FARGO — Across the country, dogs of every shape, age and stripe are wondering what happened to their owners as more people return to their offices and worksites.

After a year of lapping up quality time with their teleworking humans, our pups may find this shift back to the "old" normal to be pretty jarring. Especially if the dog in question is a COVID puppy and has never known a life when humans weren’t home all day.

Dog-behavior specialists seem to agree that when it comes to helping dogs navigate this change, a slow and steady transition is key.

“It will be important for people to start to set aside scheduled alone time for their dogs now so it is not such a dramatic change in schedule when people go back to work,” says Kish Mackin, a licensed veterinary technician and certified trainer for Down Dog Studio in Fargo. “Starting with five to 10-minute absences (several weeks before returning to work) and building up to one to two-hour absences is a good plan.”

Keep in mind that certain dog breeds are more prone to separation anxiety due to their genetics. Herding and guarding breeds, for instance, have been specifically bred to make them watchful of any potential changes in their surroundings, so they may get especially upset when one of the most important members of their flock — aka you — is no longer there, says Bailey Stickney, a certified professional dog trainer and behavior consultant who owns The Laughing Dog in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

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“Shepherds, border collies, Rottweilers, boxers — those are all dogs that have been selected over centuries to notice changes in their environment,” Stickney says.

At the same time, it's important to respect their individual personalities, as what calms one dog won’t necessarily soothe another, Stickney adds. A lapse in housetraining or uncharacteristic behavior is no reason to punish them, and may simply be evidence that you’ve made the transition more quickly than they can tolerate.

Time for independence training

Lara Shannon, dog behaviorist and author of "Eat, Play, Love Your Dog," likens a dog's separation anxiety to a panic attack in humans. In this state, a dog is driven by pure fear, with no more power to think logically than a small child who has been separated from his parents.

Classic signs of separation anxiety may include:

  • Excessive vocalization.

  • Regression in housetraining.

  • Destructive chewing, especially if it’s focused on exits, such as your door or windows.

  • Refusal to eat.

  • Excessive drooling.

  • Self-injury, such as cutting his paws to dig through a crate or door.

Independence training can help. Plan to take mini-breaks from your pet so he gets used to sometimes being alone. If possible, review Rover’s reactions remotely by using a nanny cam or GoPro. Or you can place your laptop at dog level, start a Zoom call, duck into the garage and use your phone to observe how he's doing, says Malena DeMartini-Price, who is renowned in the dog training world for her expertise in dog separation anxiety issues. This will give you important information on how well you absence is being tolerated.

As you build more absences into their days, the dog should gradually learn to accept that sometimes you won't be there, but you always will return.

Re-establish "B.C.” schedule. If you aren’t returning to work for several weeks, now is the time to re-introduce your "before-COVID" routine. This could mean adjusting wake-up times, bedtimes and feeding times to approximate the schedule you’ll use when working offsite. It also might mean doing the things you normally do when preparing to leave the house — brushing teeth, putting on your coat, jingling keys — and then not leaving. In doing this, you're normalizing these rituals and sounds so your dog doesn't automatically equate them with being left, says Shannon.

Walks and playtime when you're at home can help dogs avoid boredom and separation anxiety. / By Tammy Swift
Walks and playtime when you're at home can help dogs avoid boredom and separation anxiety. / By Tammy Swift

Walk this way: Make sure your pup is getting a good walk and playtime before you leave for work or when you come home. Stickney recommends a long, retractable leash that allows the dog to zigzag, sniff and explore. This arrangement encourages dogs to "scent" and investigate their surroundings much like dogs do when roaming free, which is more stimulating to them.

To crate or not to crate? Yes, many dogs view their crate as a sanctuary. And yes, crates can keep dogs safe and out of mischief. Even so, not every dog has positive associations with a crate. A rescue, for instance, may have been neglected and left to live in a crate for months. Another dog may have never stayed in one, so won't understand why he's confined.

Remember to always make the crate a place of treats and peaceful retreat vs. punishment.

If a dog is harming himself in efforts to get out of a crate, don't force the issue. Consult with your veterinarian immediately.

Bring out the boredom busters: A dog is less likely to get in trouble if they have to problem-solve for a reward. Stickney recommends the Kong, that ubiquitous rubber dog toy that can be filled with treats. “You can find it anywhere,” she says. “It’s easy to fill and it’s easy for the dog to win the game so they don’t get frustrated.”

Stuff treats or sliced meat inside the Kong, seal with xylitol-free peanut butter and freeze. Don't forget to wash the toy in hot, soapy water afterward.

Nina Ottosson's Outward Hound Tornado Game is a fun way that dogs can work for their dinner.  / By Tammy Swift
Nina Ottosson's Outward Hound Tornado Game is a fun way that dogs can work for their dinner. / By Tammy Swift

Shaw says tapping into your dog's love of "scenting" releases pheromones and keeps their brains and bodies busy, just like when they're hunting in the wild. There are fun ways to replicate "hunting" in your home:

  • Pour his morning kibble into a clean, plastic bottle drilled with multiple holes so kibble can drop through. Your pooch will have to roll and bat the bottle to get breakfast.

  • Make mealtime more stimulating by pouring his kibble into different cups in a muffin tin, then "hiding" some of the filled cups with balls or toys.

Feeding a pup out of a muffin tin covered with toys can appeal to his "scenting" and foraging instincts. / By Tammy Swift.
Feeding a pup out of a muffin tin covered with toys can appeal to his "scenting" and foraging instincts. / By Tammy Swift.

  • Place small piles of kibble around the house, so they have to sniff and hunt for dinner. You can up the ante a bit by placing small, lightweight boxes over the food piles.

  • Buy or make your own “snuffle mat”: a rug made of longer scraps of fabric under which you can hide their treats. Or you can fold up a towel, tucking in treats with each fold, for the pooch to explore and discover.

  • Invest in treat-dispensing puzzle toys: www.rover.com/blog/reviews/best-puzzle-toys-dogs.

Consider doggie day care: If your pooch loves activity and has never met a mutt he didn't like, consider enrolling him in doggie day care.

Stickney points out, however, that large-scale day care isn’t for all canines. “Most dogs are dog-selective, meaning they don’t love every dog they meet,” Stickney says. In those cases, consider a well-vetted, smaller-scale dog day care, where the operator watches a handful of dogs at a time.

If your neighbor and their dog loves your dog, consider asking them if they can entertain your pooch with walks and playdates.  / Special to The Forum.
If your neighbor and their dog loves your dog, consider asking them if they can entertain your pooch with walks and playdates. / Special to The Forum.

Connect with neighbors. If you’re lucky enough to have a trusted, dog-loving neighbor who works at home or has a dog who is great pals with your pet, consider asking them if they would mind giving Curly a noontime walk or play session to break up his day. Sweeten the deal with gift cards to a favorite shop or by volunteering to walk their dog whenever they’re away.

Keep it cool: Make your arrivals and departures calm and low-key, Mackin says. "The more focus and energy focused on arrival and departures the more obvious it is when the owner is gone and the dog is alone."

Seek professional help. If nothing seems to help your pup’s anxiety, consult your veterinarian, or an experienced dog trainer with a proven background in dog behavior.