Back to work? What about my dog?

Over the past several weeks, 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 in some areas, there are plans to open up parts of 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, 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 when you were gone–a lot.

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 been spending 24/7 together. 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 two months, 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, 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 exit.
    • Tell your dog you are leaving. Our phrase 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.
      • Tessie and Lola would crowd into the mudroom waiting for their kibble-dispensing toys, hardly able to contain their excitement.
      • When Tessie and Lola were older puppies (past the age of consuming paper), I would hide stuffed bones and kongs and small paper bags with a few treats in them all over the house. They would be confined while I hid the treats and released when I walked out the door. They would spend the next 30 minutes scavenging. There was no resource guarding or jealousy between them. (I don’t recommend this for dogs you don’t know extremely well and trust implicitly, and who aren’t 100% compatible, especially around food.)
      • In every case, our dogs had a routine and knew exactly what was going to happen. They knew we were going to return home.
  • When your dog is relaxing, play soothing music such as classical music, folk music, or easy jazz. Music that is loud and complicated can cause anxiety. You want him to associate the music with a sense of calm and well-being, so you can leave it playing for him when you are out.
  • 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 for any period of time 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).

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

Leaving your dog? Things to consider…

In bygone days, my husband and I would pay a college student or ask friends or my parents to care for our dogs when we went on vacation. This was when we had sound, healthy, well-socialized dogs with a good recall. But even when they stayed with my parents there were problems, such as when my mother allowed our smart, savvy golden retriever to carry her own leash across a heavily trafficked bridge (no dog should be trusted in that situation, no matter how responsible they are). Another time, when our girls were left with a friend, we returned home to find that our wonderful, mature, fastidious golden had pooped in the house. Sascha would never have done this except when under extreme stress, or from simply not being taken outside to do her business often enough.

Vera, with her challenges, changed everything when it came to leaving town.
Vera does some whale-watching while on vacation with us.

Then we had Vera, our reactive German Shepherd. Before we realized the extent of her issues, we had a college student stay with her. A neighbor reported that among other things, Vera had jumped out a window and roamed the neighborhood–twice–while we were gone. This was not reported to us by the young woman taking care of her. (This is described in detail in my novel, “Finding Vera”.) Another time, we had a vet-tech, dog-trainer friend stay with her. I think things went all right, but in spite of begging the dog sitter to email us daily with a short report on this very difficult and troubled dog, the woman didn’t contact us until we had another friend ask her to send us an email. Our final attempt to leave Vera was to have a college-graduate, dog-savvy woman care for her when we went to the California Redwoods. The woman reported that Vera had diarrhea, climbed up to the window behind our bathtub on the second floor, and knocked over plants and vases due to her extreme stress. It took weeks for Vera to recover from our absence. After that, we didn’t travel for years unless we took her with us.

Annie and Uki have been walking together weekly for over a year. Both are well trained and well behaved.

Now that we have Annie, our well-socialized, happy, sweet collie, we thought it would be easy to leave her. But from our past experience, we realized the seriousness of finding the right situation for her. When we head off to southern Utah in a few weeks, a good friend and dog trainer and her lovely dog, Uki, will be looking after Annie. But even though we’ve walked the dogs together at least once a week for over a year, even though we are both dog trainers and behavior-savvy, and even though these girls have stayed together twice before, these well-trained, well-socialized dog friends still have their challenges. Thankfully, I trust my friend to know exactly what to do to prevent conflicts from arising.

In short, in our thirty-plus years of dog parenting, Don and I have rarely found an ideal situation in which to leave our dogs when we are on vacation. Leaving our companions is a serious business, and one that requires thought and research well in advance of one’s trip.

TIPs to think about:

  • Plan ahead. I would go so far as to say that you should find a safe, supportive place to leave your dog before you plan a trip.
  • There are many options as to where you can leave your dog, such as with friends, family, dog sitters, doggie hotels, or kennels.
  • Think about what your dog needs when trying to narrow down options. Does he have lots of energy and need exercise to feel comfortable? Does he like to socialize with people? With other dogs? Or does he just tolerate them? Is he older and therefore requires lots of down time and a quiet environment? Does he have separation anxiety?
  • An active dog might do well staying with a friend who has a compatible dog his own age to play and hike with, while a quiet, lower-energy dog might do fine having a pet sitter or friend come by three to four times a day to snuggle, walk, and play with him.
  • If your dog is worried about children or puppies, don’t leave your dog with a friend or family member who has kids or young dogs. He could be terrorized and make a mistake such as biting a child. It happens. Dogs who are not completely comfortable with children should not be around them.
  • If your dog is worried about dogs, don’t leave him with someone who has dogs unless the dogs know each other well and are comfortable together.
  • Ask for recommendations about safe, low stress facilities or excellent pet sitters from friends and family.
  • Check references carefully. Don’t minimize the importance of this step.
  • If you choose to leave your dog in a kennel or doggie hotel, tour the facility first. Make sure the kennels are clean and well maintained. Interview the staff, ask detailed questions about socialization time for to the dogs, and if siblings can be kenneled together. Ask about staff training, how they choose play groups, and if there is snuggle time each day. Ask if the dogs will be sheltered from rain and sunlight, and if there’s heating and/or air conditioning. Is calming music played (reduces anxiety in dogs), and what is done if the dog needs a vet? Don’t assume anything.
  • If choosing a petsitter, ask for references and check them out. Interview the pet sitter regarding their past experience with dogs similar to your dog in size, age, and temperament. Ask about their knowledge of canine body language (will they know how to read your dog?), their philosophy on dog handling (do they use verbal and physical corrections?) and do they have any experience with behavior issues. Observe them interacting with your dog. Do they like your dog? Do they interact with him appropriately? Does your dog like them?
  • Leave detailed advice for a pet sitter, friend, family member, or kennel staff, outlining diet, feeding schedule, daily schedule of activities, health issues and what signs to be alert for. Be clear about the freedoms your dog can be allowed such as leash restrictions (can your dog be off leash?) and being left out in the yard. Outline any behavioral idiosyncrasies.
  • Try out whatever situation you choose before you go on your trip while there is still time to change your mind–starting with an afternoon or evening in the care of your chosen option, and if that goes well, an overnight stay. You can see how your dog fares, and also, your dog will know that you’ll be coming back.
  • Leave items with your dog that he is familiar with (your dog’s bed, his bowl, his toys etc.), and something that is steeped in your scent such as a piece of your unlaundered clothing.
  • Leaving our dogs is sometimes necessary, but it shouldn’t be taken lightly. If done with thought and care, you can minimize the stress your trip will cause both you and your dog.