Returning to Normal: Helping

Clients and Their Pets Prepare

The year 2020 was challenging for most of us, with one notable exception: pets. Not only did a record number of dogs and cats get adopted into new, loving homes, but established pets enjoyed the 24/7 companionship of their families. Many folks worked and attended school remotely, with everyone taking breaks throughout the day to lavish Fido and Fluffy with attention.

However, this new normal will eventually come to an end. As province and city governments begin to lift COVID-19 restrictions and people prepare to return to the workplace, one big concern many pet owners share is how their dogs and cats will fare when they’re back to being left at home alone for most of the day. After all, many pets adopted during the pandemic never experienced the “old normal” and have no idea that in many households, family members typically leave for work or school in the morning and are gone the better part of the day.

A survey conducted by found that a majority of dog owners (58 percent) are worried about their pets experiencing separation anxiety when they return to work, and 63 percent said they think their dogs will suffer stress once they start leaving home more often. The Wall Street Journal tells of one office returnee who was so anxious about leaving her dog that she had her teenage daughter, who was still attending remote classes, arrange Facetime calls several times a day.

It’s unclear whether these “visits” did more to relieve the dog’s or owner’s separation anxiety. Still, it does illustrate the depth of concern many people have about leaving their pets when they move back into a normal routine.

This is where I can step in and offer help and support to nervous owners. I can show clients how to prepare their pet for the family’s eventual return to work and school—and make the transition back to normalcy as anxiety-free and happy as possible for everyone.

Gradual Social Distancing

The key to a successful transition is to start prepping the pet for the new routine before work or school schedules change. I would suggest to my clients that they begin by gradually social distancing themselves from their dog or cat. In many cases, the pet might have spent months curled up beside a family member with little or no physical separation.  Instill a sense of independence in your pets by spending small amounts of time away from them—going into a separate room, closing the door, stepping outside, etc.

These sessions should be very brief at first, lasting just a few minutes. Upon reuniting, your clients should praise their pets enthusiastically and give them a treat. Distancing exercises should be done throughout the day, gradually increasing the amount of time spent apart. Eventually, you should work up to leaving your home, going for a walk or a short drive. This way, the pet will get used to being left alone at home, secure in the knowledge her owner will return.

As with any behavior-shaping exercise, positive reinforcement is essential to weaning pets from constant togetherness and helping them overcome separation anxiety. For example, the rewards should be extra delicious and used only for social distancing exercises so that the dog will develop a special association with the owner’s absence.

Ease into a Routine

Along with social distancing, my clients should start easing back into a daily routine similar to the one you will be following when you return to your “normal” lives. As months of COVID Restrictions dragged on, many of us have slipped out of a consistent routine, but now is the time to reverse course. You should start getting up when you typically would for work and go through your usual morning routine. 

Dogs and cats should be put on a schedule where they are fed and walked or played with at the same time they will be when the family returns to work. If you have plans to use a dog walker or a pet sitter for midday visits, now is the time to introduce them.

One activity you should include in the daily routine is at least 15 minutes of brisk exercise—walking, running or vigorous play—before you leave the house in the morning. This will help pets burn off excess energy and remain calmer and more relaxed throughout the day.

There are other things you can provide to keep your pets calm, happy, and busy during the workday. Interactive toys that can be stuffed with treats to keep dogs and cats challenged and occupied. Leaving on music or the TV can be comforting to some pets. There are also numerous animal videos available that are designed to keep pets engaged while watching TV.

Pet Cams: A Helpful Tool

One of the best pieces of advice I can give to returning-to-work clients is to invest in a pet cam. This will allow you to monitor their pet’s behavior and alert you to signs of stress and separation anxiety such as panting, pacing, whining/meowing, chewing and other destructive behavior. For example, if a dog tends to chew on a particular sofa pillow, the owner can move it out of his pet’s reach.

A pet cam can also be a valuable tool in determining which things make a pet happiest while home alone. Owners can see how their dog or cat reacts to different interactive and puzzle toys, which ones are her favorites, whether she likes watching videos, where she feels the coziest sleeping, etc. This will allow you to provide more of the things that make your pet feel safe and happy.

You can also see how your pet responds to dog walkers and sitters you have hired and how these individuals treat her. Not to be underestimated, having a pet cam can help owners deal with their own separation anxiety. After all, you too have to adjust to no longer being with your pets 24/7, and just “seeing” them during the workday can lift their spirits immeasurably.


Dominance Term Defined

Dominance Term Defined
The use of dominance and pack theory in explaining dog behavior has come under a great deal of scrutiny as of late. The Dog Nanny wishes to inform the dog owning public about the ramifications of a reliance on dominance theory as it relates to understanding dogs, interpreting their behavior, and living harmoniously with our canine companions.

Theory and Misconceptions
Contrary to popular thinking, research studies of wolves in their natural habitat demonstrate that wolves are not dominated by an “Alpha Wolf” that is the most aggressive male, or male-female pairing, of the pack. Rather, they have found that wolf packs are very similar to how human families are organized, and there is little aggression or fights for “dominance.” Wolves, whether it be the parents or the cubs of a pack, depend on each other to survive in the wild; consequently, wolves that engage in aggressive behaviors toward each other would inhibit the pack’s ability to survive and flourish. While social hierarchies do exist (just as they do among human families) they are not related to aggression in the way it is commonly portrayed (incorrectly) in popular culture.

As Senior Research Scientist L. David Mech recently wrote regarding his many years of study of wolves, we should “once and for all end the outmoded view of the wolf pack as an aggressive assortment of wolves consistently competing with each other to take over the pack.” (Mech, 2008) In addition to our new understanding of wolf behavior, study into canine behavior has found that dogs, while sharing some traits with their wolf cousins, have many more significant differences. As a result, the idea that dog behavior can be explained through the application of wolf behavior models is no more relevant than suggesting that chimpanzee behavior can be used to explain human behavior. Unfortunately, this idea that dogs are basically “domesticated wolves” living in our homes still persists among dog trainers and behavior counselors, as well as breeders, owners, and the media. Although, dogs are descended from an Asian species of Wolf and maintain a 99.99999% DNA sequence. Dogs have developed to work with and alongside humans.

One of the biggest misconceptions we find ourselves faced with is the definition of “dominance.” Dogs are often described as being “dominant” which is an incorrect usage of the term. Dominance is not a personality trait. Dominance is “primarily a descriptive term for relationships between pairs of individuals.” and moreover, “the use of the expression ‘dominant dog’ is meaningless, since “dominance” can apply only to a relationship between individuals. (Bradshaw et al., 2009) Dominance comes into play in a relationship between members of the same species when one individual wants to have the first pick of available resources such as food, beds, toys, bones, etc. Even between dogs, however, it is not achieved through force or coercion but through one member of the relationship deferring to the other peacefully. In many households the status of one dog over another is fluid; in other words, one dog may be the first to take his pick of toys, but will defer to the other dog when it comes to choice of resting places. Dogs that use aggression to “get what they want” are not displaying dominance, but rather anxiety-based behaviors, which will only increase if they are faced with verbal and/or physical threats from their human owners. Basing one’s interaction with their dog on dominance is harmful to the dog-human relationship and leads to further stress, anxiety and aggression from the dog, as well as fear and antipathy of the owner.

Living with Dogs: What’s Important?
When it comes to living and working with dogs, the concept of dominance is largely irrelevant. This may come as a surprise to many dog owners. The truth is, when working with dogs that have a training or behavior issue, the goal of the dog professional is to develop a behavior modification or training plan that will address the problem at hand. This generally does not require understanding a dog’s motivation and emotional state, but rather focuses on what the dog is doing (behavior), and what we want the dog to “do,” helping the dog understand how to perform the desired behaviors and then rewarding him for doing so.

Far too many times dog owners have been given advice to “show the dog who’s boss” and “be the alpha.” The unfortunate side effect of this thinking is that it creates an adversarial relationship between the owner and their dog with the belief that the dog is somehow trying to control the home and the owner’s life. Such misinformation damages the owner-dog relationship, and may lead to fear, anxiety and /or aggressive behaviors from the dog. Dogs cannot speak our language and they can find themselves thrust into situations in our homes that they find difficult to comprehend, by owners trying to behave as they mistakenly believe “alpha” wolves do.
Rather than dominance, it is most often a lack of clear interspecies communication that leads to behaviors we find troubling. It is the human’s responsibility to teach our dogs the behaviors that we find appropriate, and reward them when they do the things we like. Just as importantly, it is our role to show them which behaviors are not appropriate in a constructive and compassionate manner that does not lead to further anxiety on the dog’s part.

Aggression is Not the Answer
Actions such as “alpha rolls” and “scruff shakes” have no basis in fact when studying wolf or dog behavior, and they only lead to creating unnecessary fear on our dog’s part toward us, fear that ultimately can lead to aggression because the frightened dog knows of no other way to protect itself other than using its teeth. We all owe it to our dogs to see the world from their point of view in order to create a more harmonious relationship. Whether we are looking at a dog or a wolf, actions such as grabbing a dog and forcing it into a down, growling at the dog, and other aggressive behaviors directed toward the animal will only lead to the animal developing a “fight-or-flight” response where the animal fears for its life. In this situation, the dog will either freeze out of fear, flee far away from the threatening animal or person if an opportunity presents itself to get away, or, fight to save itself. When we engage in such behaviors toward our dogs, we are not telling the dog we are “boss,” instead we are telling the dog we are dangerous creatures to be avoided or fought off. There is no “dominance” in these scenarios—only terror and the instinct to defend oneself against attack.

Fortunately, many trainers and behavior professionals now present concepts that focus on building a caring and happy relationship with your dog, instead of relying on dominance.

If Not Dominance, Then What Do We Use?
Fortunately, many trainers and behavior professionals now present concepts that focus on building a caring and happy relationship with your dog, instead of relying on dominance. Some trainers refer to the term “leadership” or other similar terms that are less adversarial than “dominance”. What these trainers have in common is a desire to explain effective, non-confrontational and humane ways of living successfully with dogs. These educated approaches aim to strengthen the bond between the owner and the dog and teach owners more effective ways of communicating with another species. For dogs with behavior problems, trainers employ programs such as “Nothing in Life is Free (NILIF)” which works along the principal that the dog must “do” something to earn what he wants (i.e. sit to get dinner, walk on a loose leash to move forward, etc.) These programs are effective because the dog is issued a structured set of rules that are consistently reinforced and the dog learns what he needs to do in order to get the things that he wants such as food, petting, playtime, etc. Because dogs do not have the power of human speech and language, behavior problems and anxiety can result when they are left to fend for themselves in deciding how to live in our world without guidance that makes sense. Just like with people, we behave better and thrive in a world that “makes sense” to us and has a clear structure.