Our dogs are likely big fans of these COVID-19 safety measures as most of us are spending our time at home during the quarantine. But what happens when we eventually go back to work and our “normal” routines? Spending countless hours binge-watching TV, taking long walks, and cuddling on the couch with our pets will at some point end. While we’re able to mentally prepare for that transition, our dogs have no idea what’s ahead for them. Dr. Meghan Herron, a nationally-recognized, board-certified Veterinary Behaviorist and Gigi’s Senior Director of Behavioral Medicine Education, Research and Outreach, shares a few tips below to prepare your pet for when you return to your regular schedule… and leave the house for more than just that weekly grocery run.
1. Get used to the crate again!
If your dog typically spends time in his crate while you’re away, recreate that routine a few times every day right now. Start by having him eat his meals or enjoy a food-dispensing puzzle toy in his closed crate a couple times a day, while you hang out in a different room for 10 minutes. Keep a jar of treats nearby and toss one into the crate throughout the day, asking him to “kennel up!” Gradually increase the time your dog is crated during the day (mealtime, toy time, etc.) until he’s spending at least one hour each day in his crate and out of your sight.
2. Carve out some alone time!
While safely practicing social distancing, get your family out of the house without your dog three or four times a week for at least a half-hour at a time, whether it’s taking a scenic drive, biking or walking around the neighborhood, or hanging out in your yard where she can’t see or hear you. Even if you’re not driving anywhere, open the garage door and pull your car out like you are leaving. She needs to get used to those departure cues again and re-learn that you’ll still come back after being away.
3. Find a rhythm!
Give your dog some sense of a daily schedule by creating a mini-routine using the “Gigi’s Triangle of Activity.” It should include some type of physical exercise, mental stimulation, and social time with you, and end with downtime for your dog to self-entertain and relax. For example, take a brisk 20-minute walk with your dog, spend five minutes on some reward-based obedience training, hang out in a quiet spot for a few minutes of good ol’ one-on-one affection and attention, and then encourage him to lie down and settle. Wrap up your routine by giving him a food-dispensing puzzle toy or a favorite toy that he can enjoy either in another room or his crate while you catch up on email, work out, or enjoy your own alone time.
4. Recreate your routine!
If you’re working from home, practice your daily departure routine. Get ready for the day, gather your work bag and keys, put on your shoes, and then set up in a separate workspace without your dog for at least one virtual meeting or conference call a day. Even try taking your laptop to your car to check emails and go through the motions of opening and closing your garage door. If you’re homeschooling right now, pack the kids up as you normally would and either take them on a car-ride field trip or to another area of the house to do schoolwork for a portion of the day.
5. Make it cozy!
When you do leave the house, make sure the space where your dog will spend their time alone is as comfy as possible. Try plugging in an Adaptil® diffuser near her crate or where she’ll be hanging out during the day. These diffusers release a calming pheromone that mimics what a mother dog releases when nursing, and they’ve been shown to help calm some dogs. Studies show playing classical music and reggae can also have a calming effect – just be sure to turn on the tunes when you’re home too, so you don’t accidentally start signaling that you’re leaving soon when the music plays. If your dog gets agitated by outside noises or can hear you if you’re spending solo time in the yard, turn on a fan or white noise sound machine. Finally, treat your dog to a food-dispensing puzzle toy for entertainment when she’ll be home alone. Just make sure you’ve supervised her with the toy previously, before leaving her unattended.
6. Take advantage of your rhythm!
When it is time to go back to work, try to give your dog at least a mini-version of your Gigi’s Triangle of Activity before leaving the house if you can. He’ll likely be more ready to settle down and self-entertain while he’s on his own.
7. Be prepared!
If your dog has a history of separation anxiety, it may flare up again when you return to work. If your dog has required medications to prevent panic when she’s left alone in the past, it may be time to talk to your veterinarian now about starting those meds up again as your return to work approaches; the same goes for dogs who may start showing new signs of panic as you attempt to reintroduce alone time. Your veterinarian and professional behaviorists are here to help! If you aren’t established with a vet, see DACVB.org or CORECAAB.org to find a behavior professional near you.
Dr. Meghan Herron is a board-certified Veterinary Behaviorist and is Improving the lives of shelter dogs™ by serving as Gigi’s Senior Director of Behavioral Medicine Education, Research and Outreach. As a diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (DACVB), she is one of 70 veterinarians in the country, and one of only a few in the animal welfare world, with this unique specialization in both the medical and behavioral care for animals.