Emergency stay-at-home/social distancing orders have made an immense impact on everyone in New Hampshire, including the family dog. Comfortable with snoozing on the couch while their family left for work and school, they had a rude awakening as their family remained home. It’s been exhausting for them!
Locally and nationwide, puppies and newly adopted adult dogs have invaded homes at an astounding rate during the COVID-19 emergency. “Now’s the perfect time for us to get that dog we’ve been thinking about! We’ll be home to train it,” said hundreds of New Hampshire citizens. Monadnock Humane Society’s Director of Operations Emily Kerylow confirms an uptick in canine placements. Nationally, the ASPCA notes a 70 percent increase in foster applications, while Google searches for “adopt a pet” surged by 335 percent in April.
And now, as the state’s economy begins to re-open, people are worrying about leaving Fido home alone. Relax. There are ways to sooth the anxiety and ease the transition to avoid most cases of separation anxiety.
Start with an understanding that dogs sleep a lot. Really a lot –14 or more hours a day. Puppies need about 18 hours of sleep a day. That crazy, frantic, can’t-stop-moving, zooming around? That’s typically a sign that your puppy’s getting ready for a nap. Put them to bed! Adult dogs are comfortable with 14 to16 hours of sleep a day, though elderly dogs will sleep more. In short, most normal dogs are happy, healthy and comfortable snoozing at home while you’re a work for 6 to 8 hours.
As you prepare to go back to work, help your dog get ready for the change by encouraging them to prefer confineable sleep locations. With puppies and adolescent dogs (4 months to 4 years old), encourage them to find sleeping places that are easy for you to “puppy-proof.” For example, a bed on the floor in the kitchen may be a terrific choice if you can put some baby gates up to limit the dog’s ability to roam the house. Kitchen floors are typically easy to clean if accidents occur. But be sure to clear the counters and table of any food items.
Exercise pens or crates can also become safe, comfortable den enclosures for a dog left on their own. Influence their opinion by offering some extra praise, a little petting and yummy treats when your dog is in their crate (or sleeping on a bed in a selected confinement area). If you’re unsure of how to help your dog learn to love their crate, ask a trainer to help you focus on this skill.
Remember that dogs love routine. Use your knowledge of your dog’s current routine to help make the transition to home alone as easy as possible for all concerned. Your goal is to gently shift the current routine into a pattern that suits your work life. A bit of data collection and some thoughtful planning can create change without inducing anxiety.
First up, what’s your dog’s potty schedule? If you can, start shifting your walks to a work-friendly schedule before the big day when your workplace recalls you. Plan the first walk of the day early enough to include sufficient exercise for Fido and time for you to get to work – even if your dog dawdles a bit. For older adolescent and adult dogs, build a routine that expects them to wait for their next pee break until the time you’d normally get home from work. For puppies or geriatric dogs, find a family member, a neighbor or a dog walker who can give your pup a mid-day trip out. Day care can be another choice for a dog who can’t “hold it” until you get home.
Build home-alone time into your dog’s routine. Start practicing leaving your dog home alone for short periods of time. This is a place where a plan and a timer are essential. How comfortable and familiar you and your dog are with home-alone time will determine your starting point. A family dog that is fine with you leaving them home while you go the grocery store will need much less re-acclimation to your back-to-work routine than a puppy that’s never been alone at home before.
In any event, home-alone practice looks like this… give your dog an opportunity to potty. If you’re using a crate or other confinement method, help them get into their crate. Giving them a food-seek toy such as a Kong or a bone to chew is a nice way to offer enrichment and make the initial confinement time fun until they fall asleep. Leave the house. Get in your car and drive away. How long you stay away will be gradually increased – that’s where the timer comes in. For a dog or puppy that’s unstressed in their crate, your initial introduction to home alone could be 30 minutes.
Okay, now this is important: establish a routine for your return. The message we want to convey is that it’s normal that you go away. It’s normal that you return. There’s nothing to get worked up about. Your return routine might look like this: enter the house, put down your packages. Stash anything that needs puppy-proofing away prior to greeting your dog (a briefcase, homework papers, high-heel shoes, etc.). Be like Mr. Rogers – put on your comfy shoes before you let Fido out of confinement. We’re setting up expectations for your dog that just because you walked in, you don’t need a tornado of hysterical greeting.
Once you release your pup, head straight out to potty. If 30 minutes went okay, try it for 60 minutes the next time. Vary the time you’re gone in a random-ish pattern across a week or so – for example, sessions could be 60 minutes, 5 minutes; 90 minutes; 30 minutes; 2 hours; 15 minutes; 2 hours; 1 hour; 3 hours; 10 minutes; and so on. If your dog comfortable for 3 hours, your dog will probably be okay home alone for the day. The goal is to make home alone no big deal.
But what if it is a big deal? Some dogs are born worriers; it’s not your fault. They struggle with you leaving them home. They become anxious or depressed when left alone. Separation anxiety is a spectrum of behavior. Helping a dog overcome separation anxiety takes time and patience. It’s not a problem that will just go away if ignored. On the mild end, there are dogs that follow you throughout the house, always needing to be in the same room with you. When left alone, they whine, bark and howl. Mild separation anxiety can be treated through a program of behavior modification. Consult a certified professional trainer or animal behaviorist to develop a plan to help your dog adjust if home alone is too stressful.
On the severe end, a dog can become so overwrought that they soil the house and damage doors, windows and themselves as they panic because they are alone. A dog with severe separation anxiety isn’t being “bad” or disobedient. They are terrified. Often, they need a combination of behavioral medications and behavior modification training to help them overcome their anxiety. In this case, you’ll want your dog under the care of a veterinary behaviorist; a vet who specializes in the use of behavioral medicines such as anti-depressants and can guide you through a plan of desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS/CC).
We can help prevent separation anxiety from taking root by following the suggestions above about teaching comfortable confinement and careful planning for changes in daily routines. However, if you and your dog are still struggling, consult a trainer. You can find professional trainers near you using the search at Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers at ccpdt.org/dog-owners, or talk to the experts at Monadnock Humane Society.
Amee Abel is a certified professional dog trainer who has been offering classes at Monadnock Humane Society’s training center for over 10 years. She also offers in-home training for dogs and their people. Learn more at abel2train.com.