How Can I Help My Dog Re-Adjust to Spending Time Alone?
If anyone benefitted from this year's shelter-in-place orders, it was dogs. Granted the gift of uninterrupted days by your side, they became the lucky participants of endless play time, the stars of many a social-media account, and the willing companions for more (and longer) walks than ever before. But now, with the recent shift back to school and work, they may end up suffering from a post-quarantine case of separation anxiety.
These newly-minted "Velcro dogs"—those now constantly attached to you—are finding that they can no longer predict their routine, which creates distress, says Gina Garey, animal behaviorist and Maine State Director for Animal Wellness Action. And if they were already genetically predisposed to this kind of anxiety, abruptly decreasing how much time you spend with them could cause stress reactions, too, from excessive barking to uncontrolled elimination and destructive behaviors, says Rolan Tripp, founder of The Animal Behavior Network.
To keep your canine from spiraling into a barking frenzy or clawing through the carpet upon your departure, it's important to avoid key anxiety triggers and provide him with ample mental stimulation. Adopt these tactics from Garey and Tripp, and you'll be well on your way to rebuilding his independence.
Practice the "invisible dog" technique.
"Because anxious dogs typically experience large emotional swings, you want to make sure you don't do anything to contribute to them," says Tripp—and that includes making a big to-do of greetings and goodbyes. When you get home, stay calm, rather than matching or one-upping Sparky's ecstatic hello. Act as though he's practically invisible to you, merely stepping to the side if he jumps on you and not engaging until he's quiet and has all four paws on the floor. (At that point, pull him into a loving greeting.) The same principle applies to leaving: Make your exit nonchalant rather than investing a lot of emotional energy into your departure right before closing the door.
Offer a distraction.
If your dog has something to do in those critical few minutes after you've left, he'll be less likely to bemoan your absence. Instead of serving him breakfast when you wake up, wait until you're just about to slip out, then leave his kibble inside a food puzzle like a KONG Wobbler ($15, chewy.com), suggests Tripp. He'll have to move it around to get the food out, which will keep his mind (and paws) fully occupied. To up the ante, smear peanut butter along the inside of it or mix the kibble with canned food and add a treat in the very bottom, so that accessing every bit becomes more of a lengthy endeavor than just toppling the toy over.
Teach a go-to-place command.
Instead of allowing your dog to spend most of his time by your side while you're at home, train him to go to his place on your call, says Garey, in order to discourage excessive attachment. (The American Kennel Club has a helpful guide on this topic.) If your pet starts to choose more alone time—opting to hang out in his place and occupy himself with toys or puzzles—reward this behavior with treats and attention.
Take him on regular walks.
"Dogs thrive on consistency and predictability," says Garey, "so maintaining a daily walking routine will do wonders for easing frustration or distress related to changes in your schedule." (On any days when you're not at home, arrange for a trusted friend or professional dog walker to stick to the walking routine.) Starting the day with a pre-breakfast walk can also help your pup expend some extra nervous energy; they'll return refreshed, in a better mood, and less likely to get worked up over your departure.
Give him free reign.
Many anxious dogs will just get increasingly distressed if they're confined to a crate or closed-off room. Instead of locking yours up, allow him to explore your home at his own will, suggests Garey, and if you're worried about destructive behavior, tap a friend or family member to spend time with him while you're gone (at least until you're able to leave him at home for an hour without issues). To determine exactly when and for how long your dog exhibits signs of distress in your absence, it may also be helpful to set up a Nanny cam or other in-home security device to film his behavior.
Consult a professional.
In particularly tough cases, your vet or an animal behaviorist will be able to offer some additional guidance. Depending on your pet's age, size, and health history, he or she may suggest starting him on dog-appeasing pheromones like DAP or an anxiety-specific nutraceutical like CBD oil to help cut down the severity of his symptoms overall.