We are all home now, more than ever. From working from home, reduced social gatherings, and restrictions on when we can leave our homes, we are spending more time with our pets than ever. This is a good thing. As a professional dog walker, I love seeing more people outside giving their dogs much needed exercise and attention. As a reformed social worker, it makes my heart happy knowing that both the owner and the dog are benefiting from increased exercise, time in nature and spending time together.
TIme with our pets increases our satisfaction in life, it has many health benefits to us as pet owners such as decreased anxiety, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, reduced stress and lower blood pressure. Spending more time with our pets is a very good thing and something I will never argue against!
However, dogs are creatures of habit, and I do believe that when we all return to work, we will see an increase in “behavioral issues” in the dogs who are thriving under all this new found attention. Whether it is increased separation anxiety, destructiveness or other behavior issues, our canine friends are at risk of feeling frustrated, confused and stressed when we return to our “normal lives”.
I reached out to Carol Sumbry, a Certified Behavior Consultant/dog trainer at Elmbook Humane Society and owner of Carol’s Canine Training and Behavior Consulting, LLC. We discussed what pet owners can do NOW to prevent problems down the road and maintain the positives that are happening now.
But First… The positives of us being home with our pets:
On top of the obvious benefits of increased time and attention, how does this unprecedented time of being at home help our pets?
1. We now have time to train our pets:
Training is so important! It gives our pet the information they need on how to be successful! It teaches them what we want and how to achieve that, the problem is that training can take quite a bit of time and effort- something that many owners lacked before with work and social schedules.
Now, many more owners have the time to train their dogs on things like leash manners, polite greetings, appropriate play in the house. I took this time to muzzle train my dog- he is anxious and really is terrified of vet visits- a muzzle will keep him and the vet staff safe, but it takes time to properly desensitize a dog to a muzzle. We work on it almost everyday and he’s doing better.
An added benefit to training is that you and your dog develop a closer relationship, a stronger bond and studies show that owners who train their dogs have a higher satisfaction with their pets and they believe their pets to be happier and more content as well.
2. We can take the time to observe and learn about our pets:
Did you know that many pet owners are not aware of what gives their pet true joy, or what they are nervous about? Often times, they will say things like “Doggo doesn’t like new people” when in fact, the pup is crawling into my lap and offering up his belly for a belly rub.
What we learn, when we start walking the dog is that Doggo doesn’t like to be surprised or approached from the front (he prefers a side approach) or that he is actually shy and perhaps needs a slower introduction.
While being at home, I learned that my dog finds true, un-abandoned joy with his bouncy ball. We only bring it out when we are home and remember, so not often, but every time it comes out, he comes alive and plays with it for as long as we let him- with no interest at all in us! I also have been watching him more closely, and have realized that while he has pain from hip dysplasia and arthritis, he does not show it (we knew this) except with the tiniest furrow of his brow (New insight for me!). We are now able to address his pain when he first is feeling it instead of waiting until he cannot hide it.
3. We get to see how our dogs learn:
This is a fun and exciting benefit of being with our pets at home. We get to see how their brains work and we get the joy of watching them solve problems, learn new tricks or behaviors, and learn how to learn! It’s so much fun for me to watch a dog solve a puzzle or problem solve how to get their treat that rolled under the tv stand!
Over the years, we had one dog, a Great Dane, who would look at us, then at his prized treat, then back at us until we finally got the hint and helped him. Our current dog is a true problem solver, he goes under the furniture, reaches with his paw, even pushes other items under the sofa until his “treat” is all the way back, then he runs behind the sofa and gobbles it up (Leaving all his tools under the sofa for us to get)! Learning how your dog learns gives you insight into what motivates him, how to reward him and a glimpse into his world.
4. Now is the perfect time to address issues:
Have a dog who is leash reactive? Great! Now you have the time to connect with a reputable trainer and get help with this! Pet owners can spend time doing crate games to teach their pets that the crate is a safe place, they can work on building confidence in a fearful dog. If your dog had separation anxiety before, you are probably seeing it decrease (of course, you are home so there is little separation to be anxious about!), but you can do things now to work on this so that when you return to work, it’s not such an issue.
5. And don’t forget the health benefits to you!
Spending time with our pets, affords us a whole host of physical and psychological benefits. Many studies throughout the years have shown that pets can reduce our anxiety and stress levels, pet owners tend to have better blood pressure, are overall more content, are at a reduced risk of allergies, diabetes, and certain types of cancer and have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
Our pets benefit us in more ways than most of us ever realized!
What can you do now to prevent behavior issues when this is over?
1. Start Training and stick to it:
If your pet had behavior issues before, there is a high likelihood that those behaviors will return when you resume your normal schedule. A dog who experienced destructive behavior or leash reactivity typically does so out of frustration, boredom or a lack of appropriate resources. Use this extra time to provide your dog with the training needed to deal with his or her behaviors.
Now is the perfect time to connect with a local trainer, and do the work they give you. Then, when you return to work, maintain the training you have learned. Whether is is teaching your dog how to politely greet other dogs, how to walk nicely on a leash or to be comfortable being alone, a little work now will go a long way down the road to saving you headaches, heartaches and dollars!
2. Maintain your dogs schedule:
As Carol points out, “All of us who are working from home in sweatpants and pajamas will have at least a little shock when we return to our offices- our dogs will experience shock too as their routines are changed”. Look, dogs are creatures who thrive on routine. Don’t believe me? Try to feed your dog an hour past his usual dinner time and see if he doesn’t notice!
While dogs cannot read a clock, they are very routine oriented and thrive on a consistent routine. Let’s say your routine, when you are working in the office, was to get up, let the dog out, eat breakfast, get ready for work, take the dog for a short walk, put him in his crate and leave. Now, you should try to maintain that order of events when you wake up: Get up, let the dog out, eat breakfast, get ready for your day, take the dog for a short walk, put him in his crate and begin working. Do I mean you need to leave the pup in his crate all day? Not at all. Carol shared that even 10 minutes in his crate while you go into another room, take a drive, or sit outside, may be enough to keep your pups routine going.
3. Begin to “uncouple triggers”:
Pick up your dogs leash, and you are likely to see a reaction of excitement, happiness and full on tail wagging the body joy- why? Because our dogs have learned that when we take out the leash, they get to go for a walk, which they love. They have “coupled” the trigger of seeing the leash with the expectation of going for a walk, and this causes them to have an emotional response.
It’s great most of the time, but this can also work the other way. If our dogs get anxious when we leave, they may begin to show signs of anxiety when you pick up your keys, put on your coat or even when you are putting on work shoes.
Carol shares a popular trick that anyone can do to help our dogs unlearn the association that picking up your keys means you will be gone for hours. She recommends that once you learn the trigger (in this case, picking up the keys), then you begin a process of uncoupling the association. You can pick up your keys and put them back down, then set about your day. When your dog is not reacting to that, then advance and pick up the keys and carry them to your work area, put them down and continue about your day. Do this several times a day, until your dog learns that picking up the keys is not an indication that you are heading out the door. An experienced trainer can help you develop a system to help you and your pet with any negative associations they may have developed.
4. Catch and Reward your dog for relaxing alone:
Dogs love to spend time with us. My own dog cannot sit on the couch without at least one appendage touching me. Still, if we do not want our dogs to be lonely, stressed or frustrated when we return to work. If we do nothing, there is a chance that our happy pups will “suddenly” develop separation anxiety.
One thing we can do is make it rewarding for the pup to spend time alone. Offer toys such as the Kong, filled with treats or frozen food in a quiet area, crate or another room when you are not there. Also, if you notice your dog being relaxed and resting in another room, or even across the room from you, quietly and without much fan fare, go over and give them a tasty treat. You are teaching your dog that it’s ok to be alone and are helping to form a positive emotional response to time alone.
5. Provide your dog with enough physical and mental stimulation:
Aany reader of this blog knows that I am big on cognitive enrichment and physical exercise. Our company offers 5 different types of walks to provide not only exercise but also cognitive stimulation. Dogs get bored, just like people do! They need to use their brains to problem solve, to learn and to enjoy their lives. For now, offer your dog enrichment activities, here is a great book filled with ideas, or puzzles for your dog to do.
Make a plan to keep your dog active when you return to work- hire a dog walker to come midday and take your dog for a long walk, find ways to continue incorporating enrichment into their everyday lives and find opportunities for you and your dog to bond while problem solving. Take this time to stock up on appropriate toys for your dog too. Dogs need to chew, offering them toys to chew on will help discourage them from eating your table and chairs.
This is a great time for you to learn about and bond with your pet. Taking the time to develop good habits, positive associations and positive behaviors are wonderful benefits to us being home more. Our dogs provide us with many health and mental benefits, and we owe it to them to give them the very best.
However, if we truly want to give our dogs the very best, we need to do some work. Dogs need physical exercise everyday, even when you return to work. The amount of exercise depends on the dogs age, breed, and health status. If you have a 2 year old border collie in excellent health, they will require much more exercise than an 11 year old lab with arthritis and canine cognitive dysfunction (doggie dementia). Both dogs need daily walks, but the border collie will need a much longer, more active walk than the lab. We also need to provide cognitive enrichment for our pets, letting them problem solve, experience the environment in a new and novel way and helping them to prevent boredom.
We should be using this time to work with our dogs to minimize any behaviors, anxiety or issues that they had prior to us being at home. Even if the behaviors seem better, they are likely to return when we resume our old schedules. A qualified trainer can help you develop a plan and give you tools to assist in handling behavioral issues. Training is not something that can be done once and your done. Much like we have to teach children the same thing over and over (how many times do we remind our children to wash their hands or brush their teeth?), so we need to continually be teaching our dogs and rewarding them when they do well.
Use this time to maintain your pups routine to prevent issues down the road. Remember that dogs thrive on routine. Carol reminds us that it is the repetition of the routine, not the time that is important. So, if you sleep an hour later, thats totally fine, but still do the same routine you would do if going to an office, including putting your dog in their crate, penned area or room for a brief time while you go away (again even 10 minutes is enough to keep the routine going). It may not be easy or convenient now, but it will benefit our pups tremendously when we are going back to work and they still have their routine to feel safe and secure in. Many of our clients are choosing to maintain their dogs walking schedules with us, even when the owners are home, for this exact reason.
In the end, this can be a good time for us to bond with our pets. If we plan and prepare, there is no reason why our pets should experience increased behavioral issues when we are returning to the the office. Stay safe, stay healthy and give your pups an extra cuddle for all they bring to your lives!