Right now there seems to be no end to the COVID-19 crisis. We are still trying to adapt to the “new normal” with no school and work being cut back for many. When we finally return to some semblance of normality, what impact could this have on our dogs? Many trainers online have been expressing concerns over a possible increase in separation anxiety when schools and jobs open again. Here are a few things you can start now to reduce the chance of separation issues. And yes, start now.
Make being away from you interesting. This includes scatter feeding and putting toys, especially food releasing ones, around the house.
Dogs are excellent at putting together patterns of behaviors. This includes things you do in preparation to leave. Think about what you have with you as you leave the house. Walk around while wearing your jacket, carrying your keys, purse, briefcase, etc. Use your travel mug for your morning coffee. Put on work clothes for a bit then change to your regular clothes. Break up your morning routine.
Multiple times a day go to the door you would use to leave the house. Play with the handle, open the door a couple inches, shut it and walk away. If your door has a screen or storm door, open the inside door all the way. Every time you pass the door, do something with it. Progress to stepping outside and coming back within a few seconds. Keep all your exits and entrances low key. Please, be careful. We do not want your dog dashing outside!
Set up a crate or safe confinement area. Multiple times a day, place high value food, treats and food stuffed toys inside. Without telling your dog to go in, allow him to explore the space. Once he is comfortable with the area being the provider of good things, I begin teaching to go in and come out on cue. Then I progress to closing the door or gate. Always have the area a positive thing. Give a cue that you will be back such as “I’ll be back.” In my house, for the dogs that do not need confinement, we use “Behave” and “Don’t eat the cats.” Walk away for a few moments in the beginning. Walk past the crate, reinforce quiet, take your dog out on cue. We want dogs to learn to wait for a cue before they are released and not the act of our walking by the confinement area.
If your dog starts to act up as you return, step away. Quiet gets you to return. Do not stay away so long that your dog starts fussing. Allowing a dog to scream it out until he “settles” only builds up stress. Make sure your dog is comfortable being in the space when you are home, so he does not associate it only with your leaving.
Exercise your dog well before you leave the house. Give him 15-20 minutes to relax before confining. A few minutes before you go, give him a well-stuffed food toy. Leave the house for a few minutes and come back. Gradually build up to longer times away then go back to short ones. Build up the ability for your dog to be alone.
Please do not wait until a few days before we hopefully get back to life as we know it before you begin preparing your dog for your being away. The time spent working now will benefit you later.
Karen Peak is the developer of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project and owner/operator of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County.