The COVID-19 pandemic has not only changed the lives of people, but of pets. For dogs especially, social distancing restrictions have meant their owners are home more often, paying them much more attention than usual. The hard part comes next, when we go back to work and school, and our dogs are left confused and upset at suddenly being left alone again. This is known as separation distress, and it’s every dog owner’s job to help their dog through it. We can’t explain to our dogs what is happening, so it’s going to take effort from everyone in the family to make this change as easy as possible for your dog.
To help with the transition, our Animal Care Manager and Veterinarian Dr Renae Jackson has provided five tips for managing separation distress as we return to work.
1. Gradually build up the length of time your dog is left alone
Before returning to work, dog owners can build up the length of time their dog is left alone until they are comfortable being left for prolonged periods. Start with periods as short as one second and build up alone time at your dog’s own pace. If your dog is distressed, take it back a step and progress more slowly. You can even make being alone fun, by pairing ‘alone time’ with your dog’s favourite chews, treat toys and games. Make sure they have access to their favourite safe resting place, and if you’d like, you can film your dog while you’re away to ensure you come back before they become distressed. White noise such as leaving the TV on at a low volume can help maintain a sense of normality.
2. Help them learn to be independent while you are at home
While it is lovely when your dog wants to cuddle and be near you, it’s important for them to learn how to be comfortable on their own. Use enrichment food toys and puzzles to keep them occupied in the lounge room while you are cooking in the kitchen. Encourage them to rest on a super-comfy bed of their own while you watch TV, not sit right on your lap. Creating short, frequent situations where your dog feels comfortable being on their own can really help to build their independence.
3. Keep your daily routine the same
Once your dog is comfortable with being alone, keep your daily routine the same. Leave the house and feed and walk your dog at the same time each day as you would when you go back to work. Dogs are less stressed when their life is predictable; they can rest easy knowing exactly what to expect. Do this before you go back to work so you can identify and work on any issues that may arise.
4. Understand that your dog is not doing ‘naughty’ things on purpose
If your dog starts showing unwanted behaviours such as barking, digging or chewing, it’s important to understand they are doing this because they are distressed, not because they are being intentionally naughty. Support your dog through this difficult time with calm, gentle teaching and never scold or punish them.
5. Seek help
Seek help for any signs of distress or changes in behaviour as soon as they appear. By enlisting the help of a force-free qualified dog behaviourist, you can be sure you are getting the right help to manage any behavioural issues before they get out of control.
For more information, we recommend the following resources: