When the coronavirus pandemic upended the United States, among other nations, a silver lining emerged: America’s dogs were really, really happy.
Seeking connection during an isolating time, people rescued so many homeless mutts, shelters began running out. With their guardians homebound, these pooches experienced regular snuggling, belly rubbing and behind-the-ear scratching.
As more employers bring workers back to the office, America’s dogs are once again spending large chunks of the day alone, vulnerable to separation anxiety. Such anxiety manifests in a number of unsavory ways, including potty-related incidents, increased aggression and the destruction of household items. Monica Sterk, regional medical director of the Veterinary Emergency Group in New York and New Jersey, has witnessed the latter first hand.
“I’ve seen some weird stuff,” said Sterk, who graduated from the University of Delaware in 2013. “Underwear, rubber duckies, condoms, pacifiers… There is nothing they won’t eat.”
This type of stress-inducing behavior is one reason shelters are seeing an uptick in returned dogs, which is unfortunate not just for the animals, but for their owners.
“There is something called a self-object, and that is where the animal becomes important to a person’s identity and existence,” said Sarah DeYoung, core faculty member at UD’s Disaster Research Center and an expert on companion animals in crisis events. “I anticipate seeing this extremely high level of attachment between people and their pets because of the bonds formed during the trauma of the pandemic….Those relationships are going to be more intense.”
Surrendering one’s dog is potentially scarring for everyone involved, now more than ever. Fortunately, there are actions a pet owner can take to keep from getting to this point.
UDaily asked Sterk and DeYoung for 10 tips on easing the transition back into office life — and keeping the chewing to a minimum.
1. Manage your stress: A pet will take her cues from you. If you are feeling anxious or unsettled about a new work arrangement, your dog will assume she should be nervous as well. “Animals pick up on energies,” Sterk said. In other words, don’t skip your bubble bath, extra long yoga session or whatever ritual keeps you calm — your self-care might positively affect the mental health of your mutt.
2. Ferberize your dog: One technique for acclimating a dog to more alone time borrows from the Ferber method, a popular sleep training system for infants that involves allowing a child to cry it out in increasingly long bursts of time before providing comfort, until the baby is able to self-soothe. To apply this system to a furry baby as you anticipate a return to the office, simply leave the house for, say, 15 minutes. The next day, leave the house for an hour. Over the course of a week or two, work your way up to an eight-hour block. “There is no set guideline for this,” Sterk said. “The key is steadily increasing the time away each day.” Additionally, even if you are eager to return to the office full-time, consider taking temporary advantage of any hybrid work opportunities available, DeYoung said, to ease the transition on your pet.
3. Be open to crating: While penning up a dog may look to us like punishment, experts say canines find comfort in a quiet space all their own. Sterk recommends keeping other pets and any children from entering the crate, so it truly becomes a dog-only space. Also, before leaving for work, consider placing an item that smells like you — a shirt or blanket — inside the crate... but only if you have a non-chewer. And if you don’t own a crate? Consider mimicking such a space by, say, pulling a piece of furniture away from the wall.
4. Establish a routine: Pick a morning regimen — say: walk, breakfast, crate — before you return to work, and stick to it after you return… even on the weekends. Such predictability will lend a sense of safety, Sterk said.
5. Socialize: You may work a 9-5, but, chances are, you will need to stay late at the office eventually. If so, consider your contingency pet-care plan. If it involves asking a friend or neighbor to let the dog out, you will want to bring this person over in advance, while you are still home, so your pup can get used to their presence. Likewise, if you are planning on using a doggy daycare, bring your dog there to explore the grounds with you, before his first drop off.
6. Keep the goodbye drama to a minimum: Before leaving the house, hugging your husky or kissing your corgi in melodramatic fashion only draws more attention to your exit. Instead, try making very little show of your departure — like you would if you were moving from, say, the kitchen to the living room. No matter how much you will miss your pup while gone, it is best to keep the emotion under wraps so that Fido isn’t phased — save the tears for your commute, and consider investing in a dog monitoring system that allows for remote check-ins, DeYoung said.
7. Have some patience: Once back to work, if you come home to see your shoe/couch/priceless family heirloom covered with teeth marks and slobber, keep in mind that your dog is not being naughty for the sake of it — “He is simply confused about what’s happening,” Sterk said. Becoming angry or attempting to discipline the animal will not help your cause. “The incident may have happened hours ago. In this case, the dog won’t even realize why he is being punished.”
8. Resist over-treating: If you see your dog struggling with your absence, you may be tempted to compensate with lots of extra treats, but be warned: This could backfire. “Your dog won’t see this as you making up for time away,” Sterk said. “They’ll see this as a reward for whatever they are doing at the moment. And they may take a lack of treats while you’re gone as punishment.”
9. See a vet: Should you notice any out-of-the-norm behavior after returning to work (or if your neighbors complain about barking during the day) do not hesitate to schedule an appointment with your dog’s doctor, who will be able to recommend trainers, behaviorists or medications, if necessary. The longer you put off an appointment, the harder it will be to quell the animal’s anxiety or break any bad habits that result.
10. Bring your dog to work: Dalmations under the desk! Weimaraners by the water cooler! Cockapoos on the copier! It may sound a little far-fetched, but when the future of work is still evolving, making a pitch to the boss for a dog-friendly office space might be worth a shot. “It doesn’t hurt to ask,” DeYoung said.