How to prepare your dog for life after lockdown
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As we get closer towards lockdown restrictions easing, people will eventually begin to make their way back to the office.
While the thought of going back to work is undoubtedly daunting for many, it’s not just people who may have their worries – but their dogs will too.
“The biggest problem dogs are going to have when they come out of lockdown is how they’re suddenly going to be left alone,” explains Suffolk dog trainer Zoe Willingham.
“It’s going to be a really difficult time for dogs."
As people got used to the comforts of working from home for such an unprecedented period of time – so did their dogs.
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“With lockdown, we’ve been with our dogs a lot more, so they’ve had that companionship, and they’ve enjoyed us being around.
“But all of a sudden, we’re going to start changing our lives again by going back to work and spending time out of the home. The problem with that is dogs have had this companionship and have become used to it, so if we suddenly leave and go for long periods of time, it’s going to cause a state of panic within the dog.”
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That state of panic is more commonly known as separation anxiety, and is thought to have affected between 20 and 50 per cent of UK dogs prior to lockdown, according to statistics from dog expert Malena DeMartini.
“It’s a distress when the owner leaves the dog, and can manifest itself in a number of ways,” says Zoe.
Signs that a dog may be going through separation anxiety include constant barking, howling, clawing and chewing possessions, trying to escape, and relieving themselves indoors.
“Sometimes people will know their dog is going through separation anxiety, as they will come back and see their sofa has been destroyed and ripped to shreds. But often people won’t know because they won’t be there to know their dog has been barking in their absence.
“Separation anxiety can seem irrational to us, because dogs will sleep through the night, but if we go out shopping or go to work, they will panic. It’s a real phobia for dogs, and will not only affect the dog in their day-to-day lives, but the owners too.”
In order to prevent any post-lockdown separation anxiety, Zoe believes now is the best time to help prepare your dog get ready for that ‘back to normality’ transition many of us will soon be facing – and there are a number of ways to do this.
“I think the main thing people should be looking to do is start building up what I call absence time with their dogs. Essentially, owners need to start teaching their dogs how to settle by ensuring they’ve got plenty of mental stimulation. Owners also need to teach their dogs that when they leave, it’s okay and they don’t need to panic.”
Zoe suggests owners practise this by leaving their dog for short periods of time while still at home, eventually building up to longer increments in preparation for the inevitable return to the workplace.
‘We call this desensitisation, and it’s a systematic exposure of being alone. Basically, the more exposure to it over short periods of time, the better it is for the dog. Your starting point would be to leave your dog for 30 seconds at first, then return to them to make sure they’ve not panicked or had any problems. You then build up the duration bit by bit.”
But what about if you’re unsure whether or not your pooch suffers from separation anxiety?
“Some owners may not know if their dog has a problem or not, as they’ve been with them for so long over lockdown, so it would be a great idea to use a pet camera and record your dog. Go out for a few minutes, and if you think they’re going to be okay, go out for 15 or 30 minutes, and record what they do.
“That way, you’ll have an understanding of how your dog behaves when left alone. From there, you can start working on desensitisation, and gradually getting them used to your absence by coming and going when you don’t need to.”
Once your dog can be left alone, a number of additional tips can help make its time at home a calmer and happier one.
Ensure your dog has a comfortable space to stay in while they’re home alone – and simple tricks such as leaving toys out and clothes that smell like you will help your dog feel comforted and occupied until you return home.
However, if you’re finding that your dog is still unable to overcome their separation anxiety once lockdown ends, Zoe suggests getting in a dogsitter, a dog walker or even taking your pooch to doggy day care so they’re not left alone.
“In my opinion, separation anxiety is one of the most difficult things to cope with if you’re a dog owner. If your dog is aggressive to other dogs, you know to avoid other dogs – but it’s extremely difficult to avoid leaving the house when you’re not in lockdown. If you can put in the work now, and train them in getting used to being left alone, it will save a lot of heartache and stress before it becomes an issue.
"We don’t exactly know why dogs develop separation anxiety, but it’s not their fault. It could be genetic or circumstantial, but owners sometimes blame themselves for it when they shouldn’t.”
To find out more about the work that Zoe does with dogs, visit her website.