America’s pets are luxuriating in dreamy, continual proximity to their owners. Well, not all. “Cats are annoyed,” says William Berloni, who trains animals for the stage (Annie, Legally Blonde) and screen (Billions). “Mine are like, Why are you in the bedroom? What are you doing here?” But dogs are in paradise, certain—or as certain as we can be about what dogs think—that this newfound dynamic will last forever. “They assume it’s a new lifestyle,” Berloni says. “They’re thinking, Finally our owners know that we want to be with them 24/7.”
But there’s a problem: Dogs are becoming “overly bonded,” which means they’re intensely reliant on our presence to stay calm. Dogs signal this when they can no longer self-soothe and panic after an owner leaves a room or, God forbid, the house. It has to be addressed now—long before your dog is left home, solo, for long stretches when you return to the office—to avoid doggie meltdowns.
Andrea Arden, owner of Andrea Arden Dog Training in New York, is already seeing these tantrums happen in puppy playgroups. “The minute their person walks away, they’re pretty hysterical,” she says. “Rather than being a little bit stressed”—as in normal times—“they’re really, really concerned—vocalization, excessive panting, and an overall worried demeanor.”
Your attitude. As painful as this process might be, realize that it’s for your best friend’s own good. And also yours: If you don’t help your dog readjust, you’ll have a problem when you return to the office.
Your strategy. Incrementally reestablish your office workday schedule, including when you’d walk, feed, play with, and be apart from your dog.
Step 1: Separate. At least twice a day for an hour, put her in a room (or a crate in a room) and close the door. “They’ll protest, they’ll scream, and you just have to let them cry it out,” says Berloni, who’s also director of animal training and behavior for the Humane Society of New York. When you come back, act like you’re having a normal, boring interaction.
Step 2: Separate some more. Extend the alone time from one hour to three to four hours. Try different forms of isolation, such as putting your dog in a crate in the kitchen or tethering her with a leash in the living room. “Use as many different tools as possible, because it means that the dog has more flexibility and opportunities to get really good at this skill,” Arden says.
Step 3: Buy toys. Put your dog’s meals in toys that dispense food when pushed around. “That means the dog has something to occupy his time when you’re not around,” Arden says. She likes the Comfort Bone, the Busy Buddy Twist ‘n Treat, the West Paw Zogoflex Toppl Tough Treat dispenser, and the Petstages Carrot Stuffer Dog Toy.
Step 4: Bring the noise. Many dogs, particularly in cities, have adjusted to a quieter life with less traffic, shorter walks, and minimal socializing. Translation: Loud car and truck noises and other dogs may freak them out. “The dogs are like, Wait a minute, this is not the world I got used to. I don’t have experience with this,” Arden says. Reacquaint them. Start by finding an outdoor spot near lots of activity, take a seat, and let your dog watch the world go by. Expect him to need slow reintroductions to dog parks and house guests.
Your time frame. How long it takes to get your dog comfortable with alone time will vary from days to months. “Each dog is responding to the owner’s cues, so the owner may be cuing that anxiety,” Berloni says.
Your Google search for “dog trainer.” If your dog is disrupting your daily life—think barking or pawing you during work calls, or torturing neighbors with barking or crying—then it might be time. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, and, says Berloni, “there are no books for getting your dog happy at the end of a pandemic.”