The Covid lockdown has forced many of us to make changes to our routines and spend an unusual amount of time indoors. Your dog has spent the past two months adjusting to a new routine that depends a lot on you being at home. The adjustment was likely very easy for them. After all, what dog doesn’t enjoy more family time and frequent walks? As our country makes moves to open up again, many of us will begin to transition back to our regular work schedules and locations. If your dog has grown dependent on your constant presence, the adjustment toward this “new normal” might not be an easy one.
We can’t be sure what the next few months will bring us, but if you begin the process of preparing your dog for the future today, any future adjustment will not come as a shock.
When a dog becomes dependent on your presence, they may show stress and anxiety when left alone. This anxiety goes beyond the occasional mournful whine or request to throw the ball just one more time before you head off to work. Dogs who experience these extreme stress behaviors when left alone are likely suffering from Separation Anxiety:
· Destruction of the home, including: Chewing furniture/shoes/household items, frantic scratching of doors or windows.
· Severe stress behaviors of pacing, drooling, panting, and salivating.
· Unwillingness to be contained/crated, including fence jumping, digging out, and desperate and potentially dangerous crate or home escaping.
· Unusual urination or defecation indoors.
· Excessive vocalization: Howling, barking, and whining.
Sudden life changes can cause separation anxiety even in dogs who have not experienced stress at their owner’s absence in the past. After weeks of their human family staying home with them, dogs might not understand why they’re suddenly asked to be left alone—especially for an entire work day. Their new dependence on your presence can cause severe stress if your schedule abruptly changes back to “normal” in the future.
Preventing Post-Lockdown Anxiety
As the future is still uncertain to many of us, it is difficult to predict what sort of schedule your dog may be forced to adapt to and ease them into this new routine. We can, however, begin taking small steps to ensure dogs who did not show separation anxiety before the lockdown are able to transition to a more independent lifestyle with ease.
Planned Absences. It can be difficult to set aside human “alone time” when you’re confined to your house, but planned absence and personal space are important parts of reducing your dog’s dependence on you. If your dog has not struggled with separation anxiety in the past, behaviorists suggest practicing absence at least three days a week. These might be trips to do essential shopping, taking a walk, or spending time outside of the house as a family, but without taking the dog along. If you’re unable to leave the house, you can practice “alone time” by putting your dog in a separate room, behind a pet gate, or in a crate if they have been trained to rest comfortably in one. The key is that you both have your space and time alone multiple times a week— ideally at least once a day.
Exercise for Body and Brain. If your dog’s stress is rooted in frustration or boredom, you might benefit for ensuring they’re well-exercised before you leave them. This might mean taking them on your morning jog before you leave for work, or hiring a walker to take them out midday to burn off some energy. If your dog is bored easily, you can hide treats around the house, or find a toy or puzzle game that is suitable for unsupervised use.
Taking the Edge Off. In mild cases of separation anxiety, or as a preventative if your dog has never suffered from this anxiety in the past, you may be able to reduce or prevent discomfort by conditioning them to not have a negative response to your departure. A safe, sturdy, treat dispensing toy, such as a stuffed Kong, can be given to them as you pick up your keys to leave. This might help your dog associate your absence with a tasty treat, rather than the stress that they might have otherwise felt.
By practicing absences, keeping your dog exercised and entertained when you’re not home, and conditioning them to have a neutral response to your leaving, you can help prevent separation anxiety in your dog. The goal is to minimize the contrast between when you’re home and when you’re gone, so once you return home, try to play it cool. Don’t make a big fuss about returning (we know, you’re just as excited to see them after a long day of work as they are to see you!) and try to avoid giving them attention while they are overly excited that you’ve returned. Once their excitement has subsided a bit, give them a bit of calm attention. Just as you don’t want your departure to be a source of stress, you don’t want your return to cause stress either!
In the coming weeks we'll dive deeper into the topic of preparing for the "new normal" with your dog, including desensitization to people in masks, social distancing, and training options as our country begins to loosen shelter in place regulations.