Nova Scotia

At home with your dog all day? Expert says don't let them get used to it

Dog owners are spending more time at home with their furry friends during COVID-19, and a Halifax dog behaviour expert says that could lead to separation anxiety when the work world returns to normal.

Keeping a routine, giving them time alone could help keep separation anxiety at bay

Silvia Jay's dog, Bowie, is a border collie she adopted six years ago from a local rescue organization. (Silvia Jay)

For those at home with a dog (or three) in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, an expert cautions to resist playing with them all day.

Giving a dog too much attention now could lead to separation anxiety down the road, says Silvia Jay, a Halifax-based dog behaviour expert.

"There's definitely a risk that they get really used to it, and then become anxious or frustrated when things change again," she said.

Every animal is different, so the way they handle separation anxiety varies. Some animals get destructive or aggressive, others get vocal and won't stop barking.

"Some pets, worst-case scenario, will chew their way right through doorways to get outside," says Eric Carnegy, a Halifax veterinarian. 

Eric Carnegy is a veterinarian in Halifax. (Linda Hamilton)

But while Carnegy sees some cases of separation anxiety in his practice, he said it's not likely to be a "huge problem" coming out of the pandemic.

He said teachers, for example, are typically off for a few months in the summer before going back to work. He said their pets are able to get back into their regular routines fairly easily.

It's mostly puppies and rescue dogs who are new to the home that have difficulty with separation anxiety.

"If you've got a pet that's quite confident in itself and has a routine, then it's not a big deal, even if it goes on for a long, long time," he said.

But if dog owners are concerned about separation anxiety, Jay says there are a few things that can be done.

Carnegy says most dogs are able to get back to their routines easily. (Linda Hamilton)

It's important for people to maintain a routine with their dogs that doesn't differ too much from what they did pre-pandemic, Jay said.

She recommends not adding in too many walks or additional playtime, and keeping activities no less than four hours apart so the dogs can rest and recharge.

"Just because people are physically available, doesn't mean they have to be mentally," she said.

If a person hasn't been instructed to self-isolate, Jay said it is important to leave the house a few times a week without the dog so they don't "completely forget" how to be alone.

Silvia Jay says it is important to keep a routine for a dog that's not too different from the routine before the pandemic. (Silvia Jay)

If a dog is used to doing certain things that are no longer possible during the pandemic, like going to daycare or a park, Jay said they can be "antsy" during the adjustment period.

"It's really important that if something is taken away ... that it's replaced with something else," she said.

With municipal and provincial parks closed under the provincial state of emergency, Jay said owners give dogs more leash than usual so they can move relatively freely.

For young puppies who need socialization, Jay said introducing them to the sights and smells of the outside environment is enough mental stimulation.

For older dogs, Jay said now would be a good time to work on a skill or build on obedience training.

When people do eventually return to work, Jay said they should "spike the toy box" with a special toy or bone to make being home alone more "palatable" for the dog.