Back to work? What about my dog?

Over the past year, many of us have been staying at home with our dogs, and if we’re lucky, taking our wonderful companions for walks, playing enrichment games throughout the day, training, and generally bonding in a way we didn’t think possible.

Now, as COVID-19 cases and deaths start to decline, and with COVID vaccine distribution ramping up, there are plans to slowly open up the economy. Even if you don’t think your job will restart any time soon, there are several things you can do to prepare your dog for your absence.

If you think about it, when you were working in the past, your dog probably had an adjustment period following your days off. He might have been more excited than usual when you got home from work. He might have emptied the garbage while you were gone, or shown more interest in his toys, or heaven forbid, shown more interest in your toys (the remote control, the couch, a book from the bookshelf, a pair of sunglasses you left on the coffee table). He might have even peed on the floor. These are all signs of separation anxiety, which means that your dog missed you a lot when you were gone.

After having us at home 24/7, being alone for 8-10 hrs at a time will be a shock.

His reaction to your absence could be greatly enhanced after spending 24/7 together for months. Dogs are social animals and very bonded to their families. Even dogs who have not had separation issues in the past will miss their people more than usual after spending so much time together.

For those of you who have adopted new dogs in the last year, your dog’s reaction to being home alone might be even more acute. If your dog has never been away from you and is suddenly stranded for eight to ten hours a day, think how scary, lonely, and boring it could be for him. Some dogs will adjust without any difficulty no matter what, but anxious or scared dogs will most likely have a harder time.

Things you can do to prepare your dog

  • Don’t spend every minute of every day with your dog(s). Having a second dog may not alleviate their reaction to your absence.
    • Start gradually. Close the door when you go into another room such as the bedroom or bathroom, and don’t allow him access. When your dog is quiet, walk nonchalantly back into the room and go about your business, ignoring your dog until he settles. Once he has settled, greet him calmly.
      • This way, you’ll be leaving your dog for seconds to minutes several times a day and he will learn that your comings and goings occur as a regular part of his routine.
      • He’ll learn that you always come back.
Annie waits inside while we work in the garden.
  • Don’t interact with your dog constantly during the day, but make sure he has toys that he can use to entertain himself.
    • Get used to doing things that don’t involve your dog such as reading, working on the computer, or using your phone.
    • If he demands your attention, ignore him, and if he doesn’t stop bothering you, walk into another room and close the door.
    • When he is quiet, calmly return to where you were before he interrupted you, and continue as if nothing has happened.
    • When he settles, you can give him calm, verbal praise and continue what you were doing.
    • This does not mean that you should ignore him for the entire day. Take regular breaks to take him out for walks or play with him, but gradually spread breaks further apart than what you’ve been doing.

  • Be honest with your dog. Don’t pretend you’re not going out, but rather build a positive association with your departure.
    • Tell your dog you are leaving. Our phrase before leaving our girls has always been: “We’re going out and you get to stay here.”
      • When Annie hears this, she lies down in front of the door and waits for the scattering of treats we toss on the floor before we leave.
      • Vera, who had separation anxiety, would not eat treats, but would lie down on the carpet, serious and concerned, and watch us go. I still prepared her a kong which she ate as soon as we returned. We used an Adaptil calming collar for Vera and that helped, but I would also talk to your vet about other options for separation anxiety.
      • Tessie and Lola would crowd into the mudroom waiting for their kibble-dispensing toys, hardly able to contain their excitement.
      • Another thing you can do is to hide stuffed bones and kongs around the house. Confine your dog(s) while you hide the treats, and release them when you walk out the door. Your dogs will spend the next 30 minutes scavenging. I don’t recommend this for multi-dog households unless you know and trust them not to be food aggressive.
      • Have a positive routine so your dogs know exactly what is going to happen and approximately when you’ll return home. One theory is that dogs have an internal clock, such as we do, to keep track of the time; another is that they can read how long we’ve been gone by our fading scent.
  • Start playing soothing music such as classical music, folk music, or easy jazz when your dog is relaxing. (Music that is loud and complicated can cause anxiety.) You want your dog to associate music with a sense of calm and well-being. Once he has that association, you can leave it playing for him when you are out to help calm him.
  • Practice leaving him at home when you go grocery shopping, go outside to garden, or go for a short walk. If you have a new dog, these outings should be very short at first and gradually increase in five-minute increments.
    • Before you leave the house, be calm and quiet. You want your dog’s emotions to be settled and balanced when you leave, not over-stimulated and anxious. You also want your dog to notice little variation in household energy between when you are present and when you are gone. For example, don’t have a rousing game of fetch or chase, or an intense training session right before you walk out the door. Have at least a ten minute quiet-time of not interacting with your dog before you leave, so that the transition is smoother for him.
    • When you return home, the same principle applies. Greet your dog quietly, then go about your business of removing your mask, washing your hands, putting away your groceries, your coat etc. Once your dog settles down, give him a proper greeting. Again, you want to minimize the contrast between the hours when you were gone and the minutes after you return.
  • If you have a new dog in the house, consider separating the dogs with a baby gate or ex-pen when you are gone to make sure they are safe from each other, especially if there is any tension between them. With the increased anxiety caused by your absence, scuffles, or worse, can erupt.
  • If you have just one dog who is new to your household, I would recommend confining him to an area where he is most comfortable so he doesn’t feel overwhelmed by the emptiness of the house. Be sure he has water, toys, his bed, and a crate if he is crate trained.
Annie relaxing upside down in her ex-pen when we had Vera. We kept them separated when we were out.
  • Other things you can do: observe your dog’s behavior patterns after you leave by hooking up indoor security cameras. This can be reassuring since most dogs sleep most of the time you are gone.
  • Invest in interactive toys (click on link to see Whole Dog Journal’s picks) such as kongs, kibble-dispensing toys, electronic kibble-dispensing toys, and snuffle mats that will keep your dog entertained for the first few minutes you are gone (or longer) and smooth out that critical transition time. Every dog is different, however, and you need to choose toys carefully to be sure they are safe to leave with your dog(s).
  • Start to research daycares where your dog could spend one day a week if he likes the company of other dogs. Or start looking for a dog walk walker who will walk him regularly during your absences.
  • Thinking of solutions for potential problems now will save you worry, time, and money when you return to work.

Feature image courtesy of Motoko Lewis (photo of Master Cedric Meerkat and Mischa).

2 thoughts on “Back to work? What about my dog?

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