Very slowly, our routines are becoming different from what they’ve been throughout this past year. We’re vaccinated, the summer season is approaching, and many of us are anticipating venturing out — possibly even for longer than an hour at a time.
For some animals, this will be a whole new concept. For the majority, I hope, pet guardians have made a conscious effort to crate-train their four-legged friends and enable them to be home alone for stretches of time.
But from what I’m seeing, with many people finding a way to work from home, and with our children at home, many pandemic puppies have spent a bit too much time with their humans.
If you find yourself in the category of knowing your dog’s preferences for sun exposure on Wednesday afternoons versus Friday afternoons, and you’ve preemptively arranged its new bed to accommodate those preferences, you may be one of the ones who have provided a little too much togetherness this year. In that case, I highly recommend starting to plan now for your transition back to being able to leave your house, whether for the emerging pleasure of social life or for a long day at work.
Your pet’s underlying personality is going to contribute a lot to its response to this kind of change in routine. But we owe it to our pets not to shock them by suddenly disrupting their lives again.
Animals need routines, and now is the time to get them into one that matches your future work schedule. Start by feeding, walking, and scheduling heavy play time that will reflect your new work life, even if that will be part home and part office time. If you will be needing help with dog walking, start trying to find that help now.
Meanwhile, your goal is to encourage and teach independence. Start a “leaving the house” routine that includes leaving a food puzzle or enrichment toy. Feed them their entire meal in these, giving them plenty of mental stimulation.
If your dog is crate-trained, but you’ve had the crate folded up in the basement all this time, consider breaking it out again. For dogs that are comfortable in them, crates offer a safe place to be. Some dogs will happily run back into them. If yours isn’t so eager, make it a positive place by throwing prized treats inside. Re-orient your dog to crate time by shutting the door for several hours — breakfast in a food puzzle is a good way to start making that work.
If you haven’t already trained your dog to a crate, consider starting in on that well before your away-time routine needs to shift. It’s an effort that will take some time.
For some animals, separation training is easier. It will be enough to start shutting the door to the room you are working in for a few hours — so, as dreamy as your dog is, you don’t just stare at each other all day.
For truly independent animals (you may know the cat I am talking about), your being at home and invading their personal time was the initial stressor. “Distance makes the heart feel stronger” is many a cat’s motto. But even these animals need routine, and if you’ve been at home, it is important to let them slowly adjust to you leaving the house again.
Consider getting a mouse toy to stuff with treats for your cat — batting it around will keep your cat occupied. Cats are generally most interactive at dusk and dawn, so that’s when they’ll be most receptive to play and interaction, as many cat owners will tiredly affirm.
Monitor for signs of stress when you practice leaving your house. Consider an inexpensive webcam to watch your pet when you leave. Yawning and lip-licking or air-licking is one of the first signs of stress you’ll observe. A dog that is by itself and barking is a stressed dog, just hoping someone will bark back. If steady and gradual practice with separation doesn’t seem to be working, you — or your pet — may need professional help.
Remember, it’s mostly a good thing dogs and cats still cannot use opposable thumbs, but this also means they haven’t developed the same mental health resources that we have. It is our job to help them.
Sadie Hutchings, D.V.M., practices at the Herring Cove Animal Hospital in Provincetown.