Joan Merriam: Post-pandemic guide to leaving your pup at home
For the last eighteen months, many of us have been working from home with our dogs by our side. That’s the good part. The not-so-good part is that our constant presence hasn’t prepared them for our post-pandemic return to work and school. You’ve been there with them all the time, then suddenly you’re gone. For some dogs, the abruptness of that change can push them into a vortex of fear and worry.
This is the classic definition of separation anxiety, which is when a dog that’s left alone exhibits fearful or problematic behaviors like destructive chewing (sometimes on things like doorjambs and furniture), nonstop barking, urinating in the house, or feverishly trying to escape. Even if your dog has never been anxious before when left alone, separation anxiety can be triggered by the unexpectedness of you being gone when before, you’ve been there with them all the time. If you’re heading back to work or school after being a homebody for the last year and a half, here are some ideas to help with that transition.
First, know the signs of stress and anxiety. Panting, pacing, shaking, whining or howling, yawning, drooling or licking, and changes in eyes, ears and body posture (including stiffness or tucked tails) are all signs of uneasiness in your dog. If leaving the house for even short periods of time triggers these behaviors, you need to take steps to help your dog now, while you’re still home.
One of the things that can be reassuring is to keep a consistent schedule for feeding, potty and exercise. Dogs thrive on regularity, and knowing what the next hour or day will bring.
Some dogs also find comfort in a kennel or crate. It’s important, however, to take time to teach your dog that this is their safe place and not a punishment. Practice crate “stays” lasting no more than ten or twenty minutes, where your dog hangs out in the crate while you’re doing things around the house. Sometimes it can help if you put some treat-filled toys into the crate with your pup. As soon as the time’s up, open the crate door and welcome your dog out. Repeat this for a few days until your dog feels completely comfortable. No matter what, never leave a dog inside a crate for longer than four hours at a time.
If your dog tends to become anxious when you’re getting ready to leave, you need to get it used to the sights and sounds of you going away. Be sure to keep your exit calm and routine rather than making a big deal of saying goodbye: this can make a big difference in how the dog experiences your departure.
Help your dog associate leaving with something positive instead of scary by giving them a stuffed Kong or other treat-filled toy before you walk out the door. Finally, there’s the element of practice. Especially if your dog has never been left alone before, it’s critical that you practice leaving home without them, starting in short increments. This is a slow process that can take several days or even longer, so be patient.
First, pick up your keys or purse as if you were leaving, then put them down again. Do this several times throughout the day.
Next, open and close the door. Don’t go out yet: just get your pup used to the sound and sight of the door opening and closing, and nothing bad (like you walking out!) happening as a result. After you’ve done this several times over several days, go out the door, wait five or ten seconds, and come back in. This helps reassure your dog that you will come back. Increase your time outside the door to several minutes; then start the car and drive it out of the garage or driveway. Drive back to where you were right away, and come inside.
The final step is to actually drive away from your home, leaving your dog for fifteen or twenty minutes. Put your dog wherever he’ll be while you’re actually gone for the day, whether that’s a crate, in a special room, or free-roaming the house. Over the next few days, gradually increase the amount of time you’re gone.
Some dogs experience such high anxiety when their person isn’t with them that you may need to seek the help of a certified trainer or behaviorist. In the meantime, consider taking your pup to doggy daycare a few times a week, or hire an experienced dog walker who can come in each day and take your dog for exercise and human companionship
Trying these tips can help insure that going back to work doesn’t have to mean misery for your dog or you.
Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County with her Golden Retriever Joey, her Maine Coon cat Indy, and the abiding spirit of her beloved Golden Retriever Casey in whose memory this column is named. You can reach Joan at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you’re looking for a Golden, be sure to check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue
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