are you still struggling with?