Helping Pets Adjust
Let’s face it. Our pets may be spoiled.
During the pandemic, many of us welcomed new pets into our homes. It was a win-win because pets help ease social isolation’s loneliness while waking up each new day in a home where company was nearly constant.
Now that life is returning to some semblance of normal, some of our pets are about to find themselves home alone as their owners return to the workplace.
(Spoiler alert: this article focuses on dogs. While there are certainly cats that will need to adjust to a new normal, most cat owners will agree that feline companions are pretty self-sufficient. Some might even say that their cats can’t wait to have the house to themselves again!)
According to Jane Krumwiede of Outer Banks Dog Club, located in Nags Head, throughout most of 2020 and into 2021, many canine lovers took a proactive approach by adding training classes to their Covid calendars.
“Dogs are very social creatures,” Krumwiede says. “So when Covid curtailed many social activities, pet owners turned to dog trainers, not just for training but also for social stimulation.”
At Outer Banks Dog Club, training classes run the gamut, from initial puppy classes to intermediate and advanced training in obedience and agility. In addition, since training happens in groups of pets and their people, there are great opportunities for socialization.
“Any training you do with a dog translates to manners all day long; it’s all mental energy they are expending. So, the more routines you can give a dog, the better behaved they are.”
Krumwiede says that there is no downside to training your dog, whether through a professional trainer or through resources you can find online.
If your pet is now or soon to be in the house alone for long periods, then training is a wonderful gift to bestow upon them. Not only can it help boost a dog’s confidence, but a trainer can help you work with your dog on counter-conditioning their anxiety response to being left alone, teaching them to at least tolerate it, even if it may never be something they’ll enjoy.
How to prepare your pet
Have you ever started packing for a vacation, only to notice Fido is pouting? Yes, they recognize details (and changes!) in the daily routine. For example, suppose you usually wear certain clothes for work, carry a particular bag, or give them a special treat before leaving the house. In that case, it’s not too soon to start these rituals again. Additionally, before your physical return to the workplace, you might consider leaving the house more frequently, increasing the duration each time. This will help your pet get used to the idea of you being away while reinforcing that you will always come back.
Did your dog typically spend time in a crate or behind a pet gate if you had a pet pre-pandemic? You may want to consider having them take their naps there again, especially if they’ve been napping curled up by your side or at your feet. This will help wean them off from your constant company. Also, new puppies will generally take to a crate like a tadpole to water.
According to Krumwiede, crating a pup is not a “punishment.” Quite the opposite. She compares a pet’s crate to a child’s bedroom and encourages crate training for puppies.
“The crate is a safe space for your pet to be during downtime. When they are in their crate, they feel secure
Managing a routine once you’re back at work
Some of us will have more advance notice about returning to work in person than others will, so the change in routine may come as an unwelcome surprise to our pets. However, deep down, animal lovers know that pets have remarkable resiliency. Your pet will not be scarred for life, but they might need some help with the new adjustment.
“If you are returning to work and leaving a puppy at home, it would be helpful if you can arrange for someone to come take your dog out during the day,” Krumwiede says. “That would be ideal. In fact, I’d recommend having different people come in because the more new people a dog meets, the better it is for their socialization skills.”
Alternatively, doggie daycare/play care can nurture socialization and interaction for pets, providing mental and physical activities that will leave your dog happy and tired, resulting in peace of mind for all.
Krumwiede reminds us that our days provide us time and space outside of work too.
“After you get off work, or on your days off, take your pets to the park or other public spaces,” she suggests. “Instead of worrying about what happens when you have to work, think what you can do with your pets when you’re free.”
We are fortunate to live in a climate that stays relatively mild, even in the winter months. So why not explore new streets or neighborhoods? New sights, sounds, and smells will provide your dog with mental stimulation, and a mentally engaged brain translates to contentment at the end of the day.
“The more physical and mental activity you can provide your pets, the better off they will be. When you use up a dog’s energy, they will be well balanced and feel more secure. As the saying goes, a tired dog is a good dog.”
Whether walking in your neighborhood, participating in play-care activities or venturing out to a local dog park, your pet is sure to forge new friendships.
Even so, whether you have little time to prepare or weeks to prepare, your absence may come as a sudden shock to your pets, and a significant change to their schedule can cause some degree of anxiety for them. Newer pets who recently joined the fold, especially puppies, kittens, or those with a history of separation anxiety, may have the most challenging time with this. Knowing what to look for can help you be proactive and set your pet up for success.
How to tell if your pet is stressed
As stated above, our pets are fully capable of learning our routines and can anticipate what comes next. For example, tying up our shoelaces and grabbing a bottle of water can easily elicit exciting spins and runs back and forth between us and the door as your dog knows it’s time for a walk. Similarly, packing our lunch, putting on a uniform, or taking the extra time to shave or put on makeup can induce whining, whimpering, panting, or pacing. Or our pet may appear depressed, lying at our feet.
These can be classic signs of anxiety and stress. We may hear them start to bark as we’re closing the door, listen to them jumping against the closed door, or see them immediately pawing at the window or agitating the blinds. Besides tugging at our heartstrings, a pet that can’t self-soothe – or one that has too much energy – can manifest a little destructive behavior.
Unfortunately, pets that can’t calm themselves or that have too much energy may become destructive. Chewing and destroying blinds, doorframes, windowsills, furniture, or your personal belongings aren’t done out of spite. However, it can sometimes feel that way. Neither is soiling in the house. These are all physical manifestations of the mental stress – or maybe just plain boredom – they feel.
What can I do to help relieve my pet’s anxiety?
It can’t be overstated that helping your dog release pent-up energy is a great way to help ease their mental stress. A tired dog is rarely going to be destructive. A long walk, jog, or game of fetch before you go to work can help your pets release pent-up energy that could otherwise turn destructive when you leave. Additionally, leaving them with interactive puzzle toys or a new and exciting chew toy can encourage independence while keeping them busy. Be careful, though, not to leave them with a chew toy that can break into small pieces and become a choking hazard or digestive system obstruction.
Naturally, that first week you return to work is bound to be the toughest. Still, before too long, your new routine becomes an old habit again, and everyone will feel more comfortable with the changes. That reunion at the end of the workday becomes all the sweeter as the anticipation of seeing each other again grows!
Lillian Stevens lives in Williamsburg, Virginia but calls the Outer Banks her second home. She is a recreational writer who contributes to several publications based in Hampton Roads and the Northern Neck. She is also devoted to her English Labrador Retriever, Willa.