‘The people go, the people come back’: How to help your dog adjust as you return to the office

After a year of undivided attention, it’s no surprise that our dogs may be experiencing separation anxiety. Dog expert Graeme Hall talks Saman Javed through some of the helpful steps owners can take

Saman Javed
Tuesday 24 August 2021 15:11 BST
Dog looks out over balcony
Dog looks out over balcony (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

During a pandemic that upended life as we knew it, brought constant bouts of worry, and forced us into social isolation, our pets have been a lifeline. Touch-starved and lonely during three national lockdowns and a year of social restrictions, more than three million households in the UK adopted a new pet, boosting the number of family dogs to 12 million.

One study, led by researchers at the University of York and the University College London, found a positive link between pet ownership and a reduction in the deterioration of mental health as well as a smaller increase in loneliness during lockdown. In addition, 74 per cent of new pet owners surveyed by the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association in March said their new pet had helped their mental health through the pandemic.

One new puppy owner told the organisation that cuddling their Schnoodle, Minnie, “put a smile on their face” during times of loneliness. Another owner, Marie Da Silva, said she had always wanted a dog but previously did not have enough time in her schedule to bring one into her life. Working from home for two months last year was the perfect opportunity to train a puppy. “There is no way I could have adjusted to life with a puppy had there not been a pandemic,” she said. While man’s best friend has clearly helped many of us cope with the negative effects of the past year, experts fear that our pups may find it difficult to adjust as life returns to normal.

It has now been a little over a month since UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson lifted the remainder of social restrictions in England, including the guidance on working from home. The latest data collected by the Centre for Cities’ High Street Recovery Tracker suggests that so far, 18 per cent of workers have returned to the office in Britain’s 31 largest cities.

With this figure set to increase, RSPCA pet welfare expert Dr Samantha Gaines has cautioned that it could prove a difficult transition for old family dogs who are “now used to having us around all the time”, and new dogs who “have never known any different”. “We have real concerns that life post-lockdown, both in terms of a new routine and spending time alone, could be really difficult for them to adjust,” Gaines said.

Woman during pandemic walk with her dog (Getty Images)

Another added factor is that many people who adopted new pets during lockdown are first-time dog owners. While a puppy who has never been left alone coupled with an inexperienced owner may sound like a recipe for disaster, Graeme Hall, dog behaviour expert and author of “All Dogs Great and Small” says we still have time to help our pups adjust to a change in routine, but cautions that this should be done slowly, and in small steps.

Start sooner rather than later

“The sooner you start, the better. You want to get your dog used to the notion of ‘the people leave, the people come back’,” Hall says, explaining that this is a gradual process that will take a few weeks. In short, it’s about instilling confidence in your pup that even when you do leave them, you will surely return. To begin, he recommends leaving them alone for a minute. Simply put on your shoes and grab your keys – as you would when normally leaving the house – and go outside. After 60 seconds, come back inside and say a quick hello to your dog.

Minimal fuss

The trick, Hall adds, is to do this with minimal fuss. “Your demeanour has to be calm and very normal. If you’re worried that your dog will be upset, it’s going to be written all over your face. Dogs read our faces, so if your dog sees that as you’re leaving, this will in turn make them anxious. It’s the same when you come back. Even if your dog is clambering against the door, don’t give them too much attention. Say hello but walk in and make a cup of tea and do normal stuff,” he adds. From here onwards, he recommends repeating this process plenty of times, each day working upwards on the amount of time you are absent until your dog feels comfortable.

Look out for signs of separation anxiety

For some owners, it may be difficult to know whether your dog is experiencing separation anxiety. While Hall emphasis that dogs are as individual as people, there are some common warning signs. For those who have an in-home camera, you might see your dog aimlessly pacing up and down after you leave or scrabbling at the carpet near a door. “It’s almost like an attempt to burrow out. What’s peculiar about separation anxiety is that in the dog’s mind, they want to go and find mum or dad, and see where they went,” Hall explains.

For those without a camera, a sign to look for is damage to the door or to the wall around it, which also suggests your dog was trying to leave. On the other hand, a dog that is adjusting well will display much calmer behaviour and likely sleep through much of the day. “Dogs will sleep all night, and a happy dog will sleep half the day as well. If a dog is on their own and pretty much never napping, then there is something wrong,” Hall adds.

“Lots of dogs are fine and if you do have a problem, there are lots of professionals around that you can ask for a bit of help. Be positive: it’s not an answer to everything, but it’s a damn good start.”

Graeme Hall

Of course, an obvious sign of a distressed dog is if your neighbours hear a lot of barking throughout the day. But as per Hall’s earlier advice – that not all dogs are the same – there is a chance your dog may not be experiencing separation anxiety. For example, “some dogs bark at passersby because they think they are guarding the house, so they react to sounds,” he says.

Heading: Leave the radio on and toys available

After 18 months of having its owners at home, your dog might be finding it difficult to adjust to a quiet house, making outdoor sounds harder to cope with. To counteract this, Hall suggests leaving the radio or television on throughout the day, as it will help block sounds from outside. “Another old chestnut is to leave your dog with a toy they can safely chew and play with,” Hall suggests. But there is a caveat; avoid a toy that rules your dog up and makes them excited. Instead, try a toy that will soothe your dog, and help calm them down.

Consider a dog walker or daycare (if you can afford it)

While social contact was limited during the three national lockdowns of the past 18 months, people in the UK were permitted to exercise outdoors once a day, including taking their dog for a walk. This advice was later updated in January 2021, allowing dog owners to take their pets outside more than once in a 24-hour period. While owners weren’t encouraging their dogs to interact with other dogs as they usually might have pre-pandemic, they were still out and about and seeing other animals. This social interaction could mean that your dog would fare well in the hands of a dog daycare or dog walker on your return to the office – if an affordable option. “Most dogwalker and daycare establishments, they are really savvy. If you talk to them about your dog and be really honest with them, they will take it from there,” Hall says. His experience has also shown that often, dogs behave better with strangers than they do with their owners. “You’re worried about the dog, and actually the report that comes back is that your dog has been absolutely fine,” he says.

Have faith and stay positive

While the prospect of returning to the office and leaving your pup alone for an entire workday seems understandably daunting, some of the best help we could give to our dog is just by having a little more faith. Emphasising his earlier advice, Hall says that your dog is bound to be startled by your worry, creating a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. Hall says: “Lots of dogs are fine and if you do have a problem, there are lots of professionals around that you can ask for a bit of help. Be positive: it’s not an answer to everything, but it’s a damn good start.”

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