Updated: May 22, 2020
Many of us are currently spending more time at home with our dogs and it's lovely 😍 But what happens when you have to leave them home alone again? Act now to help them avoid developing separation distress when that time comes. Here are 6 tips to get you going:
Routine Try to keep to the dog's normal routine (pre-isolation nation) as much as possible - times to eat, sleep, walk etc. Most dogs thrive off routine and for some, big changes in their routine can make them quite anxious. This might be why your dog is displaying odd behaviours at home – it could be that the massive change in their routine has caused them some level of stress or anxiety and they are displaying unusual behaviours as a sort of coping mechanism.
Think about and write down what daily life was like before isolation started and make a plan to get back to this stage in the next few weeks even though you are still at home, so that it isn’t such a big shock to the dog when life returns to normal (whatever normal might be). This includes going through the same routine as if you were going to work each day, whatever that was for you – getting up time, showering, getting ready etc. Quality not quantity Focus on spending good quality time with your dog rather than giving them too much fuss and attention throughout the day - maybe do a bit of training or play some games.
Dogs are social creatures and so love nothing more than to be with us. They are absolutely in their element right now with 24-hour access to their people.
Attention seeking Are you finding that your dog has turned into a limpet and is following you everywhere, won’t seem to leave you alone and is asking for a lot of attention? If so, it is possible that you are in fact rewarding this behaviour, albeit unwittingly. Behaviours the dog does that are rewarded, such as receiving a treat or some attention when you are trying to work are more likely to be repeated. This is one of the ways dogs learn and is why reward-based training is scientifically proven to work. So, think about what you do when your dog is pestering you – do you give them attention (attention to a dog is anything from looking at them to shouting at them to stop barking – it's all attention) or give them a treat perhaps? If so, think about what you could do to change the dynamic of the situation – if you want to do a Zoom call on your laptop for example, set it up and then give the dog a long-lasting chew or stuffed Kong to occupy themselves with whilst you do your work, they are less likely to want your attention then. Reward the dog for relaxed and calm behaviours and hey presto, these will begin to be repeated.
Ignoring attention seeking behaviours means that the dog is not receiving any reward for them and so over time they will begin to do them less. Always give your dog something to do rather than pester you when you are busy.
Alone time Make sure that you build absences into your daily life – leave the dog in the garden or another room in the house for a short while with a tasty chew. Or, leave your dog in the house while you pop out to the garden, sit in the car or go for a walk (weird, I know, to go for a walk without your dog!) - anything to ensure that they are spending at least some time of the day on their own. The amount of time that they are left alone can be built up gradually and only if they are ok with it. Get your dog used to spending time alone again in a positive way and teach them that good things happen when you are not there with them. It is a good idea to have some white noise for the dog whilst they are spending time on their own, such as having the radio on low. Close the curtains to stop the dog reacting to things they see outside and create a calm relaxing space for them to chill out in. With all the extra hustle and bustle going on at home, it is important for your dog to have a safe space that they can retreat to, somewhere away from activity that they aren’t going to be disturbed. If your dog slept for much of the time that you were away at work, they may be getting much less sleep now that there is more going on at home. It is really important to make sure that your dog is getting enough sleep because undesirable behaviours can start creeping in if a dog is overtired – much like small children! If you normally crated or kept your dog in a pen when you went to work, start to build this into daily life again. Create a fantastic space where your dog will love to hang out. Enriching lives Use interactive toys or treat dispensers so that your dog is mentally stimulated and focussed on something other than you! This can also promote feelings of calm, especially if they are having a good chew (on appropriate items only!)
There are loads of things to do at home that will exercise your dog's mind which is as important as exercising their body and will tire them out. Exercises that incorporate scent such as go find the treat, hide and seek with you or other members of your family or food puzzles that exercise their brain in trying to solve them – you can buy puzzles or make your own. For example, a ball pit - you can use any box, bed, tub etc and fill it with balls or balls of scrunched up paper then scatter some treats in there for them to find. Not only is this a fantastic confidence booster, it really gets them using their nose and searching. Using their nose in scent exercises is really tiring for dogs – you will be surprised! As natural scavengers, dogs love to hunt and find food. Scatter feeding is a great way to give your dog some of their dinner (some people feed their dogs like this all the time) and really gets their nose and brain working. It’s so easy – literally scatter the food over the grass in the garden – long grass makes it even harder. If you don’t have grass, be inventive. One example would be to get a cardboard box and fill it with things like toilet roll inserts, egg boxes, scrunched up paper, smaller cardboard boxes and then scatter the food in the box and inside some of the things inside the box. Caution is needed if your dog tends to eat cardboard etc and so this might not be suitable for your dog. Try a bit of reward-based training to teach your dog some cool tricks or improve your dog’s recall or retrieve - not only will it enhance your relationship with your dog but it can help them build their own confidence too. Training sessions can be super short – use the dead time whilst you are waiting for the kettle to boil. Make it easy (keep a jar of healthy treats by the kettle) and build it into a habit. I love Emily Larlham's YouTube videos for training ideas: Kikopup https://www.youtube.com/user/kikopup/videos
Walkies If you are finding it hard to take your dog out for walks due to restrictions on exercise, fear not! Dogs don’t need to have a walk every day. In fact, for some dogs, not going for a walk is more beneficial for them, as it keeps them away from things that may make them anxious or reactive and gives them time to decompress and relax a bit. Focus on quality, not quantity. If you do take your dog for a walk, let them sniff, give them the choice about where they would like to go (within reason). Choice is empowering and a dog that is allowed to make some of their own choices will be more confident and secure. We allow our dogs so little choice in their daily lives, just by virtue of having to live in our homes and by our rules, allowing them some choice in the things that they do is really beneficial.
Above all, have fun, be safe and cherish the time you spend with your dogs 💗