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How to Ease Separation Anxiety in Your Pets When Returning to Work

By Stacy Painter
May 7, 2021 • 7 min. read
dog on couch looking out window

Key Takeaways

  • If you are going back to the workplace soon after working from home with your pet, take action now to get your pet used to you being gone.
  • If you have recently returned to the office, there are some things you can do to ease your pet’s separation anxiety such as coming and going in a calm manner and leaving toys or food puzzles for your pet to work on.
  • Make sure your pets get plenty of exercise before and after work, so they’ll be more tired and relaxed in the hours you are gone.

Finally, after one of the longest-feeling years in history, the COVID-19 pandemic has eased enough that many pet parents are now able or required to return to their workplaces.

That raises questions for people whose pets have become accustomed to them being home most of the time, especially for those who have adopted pets during the pandemic. That extra time with our pets has been a bonus, and now it’s time to pay the piper unless you are able to continue working remotely or are lucky enough to work for a pet-friendly employer who allows pets in the office.

If you haven’t yet returned to the office, but are expecting to soon, start that transition now by setting some appropriate boundaries. If you have already returned, there are some things you can do to help your pet feel more comfortable home alone. This applies primarily to dogs, as cats are generally fine left on their own.

You may have noticed a slight change in your pet’s behavior since you’ve been working from home full time. Personally, my dog seems to have become clingier, choosing to sit against my leg or on my feet rather than in her bed, and she whines more often.

Dr. Jim Ha, certified applied animal behaviorist and University of Washington professor, expressed concern for a potential crisis with dogs in households where their pet parents worked from home full-time in the past year.

As people begin to go back to in-person work, there is a potential for significant separation anxiety crisis among dogs, which can result in them destroying household items or even harming themselves. In a video on YouTube, Dr. Ha provides suggestions on easing your dog out of the work-from-home routine.

Dog looking out window
How to prevent future separation anxiety

  • Take “No attention” breaks: Cuddles and playtime are highly welcome (and encouraged!), but it’s essential to set boundaries with your pet. Designate chunks of “no attention” time throughout the day during which you ignore your pet.
  • Stick to your “leaving for work” routine: If you would typically crate your dog, continue to do so. If you leave a special treat or feed them just before leaving, follow that same routine, and then leave for a while.
  • Leave the house: You don’t have to be gone for eight hours, but Dr. Ha recommends that you are absent for a little while. Some suggestions are to go for a drive, sit in your car and read a book, or go for a bike ride.
  • Separate yourself: During a few of your working hours, consider going into a bedroom or office without your pet and closing the door. They’ll know you’re on the other side of the door, but this gives them a sense of being home alone.

We asked Dr. Ha how long it might take for pets to get used to their pet parents returning to the office. “It can take weeks or never for them to get used to you being gone again. That’s my concern: this situation, if not handled well, and in some cases even if they do, is going to cause some long-term severe behavior issues in some dogs.”

dog at the window
How to come and go to curb separation anxiety

Sarah-Anne Reed of Pack Dynamics LLC and Healthy Paws consulting dog trainer says the way pet parents behave when they leave or return home can contribute to separation anxiety. Dogs show signs of separation anxiety because they are worried that something might happen to their pet parents when they go out.

Pet parents can exacerbate this anxiety by making a fuss when they leave or come home, Reed said. Unless dogs have been trained otherwise, they think they are responsible for protecting you and the “pack,” whether you are home or away.

“If you look at them, give them affection, or say goodbye to them when you are getting ready to leave, all they hear is ‘I’m afraid! I wish I didn’t have to go out into the big scary world all alone, without you to protect me and take care of me,'” Reed said. “When you arrive home and acknowledge them immediately, what your dog hears is ‘I was so scared! You weren’t there to protect me from all the dangers, and I barely made it home alive.’”

As hard as it may be, it’s better to ignore your dog when you leave. When you arrive home, wait until they have stopped trying to get your attention for a few minutes before calling them over to say hello, Reed says. After that, you can invite them over for a calm greeting and affection on your terms.

This may sound like it would hurt your dog’s feelings, but we need to remember that dogs are not humans, Reed says. By not acknowledging them when you leave the house and waiting for a few minutes after you come home to say hello to them, it’s actually comforting to your dog.

You show them that you are capable of taking care of yourself, which means that they don’t need to worry about you while you are gone. It can take a few months to resolve separation anxiety completely. The more you practice this new way of leaving and returning, the more convinced your dog will be that they can just relax while you are away from them.

woman walking dog
Make sure your dog is getting plenty of exercise

Walk before and after work

With you gone all day, exercising your dog frequently is even more critical. A brisk walk before work will tire your dog out and allow them to be calmer during the day. A walk after work will let them burn off any energy built up from lying around all day.

Hire a dog walker or consider doggie daycare

If you are gone for a full day, hiring a dog walker to come mid-day is going to keep your dog healthier and happier. Ask friends for dog walker recommendations or use a service such as Rover or Wag. If your dog is well socialized, you might also consider dropping them at a doggie daycare a few days a week. The cost of daycare is often just a little more than hiring a dog walker, and your dog will receive all-day stimulation.

Dog with Kong
How to keep your pet busy while you’re gone

If you are a dog parent and use Facebook, consider joining a canine enrichment group for creative and often inexpensive ideas for creating games or food puzzles that will keep your pup busy for at least part of the time you are away.

Many trainers advocate not serving your dog’s food in a bowl at all, and instead leaving food puzzles for your dog to solve. Dogs are natural scavengers who love to sniff, so working for their food is natural and mentally stimulating for them.

By ditching the food bowl, I was able to extend my food-obsessed rescue dog’s feeding time from about 30 seconds to 30 minutes by leaving three or four puzzles, food dispensers, or slow feeders for him to work on.

A stuffed Kong is the most well-known food puzzle for dogs. A food puzzle can be as simple as a towel rolled up with food inside or a bunch of bottles with holes in them strung up for the dog to bat around until the food comes out. You can also hide kibble or treats around the house for them to find when you leave. Here’s a video I made on how to make a snuffle mat for your dog or cat. Here are a few other ideas.

One note: Don’t leave your dog a bone, rawhide, or bully stick to chew on when you leave, as they should be monitored with these types of treats because of choking hazards.

Cats can also benefit from cat-specific food puzzles and dispensers, and there are some other tools you can use to keep your cat entertained. Since cats love cardboard boxes, you can leave some for them to play with. Cat furniture such as a scratching post or a cat tree they can climb on can keep your cat engaged. Here are a few other ideas.

Are electronic toys or gadgets a good distraction?

Cat with toyThere are all kinds of high-tech gadgets available now that promise to keep your pets entertained while you are away. Ball throwers, robots, treat dispensers, interactive collars, and more for dogs and cats are marketed to pet parents who may feel guilty about leaving their pets at home.

These interactive toys may be fine for cats, but be careful about using them with dogs, Reed said. For example, gadgets such as the Furbo, which shoots out treats when the pet parent activates it remotely, can change your dog’s relationship to food in a negative way. The dog can hear you (through the device’s speaker), but they can’t see you, which confuses them.

Treats should be used as a reward for good behavior, and your dog should know it’s coming from you as a training tool and to strengthen your bond, Reed added.

As for food bowl dispensers that automatically dispense food at a specific time or in certain amounts, those may be fine in single pet households, Reed says, but it can cause food-aggression fights between dogs in multi-dog homes. If the gadget dispenses the food when you’re not there to monitor, the dominant dog may keep the other dogs from eating.

Automatic food dispensers also take away the opportunity to show leadership to your dog. By feeding your furry friend yourself, you are indicating you control and provide the food, and they don’t have to worry about it.

Other automated toys such as ball launchers or laser light pointers can lead to obsessive behaviors in dogs, says Reed. By controlling access to the toys, you can head off compulsive behavior. Playing with your dog or cat with toys is another way to deepen your bond, which won’t happen with a robot.

Turn on the TV or radio for background noise

Some dogs and cats may enjoy watching television, whether that’s the DogTV or programming for dogs and cats on YouTube. Just search dog or cat TV, and you’ll find a trove of options.

Even leaving the radio on reportedly soothes pets. University of Glasgow Ph.D. researcher Amy Bowman says that dogs, like people, prefer to listen to “a variety of music and not the same thing over and over again,” so change the station every day or play podcasts.

dog by the windowGive them a window to the world

Dogs and cats may enjoy peeking their little noses through the curtains to watch what’s going on in the neighborhood. Leave window treatments open and put a pillow or cushion in a chair in front of the window so your dog or cat can jump up and see what’s going on outside. Don’t do this if you have an anxious dog who perceives everything as a threat.

Pets can get in trouble when left home alone. Protect your pets – and your wallet – by enrolling in pet insurance. Healthy Paws offers one simple plan to protect dogs and cats from any unexpected accidents or illnesses. Start by getting a free quote.

Stacy Painter profile
By Stacy Painter

Stacy has always been an animal lover and has worked in the pet industry and pet insurance specifically for over a decade. As a writer since early childhood, content writing for Healthy Paws pet insurance was a natural career path to combine her two passions. She currently lives in Florida with her boyfriend and Taiwanese rescue dog, Kaya.

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