So what’s going to happen to your dog’s behavior when you go back to work? After so many months glued to your side, will he or she suddenly develop separation anxiety when you leave the house?
So, so many people have asked me that recently. The short answer is: probably not. But there are things you can do right now, while we are still in whatever kind of quarantine we are in, to lessen the chances of that happening, and ease your dog into a “new normal.”
But let’s start with what NOT to do. Don’t social distance from your dog. Don’t stop snuggling or loving or talking to your dog, or letting your dog sleep on your bed (if that’s what you usually do). There is absolutely no correlation between doing any of these kinds of things and the likelihood of your dog developing separation anxiety problems. You and your dog need each other right now. And I want you to understand that a strong and healthy bond with your dog truly leads to more comfort and less distress — for both of you.
One more thing not to worry about: Is your dog following you around from room to room more often? 84% of dogs who have confirmed separation anxiety follow or shadow mom and dad very closely. But 64% of dogs who DON’T have separation anxiety also shadow or follow their guardians closely. Following you may truly just be your dog’s adoration, and that’s OK. It doesn’t mean your dog has or will get separation anxiety.
Address behavior changes
So, what’s the first thing to do to make sure your dog will be OK when you go back to work? Be mindful of sudden behavior changes. That’s true all the time, not just during a pandemic. If your dog suddenly starts doing something really unique or really out of character from a behavioral standpoint, it’s time for a trip to the vet or, at least, a call to the vet to determine what is going on. We want to rule out other possibilities.
Honestly, right now, there are a lot of bored dogs out there. So if your dog does suddenly start chewing on the couch leg, yes, that is, potentially, a sudden behavior change. But look at whether it is a lack of stimulation and enrichment instead. Give them something else to do. Learn what feeding toys they enjoy, learn if they like to play tug when you are home, learn if they like to rip stuff up while you’re gone — in a good way — not your couch. Might they like, say, a paper bag with a biscuit inside that they can happily rip up and feel like, “Oh, that was fun. Now I’m going to take a nap”? Focus on some enrichment activities, and help your dog expend that extra physical and mental energy.
Do an assessment
If you are concerned that your dog does have separation anxiety, and you want to consider some training, you need to determine a starting point. Get a camera set up for assessments to look at your dog right now while we’re still sheltering in place, but also for when you return to work. This does not need to be complicated. You can use a laptop or a computer or a tablet or a mobile device or multiples of those that will let you to watch your dog while you are away from home.
It’s very important to make sure that your dog is still happily comfortable while you’re gone. And if they are not for whatever reason, is this ever the time to work on getting them comfortable in that manner!
If you have a dog who already has separation anxiety or has a predisposition toward isolation distress or separation-related behaviors, this is a great time to start working on this while we’re all holed up and hunkered down. It will take less time than you think. Even for those who are expressing their separation anxiety in a very severe and overt fashion, we typically ask for maybe 20 to 30 minutes of training per day, five days a week; we want a couple of days off. So this is very, very doable.
Watch and learn
Watch your dog remotely when he or she is alone, and if there is any distress observed, you can start with very gradual and incremental absences. And I do mean very gradual. Then build them up.
I recommend this for anybody, particularly those of you who normally leave your dog alone for workdays. Practice some brief absences from your dog. You can take a short walk, or you can bring the rubbish out to the can, or you can take out the recycling. Just do these brief absences.
One thing to note: Your dog will likely be excited when you return. This does not mean they have been distressed while you’ve been gone. That’s why it’s important to watch remotely, so you know if they’ve been distressed. They may just be happy to see you.
Back to brief absences: If your dog doesn’t have a predisposition to separation anxiety, take a walk, or go sit in your car and read a book for a little while. I’m talking 20 minutes, 30 minutes. If your dog does have a predisposition, start very, very gradually. To keep or get them acclimated and habituated to your absences, you must work on them. Go in the other room to fold the laundry for a short while, or work out in the yard for a little bit. As long as you are aware of how your dog is doing and you can make it a positive experience, it will be very helpful.
Again, a time or two a day collectively for 20 minutes is more than ample for training. It can be limited, but it should be intentional. Intentional means you’re watching your dog on a camera, or you’re very closely listening to hear if there’s any whining or something to be concerned about.
Prepare for a return to work
Get more help if you need it
If you are experiencing separation anxiety already with your dog, please know a couple of things. First, we have a webinar on separation anxiety coming up in July with Dog-ibox and me. Additionally, I have an online self-paced course called Mission Possible. It’s a $99 course, and it will walk you through all the steps of working with your dog. And if you need one-on-one individual support, we are here to help you, as well.
Please stay safe, and enjoy your time with your dog as much as possible.