When summer is over and it’s time to go back to school, the kids often suffer from a bout of “back to school blues” as they adjust to classroom regimentation, but the effect isn’t limited to the two legs. All summer long, there was probably someone home with the dog, and now that everyone is back to fall schedules, dogs may feel neglected, or even experience anxiety or depression, and look for inappropriate ways to cope. According to veterinarian Nick Dodman, nearly 20 percent of our nation’s 80 million dogs have some degree of separation issues, and more than half of dogs with separation anxiety will bark, howl or whine, and some will destroy something, leaving behind scratched doors, damaged blinds or torn curtains. Dodman emphasizes that dogs like structure and when that structure is disrupted, it is sometimes difficult for dogs to adjust to changes, such as to long stretches of being home alone.
Even if your dog does not exhibit signs of separation anxiety, she will appreciate a routine that ensures she gets enough attention and exercise. Here are a few strategies that will make the home-alone transition less traumatic:
- Be consistent. Keep as close to the same schedule as he is used to for feeding, playtime, and exercise, but if necessary, get up early to take the dog for a walk or have some playtime before everyone leaves for the day. This will help your dog feel less ignored in the hustle and bustle of the morning, and burn off excess energy before you leave. A good walk will help start the day off right, setting the stage for good behavior all day. If you can’t walk outside, a tread mill is a life saver. Most dogs can be taught to enjoy treadmilling with a minimum of training.
- Keep departures and arrivals low key. Car keys, lunch boxes, and back packs clinking and clanging will have your dog waiting at the door expecting to be included in any anticipated activity. No “huggy-kissy, I’ll miss you” scenes which will unintentionally create anxiety in him. Act calm, quiet and casual…if you act like it’s no big deal, then it won’t be a big deal.
- Make your dog’s home-alone time a source of pleasure and discovery by leaving a few safe toys around the house, being sure to hide them in areas where the dog is allowed, and consider leaving food-dispensing games. A few well stuffed Kongs will provide hours of diversion for her. (Be sure to choose the best sized kongs…large enough that she couldn’t possibly swallow them, but not so big that she can’t get her jaws around it) If you stuff Kongs in the evening and freeze them, you can just grab several from the freezer in the morning.. When filling a Kong, be sure that the dessert, the last thing your dog will be able to extract from the toy, is packed in first. Make this layer irresistible, to keep the dog motivated all the way to the end of the Kong. Fill the first third of the cavity with tasty bits of cheese, bits of bacon, or whatever special goodies suits your dog’s fancy. Then fill the next two-thirds with your dog’s regular food, mixed with something sticky and tasty like cream cheese, low fat yogurt, or peanut butter. Top the Kong off with a particularly tasty morsel sticking out of the opening to give your dog an immediate reward. Some trainers advocate feeding the dog’s entire morning’s kibble in Kongs. (Remember to wash the Kongs regularly…they can be placed on the top rack of the dishwasher or scrubbed by hand.)
- If possible take a lunch break…..if someone in your house can go home during lunch to let the dog out for a quick walk. It will really help relieve the stress of being alone for 8 hours. If that’s not an option, consider having a friend stop by or paying a dog walker, or a doggie day care a few days a week.
- At the end of a day alone, remember that your dog needs to be played with. Another walk, or playtime in the yard gets out all that pent up energy and lets her know you still love her even if you have to be gone.
Help your dog beat the back to school blues, and if problems arise, remember punishment for anxiety or inappropriate behavior is NEVER productive. The dog is misbehaving because he is upset or traumatized, not out of spite. Patience, persistence, and positive reinforcement will usually correct any minor difficulties.