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 Rover.com 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.

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