If you follow any canine Facebook groups or other online resources, you will almost certainly have read the worries about an epidemic of separation-related problems for our dogs when we return to a more usual pattern each day. This is a very genuine concern.  

Work rest and play

Many dogs have been brought up being used to the company of their humans at certain times of the day or the week, exercise and fun activities morning and night, and time to rest and relax whilst you’re out at work.  (And make no mistake, they do need time to rest and relax).  Suddenly, their humans were at home all day, every day.  And many humans have taken the opportunity to walk more often, play with their dog more often, maybe even start training some particular skills.  You’ll have seen the funny memes, I’m sure, but this is a serious issue.  

Preparing for our release ‘into the wild’!

So, what might happen when it’s time to go back to work?  How might this impact on our dogs? Well, for some, they will breathe a sigh of relief and catch up on much needed rest, but others are likely to suffer.  We all need to give some thought as to how best to help our dogs cope.

There has been a great deal of advice around the idea of proactively going out without your dog for a period of time each day (the idea being to replicate something akin to a normal pattern), to shut your dog in another room preventing access to you for periods of time, to ignore your dog and many variations along these themes.  This isn’t exactly bad advice, but it bears a little more consideration.

What much of the advice neglects to say is that dogs are social creatures.  Dogs are just like humans, in that respect – and we all know how we have been feeling in these times of not being able to mix with our friends and family when we choose!  There are degrees of difference between individuals – within my own three dogs, I have one very happy to snooze in another room whether I’m in the house or not and two who scoot after me if I get out of a chair to reach something from a shelf.

We know from good scientific studies that setting our dogs up to cope with periods alone starts with the very earliest days of puppy rearing, allowing strong, secure attachments to form between mum and puppies.  Then at the appropriate time, carefully transferring that attachment to the new human care givers (and that is a huge, important and little discussed topic in itself).  Then creating feelings of safety, security and nurturing in the new home environment.  There may or may not be other dogs who will form part of this process as well.  Only when this very secure attachment has been created can you begin to prepare a puppy for periods of time when you (and perhaps your family), their sole companion(s) and care giver(s), are not available.  

Pointers to consider

(Not the canine Pointers by the way, although we do like considering them.)
Has your dog learned to spend time in a space of their own, which is familiar, warm, quiet and comfortable?  Do they have a choice of places to rest within that space? Can they choose to retire to that space whenever they want to?  What do they do if they are contained within that space?  Do you know? Has the amount of time spent in that space been built up very slowly and carefully, at a pace the dog can cope with?  Has time alone been a normal part of a dog’s day only after they have become comfortable with being alone? 

Sheep dog resting quietly alone

I am a fan of careful crate training, not least because as a veterinary nurse, it breaks my heart when patients are so distressed at being confined to a kennel in the vets.  We can prepare them for this in advance.  For practical purposes in most households, having a dog who willingly accepts being separated from the humans for part of the time will be useful, whether that’s in their own room, or a crate within a room of people.  It’s safer for visiting children. If you have a drinks party, guests won’t necessarily welcome the attentions of your dog. You may have friends who simply dislike dogs (hard to believe, but it is possible !!).  It also helps to ensure that your dog gets sufficient rest, if they are accustomed to a period of time each day when nothing interesting happens.

Be prepared and understand your dog

Clearly these are not changes that can be made overnight.  It’s something I get involved with frequently with second hand dogs.  It can be very challenging explaining to their new guardians that even though the dog is an adult, they still need nurturing, they need time to grow to trust and be able to communicate with their new human companion(s).  This takes a long time, and lots of proactivity from the human side.  Dogs are very adaptable, very capable of fitting in with human families, but we mustn’t expect that they simply put up with whatever we throw at them. We need to think about their view of the world, how they operate as social creatures and their needs.  Then we can learn to understand and respond appropriately to what they are communicating to us.  And we need to give serious thought to whether or not we can meet those needs.  

It’s not too late – Hooray!!

It’s not too late to implement these plans, no matter how long your dog has lived with you, or how old they are now. It is particularly important to consider these aspects as lockdown eases. Please do consider the impact the changes will have on your dog, and slowly move back to a more normal daily routine for them in preparation.  If you are worried that your dog may struggle, please get professional advice sooner rather than later.  Separations problems are very challenging to deal with alone, even with specialist knowledge and this is why good professionals try so hard to encourage the best start for puppies and rescue dogs to avoid it occurring.

Happy Golden Retriever

Morag Sutherland RVN DMS Cert SAN

Morag is a Registered Veterinary Nurse and a member of the Association of INTO Dogs. Morag has a special interest in nutrition for dogs and horses, particularly in how it affects their behaviour. She is the owner of Gelert Behaviour Training, offering advice for dogs and other pets, as well as regular workshops, talks and events in west Wales and other locations by invitation.

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The veterinary Surgeon’s Act 1966 restricts the treatment of animals (usually other than your own*) by anyone other than a qualified vet. Always consult a veterinary surgeon if you are concerned about your animal’s health. *For full details visit the RCVS website