Our four-legged friends have been reaping the benefits of our extra time at home: more walks, more play time, more chin scratches. And in turn, they’ve been an enormous source of comfort during this scary time.
But part of being a responsible pet owner is preparing your dog for what comes next. When we inevitably go back to work, school and study, our pets must once again adjust to being home by themselves for many hours of the day. This is true of pets who have been part of the family for many years, as well as those who have only recently come into our lives.
To prevent your dog from feeling confused after you head back to a regular routine, here are some tips you can implement now to ensure your dog is prepared for life after COVID-19.
Stick to a routine
Just like us, dogs are creatures of habit. Create a routine that includes enrichment, rest, exercise and alone time during the day, putting aside time to head out of the house without them if you can.
Let them sleep
Dogs’ sleep pattern vary according to their age, activity levels, health and individual characteristics. Most dogs sleep for an average of 10-14 hours a day (which basically puts them on par with their human’s self-isolation patterns), while puppies sleep more. If you spot them catching some shut eye, leave them to rest and only ask them to play with you once they’ve woken up on their own.
There is such a thing as too many walks
Most dogs need 30 to 45 minutes of aerobic exercise per day, dependant on health status; some may need more and some less. Even though we’re all tempted to take our dogs out for extra walks at the moment, please exercise your dog within their own capabilities and keep to an exercise routine that you are able to keep up once you return to work or study.
Encourage your dog to play with their toys
Make your dog toys more interesting by smearing dog-safe foods on them, such as peanut butter or canned dog food (if your dog has any health problems, check with your vet first). Start rotating the toys frequently too, rather than leaving them lying around. If you collect and clean a toy once your dog is finished with it, and then place it away in a toy box, it will greatly increase the novelty value next time it comes out.
If you’re still not having much success, try different types of toys like rope toys, Kongs, balls, squeaky toys, soft toys, etc.
Invest time into training
Now is a great time to invest in some reward-based training and education. This can be done at home, as many professional dog trainers have online resources and classes you can take advantage of. However, make sure that you only use trainers who use exclusively reward-based training methods and never aversive techniques or equipment.
Re-visit the basics such as sit, come, drop, stay or move to more advanced training such as nose works.
Banish the bowl
Eating food from the same old bowl everyday isn’t so fun. Think of some creative feeding techniques like Kong toys, puzzle feeders, chew bones and scatter feeds to increase the time and mental energy spent foraging and eating. These feeding solutions will also keep your pup entertained while you’re away from home.
What is separation anxiety?
A more serious behavioural issue is ‘separation anxiety’, a general term that is used to describe a dog’s distress and destructive behaviours when they’re left alone, or even when their owner starts to prepare to leave the home.
Separation anxiety can include urinating and defecating in new places, escaping, digging, chewing, howling, barking and pacing.
It’s important to note that separation anxiety must be diagnosed by a veterinary behaviourist. If you think your dog is displaying signs of this behaviour, please get in touch with your veterinarian.
To help your dog, you can:
- Condition your dog into thinking that time alone is positive. Use the above enrichment methods, like smearing tasty food on their toys, to demonstrate how good it is to be left to their own devices.
- Create a comfortable and safe space in which your dog wouldn’t mind spending time alone. The area should include clean food and water bowls, toys, bed and a toileting area.
- Make your backyard more complex and adventure filled. Think a digging pit, kennel, and extra toys.
- Start off by giving your dog time alone in smaller increments. Leave them alone for a few minutes, five minutes, ten minutes, then 20, then 30 and so on.
Remember, never punish unwanted behaviour. This will only make the situation worse.
When life does eventually get back to normal, you could always look at other ways to involve your dog in your day-to-day life.
Bring your dog along to outings where possible, like picking the kids up from school or extended family gatherings. You could also hire a dog walker to take your dog out for regular exercise during the day, or invest in a doggy day care.
Alternatively, tap your friends with dogs on the shoulder and ask if they’d be happy with you dropping your dog at theirs for the day. Both pups can enjoy each other’s company while the adults are out!
If you struggle to adapt your dog once all of this is over, take them to your veterinarian to explore further options.