Our dogs may have got used to having us around 24/7 during lockdown, but as life slowly starts to get back to normal, it’s time to start getting them used to the idea of being alone again – however sad that may be for both them and us. But make no mistake – it’s not going to be an easy task. Even if your dog was used to being alone for big parts of the day before, they’ll have become so used to your presence by now that a sudden return to normal is likely to come as a shock to their system. As certified applied animal behaviorist Patricia B. McConnell tells the New York Times, “Dogs are highly social, which is why we get along with them so well. If all of a sudden, they go from ‘everybody home all the time’ to ‘nobody home all day long,’ it can lead to some serious behavioral problems.” So, how do we avoid those behavioral problems and get back to work without upsetting our pet’s in the process? It’s not going to be easy, but the sooner you start to prep your dog to be left home alone, the smoother the transition will be.
Start Preparing Now
The key to getting your dog comfortable with a return to the normal routine? Start prepping them now. As much as possible, try to avoid shocking their system with any sudden, dramatic changes: the more gently and gradually you can ease them back into normalcy, the better. Maybe you could try distracting them with a few treats before heading out the door. Leave them for a few seconds, then come back. Keep repeating the process, gradually allowing longer and longer between leaving the house and returning. Use the same routine you’d use to go to work each time you come in and out (picking up your keys, checking your mailbox, etc.) so they can re-familiarize themselves with the cues.
Wear Them Out
An un-walked dog who’s left alone for hours at an end is likely to be a lot unhappier than a dog who’s been worn out with plenty of exercise. As tractive.com recommends, make sure you wake up in plenty of time to give your pet a good walk or run around the park. This might mean prepping yourself more than it does your dog, but adding a daily walk to your routine is likely to do you as much good as it does them – even if it does mean you have to set the alarm for a little earlier than you’d otherwise like.
Create an Entertainment Plan
If your dog has got used to you being their primary source of entertainment for the past few months, it’s time to get them used to getting their fun from other sources. Try to introduce plenty of interactive toys and gadgets for them to play independently. As dogs are guided by their bellies as much as their heads, toys that involve food are likely to go down a storm. A food dispensing toy that you can fill with kibble guarantees lots of long-lasting fun, while Kongs are also a great idea (try freezing them after you’ve filled them with treats – it’ll double the fun).
Create a Safe Haven
Dogs can suffer from anxiety just as much as we can, and are likely to find any period of change a stressful time. Create a safe space they can retreat to whenever they’re feeling a little overwhelmed or lonely – some dogs might like a crate, while others prefer a warm blanket to stretch out on. Whatever type of hideaway you create, don’t be tempted to place it by a window. Although it’s easy to think that watching passersby will be entertaining for them, it could just stress them out even more. “When they’re screaming out the window at everyone who’s going by, their brains are flooded with all of this confusing and upsetting brain chemistry, which doesn’t go away on its own instantly,” Sarah Wilson says. “It’s not a game for them when they’re barking hysterically out the window.” If a crate doesn’t work for that dog, it may work to use a baby gate to keep it in a room it likes, but without access to a window.”
Plan, Plan, Plan
Before lockdown, your dog might have been used to ‘holding it in’ for most of the day. But having spent the last few months with you on call to walk them whenever they need, it might take them a bit of time and training to get back to the idea of not being able to relieve themselves every few hours. Think about what you can do in the first few weeks after returning to work that will help the transition. Could you call on the services of a dog walker or a pet sitter? Would a neighbor or friend be happy to pop by once or twice a day to let them into the garden? Ultimately, whatever you arrange doesn’t have to be forever – the point is to get them through the transition period, rather than establishing any new, lifelong routines.
Watch Out for Trouble
Separation anxiety is a very real thing, and it’s a condition that will only get worse if you ignore it. Being aware of the symptoms of anxiety (excessive barking, howling or whining; soiling indoors even if they’re housebroken; destructive behaviors such as digging, chewing, or tearing furniture; excessive panting, drooling, or salivating; pacing; escape attempts) is the first step in dealing with it. as you start to re-establish your normal routine, watch out for any telltale signs that suggest your dog’s not coping. Treatments vary, but as pets.webmd.com notes, natural supplements, leaving clothes that smell of you around for comfort, keeping comings and goings low key, or treating your dog to a little tit-bit each time you leave the house might all help. If none of these work, it’s worth speaking to your vet about further support.