The Great Departure

Dog parents around the world face a challenge ahead: going back to work.

Soon, many of us will no longer be spending every minute at home with our pups. It will be a big change. A lot of us have grown accustomed to being with our doggos all day.

That change won't just affect us though. If we don't prepare our dogs ahead of time, it could cause them real anguish and become something called separation anxiety.

As dog parents, it's important that we understand what separation anxiety is and how to prevent it. But there may never be a more critical time than now. So we're giving you a game plan.

What Is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a distress associated with being separated from a preferred companion or group. For dogs, most often that means stressing out about you being gone.

Dogs are naturally social. It's probably why you have one! But being a social animal also means being sensitive to the absence of their favorite people.

Separation anxiety is one of the most common behavior problems for dogs. It's diagnosed in 20% to 40% of dogs referred to animal behavior practices in North America, according to Dr. Stephanie Schwatrz and the American Veterinary Medical Association.

It's not unique to dogs either. It has been seen in many animals including cats, goats, sheep, pigs, horses, cattle, and primates (that includes you!). Humans, most commonly young children, can be diagnosed with Separation Anxiety Disorder for "excessive distress with separated from home or 'major attachment figures.'"

Signs of Separation Anxiety in Dogs

Separation anxiety is a broad label for a number of different reactions. They can vary in form and intensity and they can even vary day-to-day for the same pup.

Signs of separation anxiety are most common while you're gone. They're often the most intense during the first fifteen minutes after you have left, but they can happen throughout your absence, depending on the dog.

They can also happen while you're getting ready to leave. Sometimes it seems like they're Nostradamus and can predict when we're about to head out. Really, it's that dogs pick up on our little cues and routines incredibly well. Dogs with separation anxiety will notice those cues, like putting on a jacket, anticipate you leaving, and get stressed out.

There are four common categories of misbehavior by dogs with separation anxiety:

Being agitated

Pacing, panting, jumping, or restlessness

Improper bathroom action

Eliminating in unapproved places, at unapproved times, despite good health and prior training

Being vocal

Whining, barking, whimpering, or howling

Being destructive

Chewing, digging, scratching, or attempting to escape their crate or confinement

There are also some signs of even greater severity: salivating, trembling, hyperventilating, vomiting, excessive licking, excessive grooming, lethargy, aggression (mouthing, nipping, growling at, or biting their human when they go to leave).

Experiences That Make Separation Anxiety More Common

Some dogs who have had certain experiences in their past are more likely to develop or have developed separation anxiety. These experiences include:

  • A past history of traumatic separation
  • A lack of experience being left alone
  • Excessive or prolonged greetings and departures by dog parents
  • Changes in the dog parent routine
  • Relocation into a new home
  • Addition of a new pack member or pet sitter
  • A death or removal of a member of the family

If your pup has previously shown signs of separation anxiety, or if they are predisposed to it, then you'll want to be even more diligent and extra gradual in how you approach it.

Now Is the Critical Moment

The lockdown from this pandemic has been unique. The entire world stopped. Millions of dog parents found themselves at home all day, every day, and millions of dogs have adjusted to that new reality.

Now many of us are preparing to go back into offices, plants, factories, and shops. It will be an abrupt change. And if we go from being home every minute to being gone 9-10 hours a day, we could wind up doing real harm to our dogs and find ourselves with real problems.

Dogs thrive on routine. They're most comfortable when things are consistent and predictable. That means, abrupt changes to their environment or schedule can trigger anxiety. Dogs are not the just-rip-the-bandaid-off types.

Dogs are not the just-rip-the-bandaid-off types.

So before we start heading back to work, this is our opportunity to set our dogs up for success. Just as we need to prepare ourselves for a return to society (grooming, real pants, etc.), let us also prepare our pups for a return to calm, stress-free alone time during the day.

What To Do Today

It's training camp time. Starting today, this is your dog's spring training. We're going to put a plan together to establish a routine, reintroduce their setting during the work day, and gradually get them used to it while you're absent.

Establish a routine now

Before your environment changes, set up your at-home routine. Ideally, it's as similar as possible to your at-work one. Wake up and go to bed around the same time each day. Give your dog meals, walks, play, and attention during the same points of the day. It's not just good for the dog. It's good for you too. Win–win.

Get a crate

If you don't have one already, consider buying a crate or kennel for your dog. It's a tremendous way to give them their own private den and a sense of security. It's like a child being able to retreat to their own bedroom. It can keep them out of trouble. And it's the best way we've found to set them up for success with your absence. Don't believe us? Check out these guides from leading dog trainers, the American Kennel Club, and PAWS.

Make the crate awesome

Whether you've had a crate or just bought one, we need to show our pups that it's a great, safe place to be. Using positive reinforcement training, we can make the crate a place where pups go to feel confident, safe, and rewarded. You can give them a chew toy so they have an appropriate outlet. When your dog is ready for it, you might introduce a cue or word that means "Let's get into your crate."

Release them only when they're calm

Any time the dog is in the crate with the door closed, we only want to open the door and let them out when they're being calm. That's because we don't want to reward any barking, jumping, or chewing by immediately following it with something which will "reinforce" it (for more on this idea, check out the Premack Principle). You could ask for a "sit" or "down" to center their attention or simply wait for a moment of calm to open the crate door.

Set the mood

Your environment can have a big effect on your mood, and dogs are no different. Some dogs might benefit from you leaving some distractions on. You could try something to watch like Dog TV, or leaving on classical music (it has been shown to have a calming effect). Not every pup will like it, so test it out while you're still home. And don't make it too loud! Dog hearing is way better than ours.

Crate your dog while you're home

First we want to break any association between the crate and you leaving. Get the dog used to being in their crate, kennel, or in whatever place they'll hang out while you're gone. First, do it while you're only a few feet away. Then let them out. Continue adding distance between you and the crate so long as your pup stays calm. Start with very short sessions and build up the duration over time. Continue pushing the duration, but always avoid the signs mentioned above. Graduate to being out of sight in another part of your apartment or house.

Crate and leave—for just a minute

Next we want to break any association between the crate, you leaving, and your being gone for a long (stressful) amount of time. Start by leaving your house or apartment as you would. Don't make a big fuss. Don't draw it out with a sappy goodbye. Follow your standard morning heading-out-the-door routine. Wait a few moments outside the door. Pop back in and let your dog out. Build up the amount of time you're "gone" until you get bored standing outside your front door.

Crate and leave—for quick errands

When you feel good about your pup's reaction to you being gone for just a minute, try leaving for the duration of a quick stroll around the block. Build from five to ten to fifteen minutes, with the same calm relaxed greeting of the dog when you come back. Continue building the amount of time you're gone. Make that amount of time unpredictable too. Leave for an hour one time. Next, come back after a minute. Mix it up.

Don't punish them

If you do come home to loud barking, destructive behavior, or an accident in the house, don't punish the dog. I'm not a softy—it just won't do any good. If more than a few seconds have passed between their behavior and your reaction, they're unlikely to draw the connection. Instead, they're likely to just think you're being a jerk for no good reason. That doesn't help.

Be patient

You're not just teaching your dog to be calm in the crate while you're gone. You're helping them develop a calm and confident personality. That doesn't happen overnight. Like anything worth accomplishing, we make things better by being patient, having a few short training sessions each day, and taking it all one step at a time.

What To Do When You Head Back To Work

With training camp behind us, we turn our attention to our routine once you do head back to work. The key to success now is making sure your dog is well taken care of. In general, dogs who are feeling better physically and mentally are less likely to become overdependent and anxious when you leave. That means it's important to meet their physical, psychological, and emotional needs.

Train, exercise, play, and bond while you're together

It's important you use some of your dog's emotional and physical energy while you are home so that they're more likely to rest during your absence. Schedule a walk, a park visit, a backyard romp, or some good playtime before you head out four the day.

When in doubt, more exercise

Now more than ever, getting your dog an appropriate amount of regular exercise will make everything easier. Pent up energy can exacerbate separation issues. A tired pup is a happy pup.

Empty the tank before you go

Make sure your pup is back on a bathroom routine that ensures their tank is emptied right before you leave.

Trust your training

Your dog will feed off of your anxiety. If you've put in the time leading up to the day you go back, then trust the process. Plus there are web cams, dog walker services, and other resources to help break up the long workday if necessary. You're not alone in this.

We Owe It To Them

It's been a wild time. With so much change afoot, it's our job as dog parents to shield our pups from that. It may have felt crazy out there, but, between these four walls, we're keeping things as calm and routine as we can.

It's likely you've relied on your dog for support, comfort, or distraction during the past year. We certainly have. They've had our backs when we needed it. Now it's our turn. Prepare them well and equip them with the skill and confidence they need for your great departure.