Has your dog spent every moment of the last six months by your side? While your cat may be keeping a tally of all the disruptions to their precious quiet time, your dog has loved having you constantly at home. But, when you head back to work, will you have set your best friend up for separation anxiety? Let’s look at one family’s back-to-reality dilemma.

The Smith family adopts a new pet

The Smith family took advantage of their sudden abundance of free time during quarantine to adopt a new puppy. Like many other “pandemic puppy” owners, they jumped at the chance to add some fun and excitement to an otherwise boring time. It seemed the perfect situation—since they were working from home, and the kids were temporarily homeschooled, potty training would be a breeze, and the new puppy would not have to spend long days in a crate. 

They chose a fluffy border collie puppy from a local shelter’s Facebook page, and met with a shelter employee outside the back door for the transfer. The kids named the little black and white furball Sparky, and the family instantly fell in love. They were all impressed with how smart Sparky was, and how he picked up on potty training and basic commands quickly. Sparky slept at Mr. Smith’s feet as he worked on his computer, and loved the frequent walks—sometimes three a day!—with the kids. When summer came, Sparky’s family took trips to the local park, hiked, and spent weekends camping or exploring outdoors—and Sparky always went along. 

Back to work and school—but the Smith family forgot to prepare Sparky

Then, one day, Sparky’s family woke up early, filled his bowl with crunchies, and left. The kids had large packs on their back, and his mom and dad were dressed in fancy clothes. He heard them talking about “school” and “work,” but wasn’t sure what that meant. He whined at the door for a while, to let his family know they had forgotten him, but they didn’t come back, so he increased the volume to loud barking. Still no family. Sparky began to get nervous, paced around for a bit, and then had an accident on the floor. He couldn’t help it—he was becoming more stressed out by the minute. He had never been alone for longer than an hour, if that. He decided he was trapped, all alone, and needed to get out. He started digging at the carpet by the front door, creating a pile of carpet and padding fragments, but hit the hard surface underneath, and gave up. He went for the door frame next, and was still frantically clawing away when his family came home from work and school, to find Sparky a stressed-out mess with several broken toenails, surrounded by a bloody pile of carpet pieces and wood splinters.

The Smith family’s mistake

Sparky’s family thought they were doing everything right by spending so much time with their new pup, and ensuring he experienced all types of family adventures. While Sparky’s socialization skills benefited from their constant companionship, he was not prepared for the day he was suddenly left alone for the first time. Unfortunately, Sparky’s lack of independence set him up for failure, and caused separation anxiety.

Prepare your pet for your return to work

To prevent a situation similar to poor Sparky’s, prepare your pet now for your eventual return to work. Whether your pet is a long-time furry companion, or a pandemic pup, they will need to become accustomed to spending time alone after your constant companionship. Follow these tips to set your pet up for success:

#1: Set a work schedule — Although your nine-to-five may have shifted a little—or a lot—while working from home, re-establish your normal routine well before your return to work. Wake up at your normal time, and “head to work,” which can mean setting up shop at the dining room table for the day. Schedule your pet’s feedings, potty breaks, and walks at times you can maintain once you go back to work.

#2: Create a cozy space for your pet — If your pet has already proven they can be trusted to be left alone without tearing up the couch, they likely can have the run of the house while you are gone. But, if this is your pet’s first real solitary time, start crate training now to prevent finding your favorite shoes chewed into pieces, or your rug shredded, when you come home. Set up a crate in a room where your pet cannot see you working, and stock it with a comfy bed and a few of their favorite toys, to keep them busy when they are alone. 

#3: Encourage independence — When it’s time to start your work day, place your pet in their crate, and get to business. Start with 30 minutes the first day, praising your pooch for resting calmly, and gradually increase their crate time to several hours over a few weeks. When you head out to run errands, resist bringing your pet, and leave them at home. As your pet becomes more comfortable being alone, their independence and confidence will grow. 

#4: Make alone time fun — Set aside special toys and treats that your pet receives only when they are left alone. Use snuffle mats, puzzle feeders, or a frozen Kong stuffed with high-value treats—try a mixture of kibble and peanut butter, canned food and fresh veggies, or yogurt and fresh fruit—to keep your pet mentally stimulated and busy. If you reserve these special rewards for only when you leave, your pet will look forward to their alone time.

#5: Provide plenty of exercise — Your pet will have less nervous, pent-up energy if they receive regular exercise. If possible, walk your dog in the morning so they are primed to relax, and maybe take a nap, as you head out the door to work.

Use these tips now to set your pup up for success when you return to work, and the kids go back to school. If your pet shows separation anxiety signs, such as excessive barking, whining, drooling, or frantic attempts to escape, when left alone, call our Johnson County Animal Clinic team for advice.