Two months into working from home, my long-held desire to adopt a rescue dog reached fever pitch, and I wasn’t alone. Google searches for the phrase “foster a dog near me” in the U.S. as the coronavirus pandemic took hold; animal shelters , or close, as people found themselves sheltering in place with some extra time on their hands. As I dove into the various rescue and rehoming options in Sydney, the competition for any dog smaller than a horse was fierce.
We finally brought home a soft, nervy 6-year-old pug cross, christened Bruce by the young family in the outer suburbs who could no longer give him the time and attention he needed. Our lives rapidly recentred around him, and long walks around our pup-packed corner of the city — an adjustment for him after being relatively isolated. As I apologised to a fellow human whose cavoodle Bruce didn’t like the look of one morning, saying he was still settling in, she smiled knowingly. “Ah, a COVID puppy.”
While my partner and I are (lucky to be) working from home, and will be for a while yet, eventually we’ll find ourselves having to leave him alone for a full workday with only a propped-open back door and a kibble-stuffed Kong for company. Right now, apart from an hour or two of naps and barking at couriers, Bruce spends most of the day staring forlornly at the nearest human with his bush-baby eyes. In the middle of writing this paragraph, I had to move from my desk to the couch so he could snuggle up next to me and stop pawing at my best WFH leggings. While he seems to cope fine if we duck out to our local pub for a few socially distanced beers (which, at the time of writing, is allowed again in Sydney), we have no idea how he’ll go for nearly nine hours.
“Once everyone goes back to work, it’s going to be such a big difference and such a shock to the system”
And this isn’t just a concern for dog owners, new or otherwise. My friend Macarena Miranda, who’s gone from working from home part-time to full-time during the pandemic, says her 5-year-old cat Bagheera has turned stage five clinger over the last few months.
“I have been staying away on the weekends, and upon my return she becomes my shadow,” she says. “I can’t even pop into the bathroom without her following me in or meowing at the door if she isn’t allowed in.”
The surge in cat and dog adoptions, hopefully by people who are actually home to help their new friend settle in, is a great start. But for newly adopted companion animals, there’s a big shift coming at some point down the line. Whether it’s weeks or months away, most people who began working remotely (or not at all) during the pandemic are likely to return to work eventually, and responsible humans need to start preparing their pets for it right now.
“Once everyone goes back to work, it’s going to be such a big difference and such a shock to the system, that I think definitely we’re going to see a lot of instances of separation distress turning into separation anxiety,” says Mickey McCallum, a dog behaviourist and accredited trainer who runs Sydney training business Going Mutts.
And for any pets adopted before the pandemic, the move back to some semblance of a normal work and school week won’t be the first major disruption to their routine, either.
“Kids are usually out or at school, and suddenly they’re home and they’ve got so much energy pent up, and they’ll be sometimes very loud, some cats can find that all a bit overwhelming,” explains Sydney-based cat behaviourist Regina Hall-Jones. “So that adjustment in the beginning is also a big one. And some cats will be probably relieved going back to [humans leaving for the day], but a lot I think will suffer some kind of separation anxiety or at least adjustment… Cats don’t like change much at all really, generally speaking. So they don’t really cope that well.”
Distress vs. anxiety: What’s the difference?
If your pet’s a little too used to having you around, they won’t learn — or might un-learn — the emotional independence they need to cope on their own. But there’s a difference between a pet who’s constantly waltzing into frame during Zoom calls or interrupting your workouts because you haven’t given them any attention for an hour or so, and one with separation distress or anxiety.
Separation anxiety might be a more familiar term, but just because your pet seems clingy or needy, it doesn’t mean there’s a clinical problem… yet.
“Separation distress is, I guess, the prelude to separation anxiety,” McCallum explains. “Separation anxiety is actually a medical condition. It needs to be diagnosed by a vet.”
Any stressful event can spike your pet’s cortisol levels, and enough stressors piled up together at once — like a sudden change in routine or home life, on top of being left alone for longer than they’re used to — can cause even well-trained animals to engage in undesirable behaviours to try and cope.
“It’s really important that a puppy or a dog isn’t with the owner 100 percent of the time because that’s definitely going to lead to that separation distress if they’re not used to being by themselves and they haven’t learned to cope with being by themselves,” says McCallum.
“A dog’s ability to regulate their emotions, it’s something they need to practice,” she explains. “So it’s a skill that they have, and if they’re good at it, they’ve been able to do it in their previous household where people leave them alone and they go, ‘OK, I just need to calm down,’ they’ll be very good at generalizing that to their new household. Whereas if they’re never by themselves and they never have to really regulate their emotions because they always have their day with [humans], that’s going to be a problem for the new owner.”
But don’t count on your COVID rescue pup to adapt easily to post-pandemic routines just because their last human wasn’t home much either. Bruce, for example, spent almost all his time alone in his old backyard, but I can’t assume he’ll be OK with that after a few months of constant company. “Even if he was left alone previously at his last home, he might not think that that’s what happens at your home and that could definitely lead to separation distress when you start to leave,” McCallum tells me.
“I can’t even pop into the bathroom without her following me in.”
But what’s the difference between an affectionate cat or dog who loves a lap nap and occasionally staring at you from the crack of the bathroom door, and one who’s not going to cope when you’re not around? For both dogs and cats, following you around 24/7 and freaking out if you’re not in sight is red flag #1.
“If your dog likes to sit next to you on the couch or, you know, occasionally wants to sleep in your bed, that’s perfectly normal, they’re very social animals,” McCallum says. “But if they’re trying to be with you 24/7, and if you’re not paying attention to them, and that’s when they start barking out for attention or, you know, try to worry your clothes, that’s when I’d start to be a little bit concerned.”
If you’re worried, you can test to see if you need to do some separation distress training.
“Say you do have a bit of separation, say you put a baby gate in and you’ve tried to walk into the kitchen, and they’ve started vocalising and they’re getting quite distressed, then I would be very worried about that, and I would say that you do need to do some more intensive training,” McCallum says. “I usually use a tie-up exercise or restraint exercise, where I’ve tied the dog up to something and then take one step away, wait for them to completely settle themselves. And then once they do that, that’s what we’re teaching them: It’s the current behavior that will get me to come back, not yanking against the lead or vocalising or anything like that. It’s just if [they] chill out. That’s a good way to test if your dog has a bit of separation distress, if you have them in a crate, or you tie them up to a point and you take one step away — if they get very, very distressed, that’s a bit of a concern.”
Baby gates, playpens, and crate training are all useful options to help restrict your dog’s access to you without completely vanishing from their sight. McCallum also suggests leash training indoors: “Just introduce a little bit of stress: putting him on the other side of the baby gate, but he can still see you. Or, have him tied up on the couch, you’re sitting a little bit further down the couch, so he can’t touch you, but he’s still there in the room. So you always want to keep the dog under [their stress] threshold and make it really achievable for them to deal with you not being directly in reach.”
For cats, Hall-Jones recommends simply putting them in another room and closing the door, then checking on them between increasing intervals — but make sure it feels positive, not like a punishment. “So you could have a really good play with them beforehand,” she suggests. “And interactive play would be good. And then maybe put them into the room with you know, a little bit of food or a food puzzle. Something like that to keep them occupied for a little while. Start just for a short time at first but then you could slowly start to make it a little bit longer.”
“Ideally what you want to be doing is if they’re constantly hassling you for attention, or you’ve put them outside, they’re scratching at the door, you should actually wait for them to give up on that, stop whining or scratching, wait for them to do something else,” says McCallum. “Or, you know, go off to entertain themselves. And that’s when you should go, ‘Yeah, that’s it, that’s perfect, buddy,’ let them inside, give them a treat — you will be rewarding that independent behavior.”
The new new normal
When it comes to routines, the approaches for cats and dogs are a little different. Feline friends cope better with a more regular schedule, says Hall-Jones, and so can benefit from bringing everyday routines back in line with what “normal” will look like. “Start to establish what the routine’s gonna look like when everyone is out of the house a bit more, but try not to do it all at once,” she says. “We don’t want them to become so rigid that they don’t have any amount of flexibility, but they do tend to cope better with a set routine.”
Dogs, you may be surprised to learn, actually benefit from a little randomness in their day, because they pick up our schedules so easily — so if dinner time and walkies in your house aren’t exactly clockwork, you’ve actually been setting your dog up to cope better with disruptions down the track.
“If it’s a dog that has been raised with that [routine] — he gets fed at 7, the owner leaves at 9, the owner is back at 6, he gets fed at 6:30 — any deviation from that schedule, will really stress that dog out,” says McCallum.
If you’ve set your dog like a phone timer, though, she says you can ease them out of it over time. “For example, feeding them at 7 — if [owners] try to vary by going after that, they will introduce that stress to the dog. If he’s going ‘Oh my god, it’s 7:30 and I haven’t been fed,’ he’ll start to get quite stressed out, whereas if it’s ‘Oh my god. I got fed at 6:30? Amazing!’” Then you can go back to 7 the next day, and vary it again the day after.
In order to not stress your pet out any more than is necessary for acclimatisation, but still get them ready before any major changes, you’ll need to pace this training slowly — so starting ASAP is a good strategy.
Once you’re back
Every time you leave the house without your pet right now, even if it’s just for a masked grocery run, practice being extremely chill in your comings and goings, so you don’t signal that you’re about to leave them for who knows how long. Greetings and farewells should always be casual and calm, no matter whether you’re leaving for five minutes or five hours. You can even get ready super early in order to decouple your going-out routines from the actual going out part: Get your coat and shoes on, grab your keys, and then, as McCallum says, “instead of leaving, sit on the couch and watch TV for an hour — just do it all the time.”
And if you’re planning on giving your pet a food puzzle, background noise, or interactive toys to entertain them while they’re alone, or even having a dog walker or a friend come around to check in, introduce these new things and people repeatedly during calm, happy times, so those associations stay positive. (Imagine you start getting free pizza delivered at random times, but you quickly learn it means your internet is going to drop out for the next five hours. It would kinda ruin pizza for you.)
If your pet is causing more chaos than usual in the house when you do leave — chewing, scratching, vocalising, general destructiveness, or doing their business in unusual places like you didn’t spend all those hours toilet training them — that’s a pretty good sign they’re distressed. For cats, Hall-Jones says, the most common signs to look for is “litter box problems,” as well as over-grooming or obsessive licking to the point of hair loss. For dogs, McCallum points to Fido whining, barking, or generally losing his shit the minute you close the door behind you as a sign for concern. Your vet should be the first call to rule out any serious medical problems; after that, if some basic separation training doesn’t make any progress, seek the advice of an accredited trainer or behaviourist to help you out.
It might not seem like life will return to normal any time soon, but we won’t be stuck at home forever. And while our pets might be enjoying the company, a bit of prep now can help them enjoy having the place to themselves later on.
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