How will your dog handle you returning to your workplace?

Experts on preparing your pal to spend more time alone.

Experts on preparing your pal to spend more time alone

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Getting a puppy seemed like a great idea. We'd wanted one for a couple of years, but sometime last May, after our 4,000th circling of the six blocks around our house, my wife and I decided it was finally time. We were both home, after all, and figured we could really use a project — and some extra company.

We made some calls. Turns out we weren't the only ones with the idea. In 2020, demand for puppies and rescues was off the charts. Breeders added extra litters to their schedules, and adoption agencies turned people away by the dozen. Walk by any dog park right now and you'll see the results: there are just so many dogs. 

Eventually, last October, after many more phone calls and about 11,000 more aimless, dogless walks, our number came up. We brought Stacey, an eight-week-old springer spaniel, home. She fit right in and pretty much hasn't left our sight since then — which, we're discovering, might be a bit of a problem.

Our lives this past year have changed dramatically, but we won't be working from home forever. Now, at eight months old, we're worried Stacey doesn't understand there might come a time when we do leave the house. Worse, we're worried she might not be able to deal with that. 

Just as the past year has been anything but normal for most of us, it's also been a very unusual time for our pets. Most dogs seem to love having their owners in the house with them all the time, going on more walks and tagging along on (rare) social calls. But what happens when offices reopen, indoor dining resumes and our lives start going back to the way we knew them? 

"The predominant feeling is that these dogs will be truck wrecks after their people go back to work," said Dr. Karen Overall, associate professor of behaviour medicine at Atlantic Veterinary College. "But the data don't actually support that."

Overall distinguished between separation anxiety — a pathological behavioural condition — and dogs that simply don't like or aren't used to their owners leaving. "Dogs are super social and they love to go with their owners," she said. "And some of these dogs are just going to be broken-hearted that they're not able to go. But they're not pathological." 

Overall said the first thing to do is figure out what you're dealing with. Have you ever left your puppy alone? Now's the time to start — and to observe. She suggested you set up a camera to record what's happening at home — a baby monitor, a video call with yourself, or just a video on your phone works well — and see what happens when you go out for a walk. 

If your dog settles and goes to sleep, that's great: crisis averted. "It is normal for dogs to whimper, whine, pace, maybe bark a little bit for 10 or 15 minutes," said Andre Yeu, owner of When Hounds Fly dog training. "If, after that time, the whining and pacing maintains itself or escalates, that's a big warning sign. The other component is destructive behaviour at the point of exit: dogs that bite the door frame or scratch at the door. They're literally trying to break through and see what's on the other side. Also, out-of-context urination or defecation."

If you're noticing any of these things, it's time to consult a vet and get a proper diagnosis.  

"Here's a case where I don't care if you pay for an appointment and they say your dog is perfectly normal. That is a wonderful use of your veterinary funds," said Overall. "This is not something you want to muck around with."

Whether your dog is suffering from clinical separation anxiety or just doesn't want to be alone, the treatment plan is similar. All of the experts we spoke to suggest introducing departures slowly, methodically and with attention to how your dog is doing at every step. And start now, doing a little preventative work every day.  

"Set your dog up for the expectation that they won't be spending as much time with you incrementally," said Jacklyn Ellis, director of behaviour at Toronto Humane Society. "Right now, my dogs spend 100 per cent of the time with me. What's wise is just to start giving them some alone time every day, maybe increasing in duration so it's not so jarring for them."

You should also think about how your schedules are about to change, not just in terms of leaving. "Many dogs are probably not used to having a quick 30-minute walk at 8 a.m. and then having the house deadly silent at 9 a.m.," said Yeu. "The routine is different in that you may have breakfast in a certain hurried pace or get dressed a certain way. Get your dog used to those different cues."

There are also a few things you shouldn't do if you want to manage your dog's stress before returning to work. "[It's harmful to] force the dog to grin and bear it," said Yeu. "Don't force the dog into a crate and leave. They're really stressed out and probably barking the whole time. And definitely, if they have a barking issue, don't use a barking-suppression collar that shocks them when they bark. It may keep them quiet, but it pushes that anxiety into other places."

"And there's been a study published over the past couple of years that [noted] the previous advice for separation anxiety was that you ignored dogs when you left," said Overall. "I've never liked that advice…. I've always asked people, if the dog is super upset, just to talk to them until they calm down."

Of course, the other thing to consider is how much we should be leaving our dogs alone at all. Many of us brought dogs into our homes this year to be a source of comfort in uncertain times — and it's really worked. So why would we want to abandon them now?

"One thing people have said is they've loved being at home with their pets," said Overall. "Maybe we need to hold onto that. Maybe we don't need to do some of the things we're doing.… People need to realize that they've discovered things about themselves as the world changed. Our dogs are probably very similar.… None of us really fit into those little boxes the way we thought we did. And maybe our dogs don't either." 

Peter Saltsman is the former editor-in-chief of Sharp magazine. He lives in Toronto with his wife, Chloe, and his springer spaniel, Stacey.

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