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If you spent a lot of time at home during the pandemic or even now work from home, is your dog out of practice being left alone?
Recently, many pet parents have spent more time at home than we ever planned to, completely changing our household routines and emotional dynamics. If you've been home consistently and are now starting to travel more or go into the office and are worried about your dog developing separation anxiety, then this guide is for you and your dog.
How your dog sees life changes
No doubt your dog has loved being able to spend time with you and get lots of extra attention, walks, and play time. But one thing is for sure, our dogs have lives outside of us and it's crucial it stays that way.
As you start leaving your dog home alone more, he/she could go into a state of shock if you abruptly go from hang-out buds & work from home "co-workers" to in-person workplace hours and your dog home-alone for hours on end.
Let's go through some tips on how to ease your dog into a routine where he/she can be comfortable being left home alone and you can leave the house worry-free.
Why establishing a routine for your dog matters
Dogs thrive on routine. Some more than others, but I know many of you will relate to the dog who lets you know exactly when it's time for dinner by dropping the bowl at your feet or by pawing at the door when it's walk time. This is routine and leaves your dogs feeling they have some control over their day.
We, as humans, control all aspects of a dog's life - when our dogs eat, sleep, walk, play, leave the house, play with friends, get water, etc. - all of a sudden we just changed everything! Suddenly their nap time is ruined, walks are all over the place, meals are probably different and while they may be doing their best to adjust, it is a big change.
Change can equal anxiety & distress
Research shows changes to routine can trigger anxiety and distress in some dogs when left alone. Meanwhile, other dogs could be unfazed and exhibit the usual relaxed, quiet behavior. Every dog is different and handles change differently.
It doesn't have to be a pandemic to throw dogs off their bearings. If you're home from work after a layoff or serious injury and suddenly return to work after extended periods of time, your dog could show extreme distress behaviors. Or when kids return home from school for summer break or from college and then go away again suddenly and the family dog can’t handle being alone anymore... any of this sound familiar?
Now, I want to be clear, if this were a risk for EVERY dog - most dogs would have separation anxiety. But because we don’t know exactly what the link is between these scenarios and the dogs who end up with separation anxiety, there is no way to know which dogs may end up suffering. So why not take precautions to try to prevent it overall?
How to prepare your dog for change
Please remember your dog has experienced a lot of change over the last couple years. What have you noticed? Is your dog following you around more? Waking up if you leave the room? Have you been practicing any intentional separation? If yes, great - and continue to slowly increase exposure opportunities to alone time. If not, please be careful as you get out and about in the world more. We all need to take some time and help our dogs readjust to what their new normal might look like.
Whether you are going back to work (even on a hybrid basis), leaving your dog occasionally, or still staying in a good bit of the time, prevention and planning are the best ways to ensure your dog is ready for what's happening now and next.
Routine! Routine! Routine!! You aren’t the only one who has one…
Practice normal daily feeding, walking, and training schedules - or commit to one now.
Did you always go for a morning walk or run before work with your dog? What about the post-work long sniffy walk? Were Saturdays for training and hanging out at a coffee shop? Make it a point to try to do these same things, or something similar to what you did before as often as possible. This will help your dog feel as though something is the same on a day-to-day basis.
7 additional steps to help your dog feel safe, healthy and normal when routines are changing
Step 1) Shower/get ready for work as “normal” a few times a week
Seeing you in your work clothes vs sweatpants makes a difference! Dogs make strong associations to the shoes you wear when you go to work vs the sneakers you put on for a walk. Remind your pup what your laptop bag or your make-up routine looks like, so differences become less notable.
Step 2) Create a safe and quiet place for your dog to sleep and rest
If you are now working from home at least part of the time, your dog might be sleeping less. This can cause physical and behavioral upset - try to create a safe and quiet place for rest during the day - a happy place with lots of treats available.
Step 3) Make alone time special by introducing enrichment toys, bones, and find-it games for mental stimulation
Enrichment activities are a fantastic way to help your dog stay calm and busy when left alone. Dogs love to use their noses, so anything that encourages this natural behavior will likely be a big hit!
Toys that release small treats as they are played with are great for dogs who need to be left alone for longer periods of time. I have lots of recommendations right here on Dogly, check it out.
Step 4) Exercise your dog before being left alone so your pup is calm and relaxed
Tire your dog out with a good game of fetch, a long walk, or some mental puzzle games before you leave. This will help to expend some energy and hopefully result in a calmer dog when left alone.
Step 5) Close blinds/curtains and leave music or TV on
If your dogs howl at neighbors or other dogs walking outside - this will help avoid distractions that can get your dog worked up and ensure your pup gets enough R&R.
Step 6) Work or hang out behind closed doors for 30 mins - 2 hours several times a week
This is not only to ensure your dogs can be away from you but also to help them get enough rest. Lack of sleep can cause the same issues in dogs as in humans. Of course, we want our dogs in on all of our conference calls and meetings, but it's not reality in the long term and they need to know how to survive when we are elsewhere. If you try this for the first time and your dog is suddenly distressed, see the tips below.
Step 7) Leave home without your dog for 30 mins - 2 hours at least 3 times a week
Just because you do it once and they have no issue, doesn’t mean one may not form later on, remember good habits are hard to create and bad ones hard to break! Take a walk, go get gas, run to the store, or just drive around and listen to a podcast. Watch your dog's behavior with a camera/computer on Zoom/FaceTime/Google Meetings when you leave.
If you’ve never watched your dog when you are away, you may not know what to expect. Some dogs will immediately lie down and go to sleep, some may lie by the door for a bit, while others may like to look out the window. Watch for the clear signs of distress listed below. Be prepared to return immediately if at any point your dog shows signs of distress and panic.
How to know if there is a problem
While many dogs will make it through changing routines without issue, each dog takes their own path through alone time - anything from no real reaction to a range of symptoms from mild distress to full separation anxiety. So what are some things to look out for?
General signs your dog may be out of practice being alone:
- Following you around more than usual in your home
- Waking from a sleep anytime you leave the room
- Distress when separated in the home
- Becoming anxious when you prepare to leave home without them
- Distressed when fully alone in the house (some dogs howl, some chew doors, and more... other signs below)
Signs of distress when left alone or separated (this list is not inclusive):
- Is your dog panting, pacing, or drooling?
- Is your dog howling or whining? (Particularly if your dog's howling is persistent... that goes for puppy howling too.) Dogs bark - but is your dog barking for no apparent external reason?
- Showing destructive chewing & other destructive behavior - especially around doors and windows or crate?
- Making escape attempts/escaping: digging around windows / doors?
- Door darting when you attempt to leave?
- Disinterested in food (when alone)?
- Having accidents/house soiling (with no house training behavior problems otherwise)?
- Causing self-harm (usually in severe separation anxiety cases when trying to escape)
Note: You will want to check in with your dog's veterinarian to make sure none of these behaviors are tied to a medical issue. GI problems, for example, are among common reasons behind what looks like separation anxiety needing behavior modification that instead are based in medical causes that can be addressed with vet care.
What to do if your dog shows signs of separation anxiety
If your dog's anxiety and any of these behaviors start to occur and have never happened before with your well behaved dog in your absence, I would consider continuing to practice the steps above at a gradual steady pace with short absences of just a few minutes.
If you do not see improvement or see an increase in anxiety over the course of a week or two, don't let it continue a few weeks, please reach out to me or another Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer as soon as possible.
Okay, but tell me more...
Separation anxiety rarely resolves itself once developed and usually worsens without proper treatment. Also, while many positive reinforcement trainers are well intentioned, unless they have studied separation anxiety specifically, understand the differences in desensitization and counterconditioning, and treated separation anxiety successfully, there is often a lot of misinformation about how to guide your dog through the systematic desensitization needed.
Since we're working with complex feelings of fear and anxiety and want your dog to feel safe and comfortable, missteps in treatment can derail and delay progress.
What NOT to do if your dog has separation anxiety
Punish. Separation anxiety is a serious behavioral disorder that stems from panic and anxiety. When a dog suffers from separation anxiety, he or she is afraid, anxious, and out of control. A dog with separation anxiety can't just stop and get it together.
It can be extremely detrimental for dog owners to punish this behavior in dogs with responses such as (but not limited to):
- Spray bottles
- Shaker cans
- Bark collars
- Shock collars
- Hitting or other physical or verbal abuse
A dog with separation anxiety needs to be comforted and patiently guided to the point where the alone-time triggers become a routine, no-big-deal part of life.
*Note: Since separation anxiety is a complex panic disorder, it requires specially trained support to be treated successfully. If your dog does have separation anxiety, you will want to work with a CSAT (like me), a CAAB (certified applied animal behaviorist), or a board certified veterinary behaviorist as well as talking with your dog's veterinarian - rather than a certified professional dog trainer in this case.
Next up in the Anxiety Channel on Dogly
Now that you've learned how to help your dog through changing routines, if you think your dog could be experiencing separation anxiety go to the next guide to learn the signs of separation anxiety, how to make coming and going boring, and how to set your home environment up for success. Or jump to other step-by-step guides in the Anxiety Channel and start teaching your dog how to stay calm outside of the house.
Hop over to the Anxiety Channel if you'd like to ask any of the Dogly Training Advocates who are all certified dog trainers a question in the Community discussion or start any of the step-by-step guides in Environment Anxiety, Crate Anxiety, or Understanding Anxiety.
And if you ever need more personalized training help, please reach out to work with me one-on-one here on Dogly!