New Pet Parents: How to Transition Back to Work
As summer approaches and more and more people are getting vaccinated, lockdowns may be coming to an end soon. While a number of businesses may have realized that there actually are benefits to employees working remotely from home, in a lot of other cases, people may start returning to work and school soon, probably through this summer and fall.
This may include you. If it does and you have a dog, then it’s time to start planning now.
If the dog was already part of your family before everything went into lockdown in 2020, then at least they may have a distant memory of what daily life was like in the before time, so should be able to adjust easily once your normal schedule and routine return.
But, if you’re like a lot of people, you adopted a new dog sometime after March 2020, meaning that as far as that dog is concerned, the only daily routine it knows is the limited one you or your family have been on for over a year.
If everyone in the household has been working remotely, and if there are any children who have been attending virtual classrooms, then all that the dog has ever known is, “My people are almost always here.”
Now, while it’s not normal for a dog’s pack members to leave it alone, when a dog already has a routine and knows that the humans leave at a certain time every day and come back at another, regular time, then the dog can learn to deal with this. The key is for the routine to be consistent.
If you already had a dog before the lockdown, then you can start simply, say by leaving the house for increasingly longer increments at the time you used to leave for work or school. This will help your dog remember and re-adjust to life the way it used to be.
The challenge is with dogs for which “how it is now” is the same as “how it’s always been.”
New dog, new tricks
The one thing you should not do in this case is just go back to your daily routine outside of the house without any preparation or transition. Your dog won’t understand what’s going on and, especially if that dog was previously dumped by a family in a shelter, it can cause feelings of abandonment.
Shelter dog or not, though, suddenly leaving when you’ve been a constant presence can trigger separation anxiety, which is one of the biggest issues pet parents describe as having with a dog.
In the dog’s mind, its pack has gone away and is never coming back, and it can lead to all kinds of unwanted and possibly dangerous behavior. Dogs suffering such an anxiety attack can become destructive, tearing up furniture, clothes, your personal items, and even walls. They may also attempt to escape, and there have been cases of dogs chewing through doors or jumping through windows to get out and try to find their people.
In other cases, dogs with separation anxiety will urinate and defecate in the house when they’re left alone, or they may pace endlessly in a repeating pattern. The latter is actually quite a hidden danger, since it may leave your dog exhausted and dehydrated at the end of every day without you realizing it.
A warm, comfortable corner
To prevent a dog developing separation anxiety, you first have to work on getting them to relax in a comfortable place before you leave home. Designate a corner or a quiet room as their resting place, and provide them with a big, comfy bed that will make them feel protected.
After you give them their morning walk and food, train your dog to go lie down in that bed and relax. Chances are they’ll fall asleep. You’ll want to repeat this a few times, always associating “go to your resting place” with the walk and feeding routine until your dog starts heading there on their own.
Once you’ve established this, then it’s time to start leaving the home for brief periods, starting with fifteen minutes. Don’t hide the fact that you’re leaving from your dog, but don’t make a big deal about it. They’ll definitely recognize the signs that you’re going — things like you getting your keys and phone, maybe putting on a coat, and grabbing a purse or backpack.
If your dog does start to appear anxious or excited, tell them to go to their resting place. Once they have, then just leave without fanfare. Move a little distance away from the door but keep your eyes and ears open so you can tell if your dog starts barking, whining, looking out of windows, or scratching at doors.
If everything seems calm, then leave the way you would on any normal non-lockdown day and return in fifteen minutes.
Your dog may or may not greet you excitedly when you come in (odds are good on “may,” though), but again don’t make any big deal about being home. Acknowledge your dog, but don’t make a fuss. Repeat this on what would be regular workdays, gradually extending the time you’re gone.
The idea here is not to associate your return home with giving the dog any sort of reward. This can lead to issues by making your dog over-excited in anticipation of your return and positive attention.
Yes, you can give your dog all that attention and affection a little bit later, after you’ve settled in.
The new old routines
Of course, as you go back to your old routine and schedules, you need to remember one very important thing: You most likely have also created a new, different schedule for your dog that conflicts with your pre-dog routine.
For example, maybe you take the dog for a walk at lunch but would never have been able to do that on your old work schedule. Or you might take your fur baby and laptop to the local dog park on a weekday afternoon to do work al fresco and let the dog play outside.
Now, some people are lucky enough to live close enough to work that they could at least pop home for the lunchtime walk, but that’s probably not possible. The average one-way commute time in the U.S., for example, is 26.6 minutes, so trying to make that round-trip during a lunch hour would leave you with exactly 6.8 minutes to take care of the dog’s needs — and forget lunch unless you’re going to stuff your face in the car. Technically, this isn’t illegal, but cops in some states can cite you for it under distracted driver laws, especially if you do something else at the same time, like speed.
The point is that you’re going to have to plan to account for any routines you’ve established for the dog that you wouldn’t be able to continue while back at work. This might mean hiring a dog walker to come in the middle of the day, for example.
Fortunately, you can gradually diminish the routines that won’t fit your regular schedule, but those are the key words: gradually diminish. Never make an abrupt change with a dog. They don’t deal with it well.
Of course, every dog is different. Some may adjust in a few days, while others may take a couple of weeks but, if at all possible, you want to budget about four weeks for the adaptation process before the new schedule actually starts.
If you think back to the beginning of the lockdown process, it was probably pretty hard for you and your family to get used to it, but at least you all had some sort of intellectual understanding of what was going on and why.
Your dog, of course, doesn’t have the luxury of that knowledge. To them, it can easily look like all the people have decided to go away, causing a major freak-out. This is why it’s so important to help your dog prepare in advance and get used to the upcoming changes.
Remember: If you don’t take your dog by surprise, you’re far less likely to come home to any unpleasant surprises yourself!
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