How To Prepare Your Dog For Your Return To The Office

Is your pandemic pup showing signs of separation anxiety? We have expert-backed tips to help your pet cope when you go back to work.

Dog adoptions and sales soared during the pandemic, when many people were spending most, if not all, of their time at home. Now as case numbers decline and vaccination rates rise, people are starting to venture out more and offices are beginning to open up once again. The return to work is going to be an adjustment for us humans — and for our pets too.

Animals who were used to being home alone during the day pre-COVID-19 may adapt more easily to this transition than those who were born or adopted in the last year or so.

“Many [dogs] will probably adjust relatively quickly and well. Some may actually enjoy having quiet time if they have been overstimulated due to their families being around constantly,” said Candace Croney, a professor of animal behavior and well-being at Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Others may have a harder time, particularly if they were inclined toward separation anxiety prior to stay-at-home orders going into effect,” she added. “Dogs adopted from shelters who have had no experience in the home beyond what they experienced during the pandemic may need additional support.”

Rachel Malamed, a veterinary behaviorist in Los Angeles, said that she’s already noticed an uptick in separation anxiety cases in her practice since people have begun returning to work.

So what does separation anxiety look like in dogs? The most common signs are destructive behavior (like chewing, digging or scratching), attempting to escape from an enclosure or room, going to the bathroom inside even if house-trained, and excessive barking, howling or whining that occurs when they’re left alone. More subtle signs, according to Malamed, include pacing, panting, standing by doors or windows and not eating while you’re gone.

If you’re not sure how your dog is coping with your absence, set up a camera so you can observe their behavior.

Don’t wait until your first day back at the office to get your dog acclimated to the new schedule. Start getting them ready now.

“Animals thrive when they have consistent, predictable routines,” Croney said. “So if feeding, play, rest and exercise times are going to change when people head back to work, those changes should be introduced well in advance of the back-to-work date. Gradually shifting over the course of a few weeks to the new schedule and sticking with it should help ease the transition.”

Here are a few things you can do ahead of time, according to experts.

Practice short independence exercises while you’re still at home. Then gradually increase the duration and distance.

“During what remains of the work-from-home period, have the dog relax in a room away from their people while keeping them well-occupied with favorite toys and treats that will hold their attention for that time period,” Croney said.

Using high-value, long-lasting treats (think: stuffed Kongs, puzzle feeders and frozen treats) will help them connect these independent moments with something fun and positive.

Once your dog has built up some tolerance, practice leaving the house for very short periods of time — just five or 10 minutes to start. Grab the mail or take a quick walk around the block.

“As your dog learns to associate your departures with good things and feels safe because you come back before he shows even subtle signs of stress, you can start to increase the time slowly and at a rate that is comfortable for him,” she said. “The goal is that your dog has a positive experience and is not stressed during these exercises.”

Before you leave, set your dog up in an area of the house that’s both safe and familiar to them.

Choose a place where they are the most comfortable and least likely to hurt themselves.

Know that while some dogs feel content and secure in their crate when their owner is away, others may feel more anxious being confined. This can exacerbate stress and even lead to injury if they try to escape, Malamed noted.

Desensitize your dog to departure cues like putting on your shoes or jingling your car keys.

“These are common cues that become predictors that you are leaving, and often this is when dogs start to become stressed,” Malamed said. “Go through your normal leaving routine and present these cues when you don’t actually have to leave.”

Don’t make a big fuss about hellos and goodbyes.

If you make your arrivals and departures drawn out or overly emotional, your dog will pick up on that energy, which can heighten their anxiety.

“When you come home, wait until your dog is calm and then greet him calmly,” Malamed said.

Remember to also reward your pup with praise or physical touch during times they’re not actively seeking your attention (e.g., when they’re just lying on the couch or quietly playing with a toy). This will help reinforce calm behavior.

What To Do When You Go Back To The Office