Like so many people, I too have been spending a lot of extra time at home these days. With all the free time suddenly available, I have been getting in more much needed bonding time with my dogs. Time that wasn’t normally an option for me, as I was away often for work. It’s been a few months now, and I am beginning to notice a shift, hopefully back toward eventually getting back to business as usual. That means all that extra time that was spent playing, cuddling, snoozing, training, and just hanging out with my dogs may soon be off the table.
BACK TO BUSINESS
The time that was surreal to gain in the first place, the time that has become the new normal, will at some point begin to go back to more of it being spent on other things. My dogs won’t know why. They will only know that they were getting more time with me and now they are not. Many dogs may find this transition challenging. Managing separation anxiety is not uncommon for families in this position. So, how can I prepare myself and my dog for when that time comes? What steps can I take now to set him up for success later?
The goal would be for your dog to have the self-control to wait for you to come back, no matter what you’re doing in and around the house.
ONE THING YOU CAN DO
These are questions that many pet parents have. Although there are lots of things folks can do to prepare, there is one thing you can do that is guaranteed to help out—if you put in the work. That one thing? Practicing physical distancing with your dog. Now, before you write it off as silly, let me explain. One recommendation to combat COVID-19 has been for all of us to practice social distancing with others. Many people have figured out safe ways to be social while maintaining some physical distance—in proximity, but still separate from each other. There are plenty of examples online of people spaced out at the ends of separate driveways, talking and having a great time.
So I’m suggesting you adopt this concept and use it to prepare your dog for your return to a more normal routine. To begin practicing physical distancing with your dog, imagine keeping your dog included, but separate. In proximity, but on the sidelines. He practices being a wallflower. Your dog gets to be close by, but not the center of attention. Your dog watches happenings in the house around him, but you interact with him only occasionally so he can sustain his calm behavior. What does this mean? It means your dog rehearses intervals of holding a still position, such as a down stay or stay on “place” while life happens around him. Place is a common obedience command in which a dog practices moving into position onto an object like a cot, crate, or bed.KLIMB DOG TRAINING PLATFORM PHOTO COURTESY SURE PETCARE»
You can integrate your dog’s training into your day without stopping what you’re doing. Drills that involve your dog lying down on “place” while you clean, work out, read, prepare meals, work in the garden, or check emails are great opportunities to teach your dog how to be calm and neutral when he doesn’t have your attention. With enough repetition, this translates to your dog perceiving being alone as normal and okay. If he already knows that your moving out of sight for some time isn’t cause for alarm, then it’s not a stretch for him to be okay with you actually being gone from the house.
The setup for these exercises is relatively simple. Send your dog to a designated spot, then begin your desired task. Let’s say it’s vacuuming. Get your dog into position, then begin to vacuum. Then reward his calm behavior randomly, while you’re vacuuming. This teaches your dog to anticipate your eventual return to him after a period of separation. He learns to be neutral, knowing you’ll come back to give him his prize. Over time and with repetition, make the drill harder by moving into another room, having your dog hold position for longer periods of time, or opening the front door and stepping outside. The goal would be for your dog to have the self-control to wait for you to come back, no matter what you’re doing in and around the house.
AVOIDING SEPARATION ANXIETY
To make this easy for your dog to understand, two things you want to practice are (1) always returning to your dog randomly to give a reward and (2) always releasing your dog from position before he decides to get up on his own. Verbal permission to end the repetition is incredibly helpful. This teaches your dog to anticipate not only a reward when you return but also permission to move from position. Anticipation is key in these drills. Your dog will begin to positively associate separation from you. This is because he’ll know that when you leave, you typically return with a reward and permission to get up and move. This is a crucial skill for preparing your dog to deal with you actually being away from home for longer amounts of time when your routine gets closer back to normal.
Mastering this skill is an absolute game changer for many families. It sets the stage for teaching your dog how to cope with not having as much attention and closeness as he’s grown used to during this unusual time. The exercises cultivate strong self-control and patience. For many of my clients, this means having a dog that is comfortable spending time alone. Avoiding separation anxiety can be a huge hurdle to tackle, and the best approach is taking preventive measures. I promise that if you practice your physical distancing exercises with your dog now, you increase your chances for a smooth transition later, free of extra stress and anxiety. Getting ready for life returning to a more normal schedule can be as simple as practicing a few minutes a day. Now is the time to get started with your dog. Physical distancing may be just what he needs to help him stay calm and happy as you get back on schedule. Happy training!