Transition whiplash—that describes spring 2020 for people and dogs alike. Millions of dogs accepted the constant company of people who are home all day quite seamlessly, but the next big transition is going to be a doozy. Being alone again when people return to work after months at home will pose challenges for dogs. Nobody expects this change to go as smoothly as the one that gave us all that extra time at home with our dogs, but we can take steps to minimize the difficulties for dogs.
Lay the groundwork for a return to work
If you have any lead time before returning to work away from home, make use of it to prepare your dog. Routine is comforting to most dogs, so put them on a consistent schedule that is as close as possible to the one they will soon be on. Getting dogs accustomed to the flow of life after you return will lessen the shock and make it easier for them to adjust. Waking up and going to bed at the same time daily and consistently feeding them at the same time as you will on work days are easy steps to help your dog get used to the new routine. Take walks in the morning and in the evening at times that are compatible with your work schedule. Begin to follow your new morning routine by showering and getting dressed right away rather than treating every day like a leisurely Sunday morning.
Give them practice coping with your departures and with being alone. Going for a short walk without your dog or going to the store, or even just sitting outside while they remain inside are all options for helping them prepare for the change that’s coming. These absences don’t have to be long to be effective because for a lot of dogs, the hardest part is our departure, not the long hours spent alone. So, if we can help them practice handling the departure, many dogs will adjust quickly to the time alone.
Now that you are heading out for work, here’s how to act when you are home
Going to work allows you to buy food, treats, toys and veterinary care for your dog, so don’t feel guilty about it! What’s important is that your dog has a happy life, not that you spend every minute of that life together. Think quality over quantity, and spend time doing activities that are fun and satisfying for you both.
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Plenty of physical exercise is obviously important, so take your dog out for a walk, a run or for some vigorous play before you leave. Providing your dog an opportunity to exercise at the start of the day makes it easier for her to chill out until you come home. Mental exercise is also important, and that can mean training, whether it is general obedience behaviors or tricks. Other possibilities include nose work and agility.
Playing with our dogs might be the gold standard of quality time with dogs. It combines fun, exercise of both the mental and physical kind, and helps strengthen relationships. Whether you play hide-and-seek, tug, fetch or chase games, your dog (and hopefully you!) will enjoy every minute of the time you spend playing together.
Keep your dog happy while home alone
Dogs who are left home alone react in a variety of ways. Some dogs truly panic, in which case it’s best to consult with a professional animal behaviorist or with a veterinarian who has been specifically trained in behavior. At the other end of the spectrum, some dogs take delight in the opportunity to explore the garbage or enjoy the off-limits couch. Most dogs are in-between—able to handle the situation, but clearly less than thrilled. For those dogs, there is so much that can be done to make their time alone a happier time for them.
Leave them in the part of the house where they are happiest. Choose an area where everyone in the family, including the dog, spends a lot of time so they feel at home and comfortable. Consider leaving them a blanket you have used or a T-shirt you have worn so that the familiar smell of you can comfort them in your absence. Many dogs feel even better if left with a canine pheromone diffuser to release additional comforting smells.
One of the biggest challenges to successfully spending the day alone is boredom, so give them something to do while you are gone. Chew toys, a Kong filled with treats, a snuffle mat, puzzle feeders or their favorite toys are all options. Anything that is safe (check with your veterinarian to be sure!) that keeps them occupied for a long time will help them pass the hours until they reunite with you.
Consider taking your dog to daycare if she is social and would enjoy it rather than finding it overwhelming. Another option is to hire a dog walker to give your dog some physical and mental exercise as well as some social contact during the day. A visit from a friendly canine professional will be a real treat and make it easier for your dog to handle the time away from you. Those who haven’t used dog walking services before the global pandemic may want to consider it, at least temporarily, to ease dogs back into their new routine.
We’re all in this together, and as the Arizona Humane Society says in their blog Preparing Pets For Your Return To Work, it’s up to us to help our pets adjust to yet another “new normal”.