Back-to-school season has arrived! Students of all ages are heading back to elementary, middle school or college, and teachers are going back to work. This is a huge transition for the entire family, as parents and kids learn to adjust to an entirely new routine. As the excitement and stress of getting the kids back to school mounts, it is also a difficult time for our animal companions.
Animals are sensitive to any change in their schedules, and they thrive on predictability. They love routine. It makes them feel secure. They like knowing that certain things happen at about the same time each day, and they know where they want to be when those things happen. You have probably experienced how displeased your animal becomes when their dinner or breakfast is late, but that’s a minor disruption in their routine compared to an entire season of change.
When we head back to school or work, the play, excitement, attention, and adventures that our animal companions have known all summer long suddenly come to and end. Suddenly they have nothing to do. There is no one around to entertain them, so now they are forced to find entertainment for themselves often to the dismay of their human.
Think about it from their perspective: For months they have grown accustomed to being showered with attention during the summer vacation. Someone has been around every day showering them with attention, love, and affection, and then suddenly you’re gone all day, for days! There were family trips and adventures to parks and beaches! Then the freedom and attention they received abruptly ends without any notice. All of the coming and going, playing, exercising, and freedom becomes limited and human companionship lessens. Their human playmates of summer suddenly have new interests and new friends. This disruption in their daily routine is a huge stressor for our animal companions. It adds uncertainty and fear and can cause a myriad of behavior problems.
This is especially true for animals that thrive on human attention and interaction. Many become psychologically unglued. -Especially if their best friend in the household happens to be one of the kids that suddenly ‘disappears’ and goes off to college. It definitely leaves a void in their lives. If everyone is suddenly gone all day, both parents included, your animal companions are going to be upset, not to mention very bored. Extremely sociable animal members will most likely begin to show undesirable behaviors as a result of boredom and anxiety.
Professor Dodman, director of the small animal behavior clinic at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, states that at least one in six dogs, along with a countless number of cats, will exhibit symptoms of separation anxiety or display increased levels if they are already prone to the condition when these sorts of lifestyle changes occur. One study suggests that dogs left alone at home feel just as much isolation as children abandoned by their parents.
Signs of Stress
Separation anxiety can come in a myriad of forms. These are behaviors that your canine companion could exhibit if he or she is not adjusting well to the new Home Alone Schedule:
- Goes crazy when he or she sees you or the kids getting ready to leave for school or work
- Barking or howling more often
- Defecating or urinating in the house
- Trying to break out of the yard
- Chewing “unauthorized” items (shoes, clothing, etc)
- Eating strange objects (gravel, dirt, plants, toys)
- Raiding the garbage
- General destructive behavior
- Becomes frightened by loud noises or thunderstorms
- Reduced appetite or a complete loss of appetite
If any of these behaviors suddenly occur after a big schedule change, they could be signs that your animal companion is having a difficult time adjusting to the new family schedule. This can be very frustrating and annoying to us humans, but it is important to realize that our animal companions are just as frustrated.
Whether we want to admit it or not, animals can suffer from depression. This can lead to a depressed immune system, leading to increased susceptibility to serious health issues.
NOTE: Some cases of separation anxiety are severe; we must recognize if a dog is suffering from true anxiety, rather than just being bored, and trying to entertain themselves during our absence.
So what can you do? There are simple measures that we can take to help these important members of our family.
Prevention Is Key
The best strategy is to prepare ahead of time and avoid an abrupt change in your schedule. Make changes and adjustments slowly, over a period of time.
Before heading back to work or school, gradually introduce your animal companions to short periods of separation. You can do this in several ways. Slowly reduce interaction (play, attention, treats) with your animal companion during the times when you will be at work or when the kids will be at school. Increase interaction and exercise activities during the times when they will be home. Mealtimes, exercise times, potty time – the timing and amount of attention can all be gradually shifted from the summer to the fall routine, over the course of a few weeks. Although it may seem counter-intuitive to make your animal companion feel better by spending less time with him, it will help shift in routine to flow more smoothly.
Start getting out the lunchboxes, backpacks, briefcases, purses, etc now. Bring out anything that your animal companion could associate with you leaving in the morning. The idea is to desensitize them to any anxiety-producing cues prior to the schedule changing. By doing this several times a day you can prevent nervousness and anxiety.
If your family has decided to kennel your canine companion when the new routine begins, start kenneling slowly for shorter periods of time before your job or school schedule changes. When used properly, a crate is not a punishment device; it is a safe haven or a den. The purpose of utilizing a kennel at home is to prevent your dog from getting into trouble or injuring himself while you are away from home. Also, the security of having one’s own space is comforting to dogs. Be sure to leave fresh water, a blanket or bed, and a favorite toy. The ideal crate size should be just big enough for them to comfortably stand up, turn around and stretch out.
Rotate the toys you leave with him in the kennel. Use fun or yummy toys that you can stuff with treats to keep them engaged while you’re away.
Practice “Home Alone” Time
If you are, (and even if you are not) using a kennel, you should still be practicing “home alone” time. This is fairly straightforward: Leave your pup home alone for short periods. Depending on the anxiety that your animal displays, you may need to start slowly. You can walk to the mailbox or to the next door neighbor’s house then come back inside. Act like your coming and going is no big deal. Then eventually extend your “away time” by going to the store, then out to dinner, and so forth. Ideally, you will want to practice “away time” early in the morning to simulate school time or work time. The idea is to get them accustomed to the fact that long, fun (or lazy) summer mornings are coming to an end.
You can also can give your pup something fun to focus on as you head out the door! It reduces their stress and helps them to associate you leaving with “Good Things”!
Addressing Destructive or Anxious Behaviors
If an abrupt schedule change is unavoidable or already in full motion you may already be experiencing signs of separation anxiety. If your animal companion is displaying any of the behaviors listed above, you can still address them now. Unless you have a hidden camera at home, many of these behaviors will not be discovered until you come home and find the canine crime scene. Knowing if your animal companion is stressed or anxious can be difficult because it usually happens when you are not home to see the behavior, but there are a few signs that you can be on the look out for. (These are mentioned below at the end of this article.)
What to Avoid
Please realize that scolding or punishing your animal companion’s unwanted behavior will make the situation worse, so be patient.
Remember, our animal companions get nervous, upset, anxious and lonely just like we do, except they don’t have the benefit of knowing that you’ll be back when you leave. It’s up to you and your kids to make your pets feel secure in ways they understand. Would you scream or punish your child if he or she acted out because they thought you had abandoned them? Then why treat your animal companion differently?
WHAT YOU CAN DO!
Alternatives to Home Alone
When we head back to school or work, our canine companion’s excitement and adventures don’t have to end. Doggy day care is a very important option to consider, even if it’s only once or twice a week. Not only does it encourage socialization, but it provides adequate exercise and stimulation. Even a half day of playcare will exhaust them enough to spend the rest of the day relaxed at home alone. Doggie day care also gives them something to look forward to each week. I guarantee they will learn the days of the week once they are on a regular doggie playcare schedule. Just ask any dog that goes to playcare on a regular basis. If you skip a day, they will be sure to remind their human what day it is.
If you have a geriatric dog, or one with medical conditions, doggie day care might not be the best option. Pet sitters are a calmer, safer alternative. You can hire a pet sitter to stop by the house once a day. Ask your friends or veterinarian to see if anyone has any recommendations in your area. If you cannot afford either of those options, ask a neighbor to stop by once or twice a day. Ask the neighbor come over ahead of time to get to know your animal companion first. The last thing you want is a strange human coming over unannounced and freaking out your animals.
If you are not comfortable asking any of your neighbors to come over, then ask them to listen for any unusual howling or barking. Remember that your canine companion may exhibit these behaviors while you are gone, so having others keep an ear and eye out for you will help tremendously.
Soothing Sounds and Scents
Leave soothing music playing low whenever your canine companion is left alone. The sound of human voices and nature sounds can calm them. Music to Calm Your Canine Companion has been shown to reduce stress levels considerably in dogs of all ages.
There are also non-prescription or holistic remedies that may help reduce anxiety. Rescue Remedy, valerian, melatonin, SAM-e, fish oil, dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP) a calming synthetic pheromone spray, can help animals to relax in their home environment. Other natural products such as Bach Flower Remedies may help some dogs. Aromatherapy can also be useful. Discuss holistic options with your veterinarian about how to reduce your animal companion’s anxiety.
Wear That Pup Out!
Exercise is an absolute necessity. One of the reasons that animals exhibit destructive behavior while you gone is simply because they have the energy to do so (which makes the anxiety even worse). Make sure your dog has enough daily exercise! At a minimum, most dogs should be receiving an hour a day of cardio vascular activity such as chasing, running, exploring, etc. (if the weather allows for it). This can be broken up into two half hour sessions, or four 15 minute sessions, depending on the dog and what he/she can handle. Please remember to make sure they are not becoming overheated, just for the sake of “exercise”.
Exercise is also necessary for a dog’s mental enrichment. Studies have shown that increasing aerobic activity to as little as 30 minutes a day reduces the signs of separation anxiety in dogs. Make some effort and get up a bit earlier to take your canine companion for a short walk. It’s the least you can do before you leave them home alone for eight or nine hours. Tired muscles plus a full belly equals a relaxed, sleepy pup. A relaxed, tuckered dog is less likely to be bothered about being left alone, since he is going to want to nap.
Remember that you and your kids may have had a very busy day, but your canine companion has done virtually nothing all day, unless there is evidence to the contrary – as in a shredded or chewed up sofa. By providing your dog with healthy play each day after work or school, this will help them burn up their pent-up energy. This is also a great time to bond with your companion. Invest the energy and time. They deserve it, and it will pay off.
Create a Home Environment Full of Toys and Fun
Enriching the environment with a constantly rotating selection of interesting and interactive toys is incredibly helpful in making your animal companion feel relaxed at home when he or she is alone. Keep them busy with things to do, appropriate things to chew, and things to smell! One clever human designed an interactive toy to keep his canine companion occupied for hours!
Even if you aren’t a crafty mechanical engineer, you can still provide hours of entertainment through a number of fun options.
Set up a bird feeder outside a window that will attract both birds and squirrels.
If your canine enjoys watching TV, there are dog movies and Dog TV designed to keep them entertained. Enrichment like this offers both audio and visual entertainment. Remember to not leave it too loud though. You want it just loud enough for your dog to hear it, but not too loud as to over excite him or her.
There are so many things to choose from today. You can find anything from high tech laser toys, puzzle toys and Hide a Squirrel. Stuffing a Kong with food provides stimulation as well. You can even make your own homemade puzzles by hiding toys, balls, or treats into a closed cardboard box. Leave the box and let them discover how to get the treats out on their own. The possibilities are endless!
Whether your dog is contained in his/her kennel, or running about the house all day, you need to provide toys and enrichment to help occupy their time alone.
If you are going to be gone for more than four hours, you should have someone come over to let him out to potty and stretch, play, or walk. Keeping them confined for hours on end is not ideal, especially for younger dogs that require more activity. Just because a dog is capable of holding their urine and feces all day long doesn’t mean that they should. Dr. Marcela Salas, of Animal Kind Veterinary Hospital, explains that holding urine for long periods can lead to urinary tract infections. And the highly concentrated urine a dog produces during a long wait can increase the likelihood of crystal formation and cystitis. Why make them hold it all day when you can put forth a little effort to help your canine companion.
Make Time for Quality Time
Quality time is essential. Be sure to make the most of the time you have with your animal companions when you are not at school or work. You can do this through grooming, long walks or runs, playing together, lounging around on the couch, or whatever it takes to re-connect at the end of a busy week. If your child has a set time to do homework or read, that’s an excellent time for your dog to curl up next to your child and “help” with studying. Ask your children to think of other ways to include their animal companion in their routines. Get them actively involved in creating solutions! This will help everyone make a much smoother “back to school” transition. Remember that even though your animal companion wasn’t at work or school all day, he or she still needs time to unwind. Find time to enjoy the unique relationship that you have. Although you can’t replace human companionship and human attention completely, you can find alternatives to help your animal companion with boredom, loneliness and frustration. By enriching the home environment, providing adequate exercise and stimulation for their minds, you are helping them to transition to a lifestyle that contrasts to what has been happening all summer long.
It’s a Family Affair
It is important to recognize that this is a family matter. If you have kids, this is a great opportunity for your children to take more responsibility for the care of your family’s companions. Sit down together and discuss the fact that their animal companions are going to miss them when they’re gone all day. Discuss what they can do to help them. Create a plan together. Be a responsible human. Help your kids to succeed with their animal companions. There are steps that you and your family can create and implement to set your animal companions up for success.
Sit Down with Your Family and Ask Important Questions.
Ask: Has anyone noticed new or odd behaviors?
Your child may have noticed something that you have overlooked. You may have noticed something that your partner has not.
Ask: Has your canine companion become very clingy when he or she had not been before? Are they showing an excessive attachment to you, one of your kids, or to your partner?
These are signs that he or she may be experiencing separation anxiety.
Ask: Have you come home to find things disturbed or moved, or any signs of destruction?
If so, your canine companion could be venting. New behaviors such as overly exuberant greetings or a dejected look in the morning are also signals that they are not happy with this new schedule and need a bit of encouragement.
Ask: How do you all leave the house each day? Are you making it a dramatic goodbye?
Your kids may feel sorry for their animal buddy and do a long goodbye. This only reinforces your pet’s fears and builds up their anxiety. It’s better to make the goodbye upbeat and brief. All you need to do is a quick, “See ya later!” and head out the door. The brief but happy goodbye should happen before your canine companion gets upset. If she is stressing out, absolutely do not reward her with anything. Get her to calm and settle down. A simple “sit” command will work for this. Then reward with attention and telling her she’s ok, only once she is calm.
It is important to not make a big deal about your leaving. If you get emotional about leaving your friend behind, she will pick up on it and become anxious, too. If your canine is used to lots of lovin’ in the morning, give it to her when you first wake up, then taper off the attention leading up to your departure. Give them a very exciting, highly rewarding treat every time you leave the house. This will help them develop positive feelings about being alone. You leaving means that it’s Treat Time!
Ask: Are there times when your canine companion becomes more anxious?
If he becomes upset just by seeing the backpacks, purses, or car keys being picked up, then pick those items up and walk around the house with them several times a day, but don’t leave. This will help him to learn to not associate those items with the impending “doom” of you leaving.
Another tool you can use is “The Fake Out”. Every so often, pretend you are leaving, but don’t. Pick up your bag, go out the door, and then come back and sit down. She will never know when you’re really leaving and will learn to relax when you are getting ready to leave.
Ask: How do you treat your canine companion when you come home from work or school? Do you make it a huge celebration?
The key is to not to get them excited upon your return. Remember that you coming home is no big deal. Change clothes or do something else until they settle down. Then, after they are calm, take a few minutes to interact with them. Give them your undivided attention. Do this before you read the mail, start dinner, watch TV, or get into your evening routine. Spend a few minutes focused only on them. This will do wonders for their stress levels. But remember to do this when they are calm. Calm behavior gets rewarded with their favorite reward-YOU!
Ask: Could there be a medical issue causing these new or destructive behaviors?
It is important to mention that medical issues may cause behavior problems in our animal companions. If you or anyone in your family notices a sudden change in your animal companion’s behavior or a behavior that you can’t seem to explain, it is important to investigate. Don’t assume that your animal companion is just acting out or “misbehaving” because of your absence. A visit to your veterinarian may be in order. Remember to explore all of your options before coming to any conclusion. Be open to any possibilities for new or unexplained behaviors.
– What do you do to keep your animal companions entertained while you are away at work or school?
– What kind of destruction have you come home to find? How did you address it?
– What kind of preventative and creative measures is your family using to help your pup to transition smoothly?
This is part one of a three part series. Part two will discuss our feline friends.
Part three will discuss our bird buddies.