By Nancy Frensley, Training Manager and Carly Skonnord, Pet Program Manager
Edited by Liana Emley, Marketing Manager with input from Workday
Note: While all pets will notice a change when you go back to work, this article is mostly focused on dogs.
Emotional wellbeing isn’t just for humans, your pet has needs beyond exercise and eating too. The Covid-19 pandemic has changed how we live, play, and work. For millions of people – and their pets – this meant staying home nearly 24 hours a day. Has that been a good or bad thing for your pet’s mental health, and what happens to them when you “go back” to work?
Last year, your pet most likely exercised less and snacked more (right… my pet, not me!). Less outside time also means less socialization with people and other animals. Less sniffs and stimulation can also lead to anxiety, stress, or boredom. More time together with just you or the family can be so rewarding, but not if your pet becomes dependent on you for total emotional satisfaction. You won’t be home all the time!
For those pets born and adopted into families during the pandemic, being around you 24/7 is the only life they know. How will they react when you’re gone more than an hour? With no familiar noises (that tap, tap, tap of a keyboard), or routine (it’s 2pm, time for my walk), or reassurance (good girl, here’s a treat) will your dog jump at the door and wonder anxiously: “Why did they leave me alone forever?”
Fortunately, pets find routine comforting! If you know when you will likely be returning to in-person work, plan to spend a few months (yes, months) before then adjusting your pet(s) for your absence. Take it slow and make it consistent. Remember, your pet is following your emotional cues so be positive and calm. If you plan to use a dog daycare, make reservations or apply early. You will not be the only pet parent who will be looking to enroll their pooch once back to work outside the home.
A little training can go a long way. Train the Bay, Berkeley Humane’s dog training program offers virtual classes on a variety of subjects, or address concerns directly with a private training consultation.
If you’re not sure how your absence will affect your pets mental state, consider these common concerns and learn how to address them before your new work routine starts:
- Separation distress is a concern and can manifest in destructive behaviors such as chewing and destroying items like furniture (or your slippers but don’t take it personally).
Start getting your dog used to being alone now, so you can work up to leaving them for longer stretches of time. You can start as simple as leaving the room and coming back in, and gradually build up how long you’re gone. Always try to come back before your dog starts getting worried, and try NOT to make a big deal of goodbyes and reunions when you come and go.
Dog-proof your house, and expect that anything your dog can reach is fair game for them to chew. Many separation issues are a sign of boredom, and giving your dog a supply of appropriate items to destroy can be an easy fix!
If your dog remains distressed when they’re alone and can’t settle until you are back, consider consulting a certified trainer who specializes in separation issues or consult a veterinary behaviorist if you think the problem is severe.
- Reactivity (usually in the form of barking) to strangers, human and animal, can be an issue if your pet hasn’t been out much and you haven’t had guests in a while.
Reactivity is usually because your dog is nervous, and acting “tough” makes them feel safer. Respect your dog’s discomfort, and avoid whatever makes them uncomfortable when you can. Help them learn that strangers aren’t scary by distracting them with a light, cheery voice and extra tasty treats whenever a stranger is around. (Watch this video for an example). Keep your training positive, any attempt to punish their barking will only add on to their discomfort, and yours! Start your walk training now so your dog knows how you expect them to respond to passersby and other dogs.
- Overstimulation may result from resuming activities outside the house, like taking your dog out in the car or to a crowded outside environment. Teach your dog “sit” and “watch” now, and practice them often at home using tasty treats as rewards.
You can use these simple exercises to help keep your dog’s attention from running off the rails in busy situations. If your dog isn’t following your cues outside, it’s not because they aren’t listening or choosing to ignore you, it just means they need more reinforcement before they can do it in that exciting environment. Set easy expectations for your dog, and know that you may need to build up exposing them to busy activities.
- Changing any part of a pet’s routine can cause stress, and your new schedule becomes their new schedule. Try to keep the times they eat, potty, go on walks, or engage in playtime as consistent as possible.
Some animals may show signs of stress by having potty issues like “accidents”, marking, or not using the litter box. Do some preventative re-housetraining before you start leaving for the day. Even if your dog reliably eliminates outside, reinforcing it even more will help it stick in their mind once the routine changes. You don’t need to change anything, just start giving your dog extra praise, treats, pets, or anything they enjoy every time they “go” outside. If your dog can’t hold it all day, pursue options for hiring someone to give them a potty break around lunch time.
If your dog or cat has accidents, never punish or scold them, even if you “catch them in the act.” This will just confuse your pet, and will probably make them have even more accidents.
Adding extra litter boxes is a good first step for any cat who is having accidents, and so is investing in a product called Cat Attract. If there’s a particular place your cat tends to have accidents, put a litter box right near or even on top of that spot. If your cat consistently avoids the litter box while you’re gone, consider setting up one room with everything they’ll need for them to stay in during the day. Learn more about litter box issues in this video.
If you think accidents are likely, block off areas you don’t want to risk being soiled, and cover surfaces you want to protect with shower curtains. Have a quality enzyme cleaner such as Natures Miracle or Anti-Icky-Poo ready, so you can thoroughly clean the accident and move on.
- Maybe you work in an environment that allows dogs (best co-worker ever!) but your dog may not like it as much as you do. Give it a try but look for stress signs in your dog such as licking their lips, yawning, turning their eyes or head away, crouching down, staring or widening their eyes, or flipping over on their back. For more insight, watch our video Reading Your Dog’s Body Language. Consider that your dog will need training while you are at work in order to learn the rules there.
If your dog must stay home while you’re on the clock, provide them with stimulation. Give your dog a stuffed or frozen Kong, snuffle mat, or other food puzzle before you leave. You can also purchase an automatic feeder that dispenses bits of kibble throughout the day. Consider hiring a dog walker or a friend to stop by during the day to give them a chance to go outside at lunch time! Investing in feline furniture can go a long way to keep your cat entertained while they wait for you to come home. Or build your own cat wonderland! Cats love to have a comfy perch next to a sunny window where they can watch the world go by between naps.
Don’t forget about yourself! Returning to in-person work will be an adjustment for you too and can affect your emotional health. Especially if you have to say goodbye every morning to that fuzzy co-worker who has been by your feet (or purring on your keyboard) for the last 12 months.