Pete the Vet: Dogs see humans as key members of their pack: they depend on us for their social lives
With COVID restrictions easing, an increasing number of Irish pet owners are saying farewell to remote working, and hello to the traditional office routine. This will be a shock to many people’s systems: most of us have adjusted with ease to the removal of the commute and the different style and pace of working from home. But it may be an even bigger shock for the nation’s dogs: older dogs have enjoyed the extra human contact time, and pandemic puppies have never experienced life at home alone.
Dogs see humans as key members of their pack: they depend on us for their social lives. There’s a serious risk that many dogs will start to suffer from separation anxiety in the coming weeks. This can be more than mildly distressing: badly affected dogs bark, howl, urinate and defaecate in the house, chew anything within reach (from furniture to doors to walls) and they suffer immensely from the psychological distress.
As with many pet issues, it makes sense to prevent the problem rather than waiting until it’s a fully formed crisis which is far more difficult to resolve. Here are my top ten tips to get your pet ready for you returning to your office.
1. Start gradually: get your pet used to being on their own over weeks and months. From puppyhood onwards, dogs should be comfortable enough in their own company that you can leave them on their own for short periods. Leave them alone even if you don’t need to, so that they are used to solitary periods. Change feeding times and walking times so that the timing suits your back-at-work schedule. Dogs are creatures of habit (many know that it’s dinner time as closely as if they were watching a clock).
2. Set up a safe space for your dog to spend time when they are away from you. A well designed dog crate can work well, but you do need to be certain that your dog is comfortable being left in the crate. You can’t just slam an anxious dog into a large cage and expect that this will work out well. I prefer to see dog crates as private bedrooms for dogs: my Labrador cross certainly sees her crate in this way, voluntarily going into it for a snooze whenever she wants some time out. And if we say “go to bed”, she clambers into it with no fuss at all. This has been her “bedroom” since she was a puppy, so it’s a part of her life. And that is the ideal to aim for, starting with a young dog.
An alternative is to have a comfortable bed or mat which your dog is used to settling on.
3. Leave music playing in your absence: check out the Relaxing Dog playlists on Spotify. A Scottish study found that reggae and soft rock were associated with the most positive behavioural changes in dogs, but also that there is individual preference, just as with humans. Watch your dog carefully, and see what they seem to enjoy the most.
4. Consider giving your dog a food-stuffed treat, toy or chew before you leave, so that they are engaged in an enjoyable activity, and they are less likely to be overwrought on your departure. Deep-frozen food-stuffed Kong toys can work well. The Irish-designed K9Connectible toys are a good alternative: treats are hidden inside the clicked-together pieces, and the dog finds them by pulling the toy segments apart with their teeth. A Likkimat is another novel toy: meaty paste is smeared onto an irregular surface, and your dog has to lick this repeatedly to extract every last bit of tastiness.
5. Set up a simple webcam so that you can observe your pet on your phone while you are away. The more advanced versions (e.g. Furbo) allow you to hear sound, talk to your pet, and release treats that are fired out of the device in your absence. You can set up notifications, so that if your dog does become distressed at all, you will be alerted to their vocalisation. A webcam allows you to check on your pet as often as you want: it’s very easy to double check that they are calm, relaxed and comfortable.
6.Don’t leave them alone too long: in my mind, a dog should never be left entirely on their own for more than four hours. Dogs enjoy stretching their legs, sniffing the breeze and doing their “business”, at least twice during the working day.
7. Employ a good local dog walker so that your dog can enjoy regular socialisation and exercise to split up any long stretches of boring time alone.
8. Consider doggy day care: even just two days a week will drain your dog’s social and emotional energy. The day after a day in the creche, most dogs just want to snooze.
9. Ask your boss if they’d consider allowing your dog to come to work with you. For the right dog, in the optimal environment, this can bring many benefits to people and animals alike.
10. Start treatment early if your dog does show signs of separation anxiety: talk to your vet about the latest anti-anxiety medication and techniques to help affected dogs.
For more tips on caring for pets while heading back to the office, see www.petfix.com.
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