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Back to work? Here’s how to help your dog cope

"If you start small, even if it's 5-10 minutes, and increase that increment over days I'm sure your dog would respond really positively, especially if you take your time with it… you just slowly build up those times and be patient and you can get there," says Brian Hare. (Credit: Getty Images)

Millions of people returning to the workplace means millions of dogs left home alone, some of them never having experienced their people being gone all day.

“This is something that’s a big deal for a dog, if you have been around home most of the time and now you’re going to go back and be gone 40-50 hours a week,” says Brian Hare, a professor of evolutionary anthropology and the co-director of the Duke University Canine Cognition Center.

Hare, who studies how dogs think and solve problems, says dog personalities vary wildly, but that dogs not accustomed to time alone could have separation anxiety at first.

“The way they express that anxiety is often damaging furniture or doors as they’re being anxious and scratching or maybe chewing things, maybe they go to the bathroom, maybe they whine, cry, howl, bother a neighbor,” he says. “This type of behavior is one of the leading causes for people to think about placing their dog in a shelter.

“Don’t introduce it all at once, don’t just rip the band aid off, as it were. Slowly introduce the idea that you’re going to be leaving some. A few weeks before you go back, increase the increments of time during the day that you leave your dog, in a different room, if they’re crate-trained you can give them some alone time in their crate, or to go shopping.

“If you start small, even if it’s 5-10 minutes, and increase that increment over days I’m sure your dog would respond really positively, especially if you take your time with it… you just slowly build up those times and be patient and you can get there.”

Here, Hare discusses what might pose problems for you and your pup and how best to handle them:

Give your dog plenty of time to take care of business before you leave

“When they go to the bathroom, they don’t finish in one bout. They need to go, especially when they defecate, multiple times. So, if you are on a walk and you’re letting them go to the bathroom before you go to work, it’s almost certain that if they have one bout they’re not done. If you then leave for a long time, they’re going to be really uncomfortable.”

What about pet-monitoring devices?

“Anyone who’s worried or seeing signs of stress in their dogs when you’re leaving—licking their lips, any kind of yawning behavior, if they become agitated and they’re whining—those are all signs they may be experiencing some anxiety right now.

“That would be a clue that maybe I should set up one of these cameras, especially near where you leave, and just see are they really having a hard time, are they able to calm down relatively quickly, or is it something that you need to maybe take some steps to help your dog.”

For pandemic puppies not yet socialized

“There’s the association of pet dog trainers… doggie daycare for a dog that might need some extra help as you transition… or maybe there’s a dog walker that you could use. Give your dog a little bit of a bridge as you transition back.

“I think most dogs are going to be able to handle these kinds of changes and hopefully we won’t see a big uptick in dogs being returned to shelters.”

Tips for when you leave your dog alone

  • Take them on long walks before you leave so they’re exhausted.
  • Leave them a toy with some peanut butter in it.
  • Things that may signal you’re leaving—the jingling of keys putting on shoes—you might want to do that out of sight of the dog.
  • As you’re leaving, don’t make a big ceremony out of it. Keep things super calm as you’re leaving and returning.

Source: Duke University