Will your dog suffer separation anxiety when you return to the office?

You’ve been at home with your dog for several weeks, but once you return to work your dog may struggle with you not being around. Luckily we can prepare them for the change.

Preparing our Dogs for a New Normal

As we prepare to go back to in-office work, it’s important not to forget how these changes can affect the four-legged members of our family.  Over the last few months, our routines have changed and our dogs (and cats) have gotten used to having us around.  That’s likely to change again in the near future.

Separation Anxiety vs. Separation/Isolation Distress

You may have heard on the news or around the internet that dog trainers are preparing to see many more cases of separation anxiety.  This is because dogs like a steady routine and when that routine changes, some can have a hard time adjusting.  They have gotten used to the family being home, going for walks every day, playing in the yard, running around with the kids, and more.  When their humans go back to work, those walks may happen more infrequently, the kids may or may not have as much available time to play, and other changes will take place.  Fido all of a sudden will have more down time and more boredom—a surefire cause of destruction around the home.  But the underlying, and more serious, issue is those dogs who have bonded with one or more member of the family and now that family member is gone and the dog panics.  This anxiety, depending on severity, can manifest itself in severe destruction of the home—ripped up furniture, clawed through door frames, broken windows and more.  Luckily, most cases won’t be this severe, but will lie more in the range of separation/isolation distress, not full blown separation anxiety, and there are things we can do to help prepare them. 

It is very important to know the difference between separation/isolation distress and separation anxiety because the terms are misused regularly.  The following quotes help explain.

Separation anxiety “is a serious emotional problem where the dog becomes panicked when his owner leaves. Dogs with full-blown Separation Anxiety act as though they are in terror about your departure, and about being alone in the house while you’re gone.” — Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., I’ll Be Home Soon

“Isolation distress means the dog doesn’t want to be left alone – any ol’ human will do for company, and sometimes even another dog will fill the bill.” — Pat Miller, Whole Dog Journal, July 2008

So, what can we do now to help our pets cope when we go back to the office? 

The best thing we can do to help our pets is to start slowly changing their routine while you are at home.

  • Leave the house for a few minutes at a time, then return
    • Keep your leaving and returning low key.  Don’t make a big deal out of it.
  • Go for walks, run errands, etc. without your dog.
  • Give them a stuffed Kong, Lickimat, or other safe treat as you leave so they associate you leaving with them getting something yummy.
  • Turn the TV/radio/white noise machine on while you are in the home and leave it on when you leave.
    • Avoid making this a part of your leaving routine.  The dog can start to associate you turning these on as a precursor to you leaving if you don’t do it while you are there as well.

Start with small, short absences, then increase the time you are gone if your dog is remaining calm.  If they bark or paw at the door when you leave, wait until your hear silence, then go back in the house.  Avoid returning when they are actively barking or pawing because then they will associate those behaviors with your returning and the behavior will increase, creating another problem. 

If you notice more severe signs of panic like trying to paw through the door, destroying walls, chewing on furniture, etc. it may be time to call in a professional to help determine if this behavior is caused by boredom or if your pet is experiencing true separation anxiety. 

As you return to work, make sure you incorporate regular physical exercise, mental enrichment like food puzzles, and other activities for your dog to help alleviate boredom.  Most problems we encounter with our dogs can easily be resolved if we make sure our dogs aren’t bored.   

Dogs are very resilient to things happening each day and most of the time can cope fairly easily, but it is always a good idea to help them prepare for changes when you can.  If you start now and gradually get them back into their new routine, it will be a much smoother transition as you go back to working from the office.  

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