Our Dogs After Quarantine

Preparing Our Dogs For Life After Quarantine

As I was walking my dog the other morning, I was thinking about how happy dogs around the world must be having their owners home all day due to social distancing. I then thought about how difficult it might be for dogs to readjust when their owners return to work. This has been a difficult adjustment and stressful time for everyone, including your dog. Dogs are very intuitive; they feel stress and emotion. While they are certainly loving all the extra time and attention from their owners right now, unfortunately this will come to an end just as abruptly as it came upon us. When we return to business as usual and the hustle and bustle of school, work, and responsibilities, our dogs need to be prepared.

Dogs are pack animals; they are not meant to be isolated for long periods of time. It is not natural for them to be alone. Dogs can become lonely, scared, and anxious without their owners, and they can exhibit behavior problems due to separation anxiety. Some breeds are more susceptible to this than others. While dogs who have had issues with separation anxiety in the past will suffer most, even dogs without a history of separation anxiety might develop these behaviors. Dogs who were previously left for several hours a day or kept in a crate while their owners were away, are now with their family full time.

Although we all wish our dogs could tell us how they are feeling, we have to infer their emotions from their behaviors. We cannot just sit a dog down and explain these changes to them. While we know change is coming and this time at home is temporary, our dogs will only know that they are suddenly left alone. This will create a great deal of stress and anxiety for the dog, which will likely manifest into unwanted behaviors. Separation anxiety can be an extremely difficult behavior problem for owners. Separation anxiety can cause serious distress, and every effort should be made to alleviate your pet’s suffering.

There are simple things dog ownerws can do to eliminate or lessen the potential for developing separation anxiety and to help prepare dogs for when we go back to business as usual:

  1. Find time to leave your dog alone during this quarantine. Act as though you are going to work, or the kids are going to school. Go through the same routine when you are getting ready. Act as if you were preparing the dog for you to be gone for several hours. Put the family in the car and take a drive while leaving the dog at home. If you typically crate your dog, make sure your dog is spending time in that crate. A dog with severe separation anxiety should never be confined, as they may panic and will try everything to escape. Dogs can cause serious injury to themselves in an effort to get out of the crate; they may bloody their paws or break their teeth.
  2. Start slow and vary the amount of time you are away, particularly if your dog has had issues with separation anxiety in the past. Leave for a couple of minutes and come back. You can slowly increase the amount of time you are gone. The dog needs to learn you are not leaving forever. It is best to mix it up so they never know if it will be two minutes, fifteen minutes or three hours.
  3. Expose your dog to typical signs of the owner leaving, but without the associated negative experience. Right now, while we are home, we can eliminate or lessen the intensity of these triggers by simply doing them periodically throughout the day. For some dogs, it is the sound of keys, putting on shoes, putting on makeup, or picking up a purse or backpack. These things have become predictors of the owner leaving. Most dogs will have increased anxiety when they see or hear these pre-departure cues. When you pick up your keys, carry them around, and give the dog a treat. When you put on your shoes, walk around the house, and give the dog a treat. Carry your purse or backpack around the house. These actions will no longer cause the same negative emotional response. By doing these things and not leaving and pairing the action with something positive, like a treat or a play session, you are actually changing the dogs mind about acts that once caused stress and anxiety. They will no longer have a negative association with the keys, purse, or backpack; the brain will instead trigger a positive emotional response. And because you have trained them to not know how long you will be away (see step 2), separation anxiety is less likely to occur.
  4. When you leave your dog, you should give them something wonderful, something they would not get any other time. For my dog, sometimes this means a chicken scavenger hunt, a feeder toy with yummy treats, a scoop or cottage cheese, a special treat she loves, or any combination of these. When a dog associates your leaving with getting something wonderful and special, they will actually start to look forward to you leaving. For example, my dog has not had a scavenger hunt or a scoop of cottage cheese since the quarantine because these things are only given when I leave. I think she is acutually disappointed I have not left! 
  5. This is a hard one for most people: Keep hellos and goodbyes brief. We think like humans, not like dogs, so we think we need to have an emotional goodbye and an emotional hello. This is not natural for dogs and should not be done. This only makes your leaving and the anticipation of your return more difficult for them. When you leave your dog, just leave. They do not care that you are not saying goodbye. You are not going to hurt their feelings. Your departure and arrival should be emotionless. The more calm you are when you leave and return, the more calm your dog will be while you are gone.
  6. Make sure all of your dog’s needs are met. Dogs need structure, exercise, mental stimulation, and attention. Making sure youir dog is well-balanced in these areas will lessen the potential for unwanted behaviors and imporve obedience.

These are things we can do while we are at home that will really help our dogs down the road. These are difficult and stressful times. I want to encourage you to take this opportunity to work with your dog. If you have kids, this is a great time for them to engage with the dog also. Teach the dog some new tricks, take them for walks, or play hide and seek with the dog. This is a great time for us to strengthen our relationship and build that bond we all desire with our dog, while also working on things that can prevent future behavior problems. Dogs are a gift; they love us unconditionally. We should do all that we can to help them through this transition. Separation anxiety is a serious condition and can be very difficult to treat. If you are unable to hlep your dog, and feel you need professional help, contact someone certified in canine behavior or ask your veterinarian. Please stay safe and enjoy this time we have to be with our two-legged loved ones.

Written by Jamie Gregory, a Certified Behavior Consultant Canine (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA).