As we all slowly emerge from months of staying home the new routines of our households are certainly in for a bit of a shake-up. A change that can be tricky for our beloved dogs, cats, bunnies and other animal friends who have started getting used to us all being around more often.
We chatted to PETstock brand ambassador, certified dog trainer and behaviour specialist and creator of Pooches At Play, Lara Shannon, for some helpful advice, tips and PETstock products you can use to ease your furry (or scaly) friend into your return to work.
Lara, many people have been working from home and staying indoors more and this means a lot more contact time with their pets. With dogs in particular, what has been going on with them psychologically during this period?
It depends on their family situation and the dog's temperament. They're either having a wonderful time, spending more time with their family, or others might be feeling a little bit confused and stressed if they're just not used to having the kids running around and the whole family there all the time. So it is a mix of both. I think ultimately most dogs are loving all the extra exercise that they are getting and all of the extra attention. But it does concern me greatly for when we all head back to life as normal.
What behaviours should we look out for that indicate your dog might not be coping?
When people start going out after spending more time at home, they might find that their dog is anxious when they start really watching you prepare to go to work. They might start trembling (a really obvious one) or doing things a lot of people miss like licking their lips, yawning, drooling, pacing and losing their appetite. And if you've seen any vomiting or diarrhoea once you’ve started leaving them alone again for longer periods of time, or if you find that your dog is suddenly toileting inside when they’re normally really well trained, these are some of the key things that would indicate your dog is suffering from separation anxiety. They may also start barking and show destructive behaviour, like chewing and digging. Generally, it's not the dog being naughty. The dog is trying to tell you that they’re either anxious or something is going on when you're not there.
“Leave them with a bone or some interactive toys so that they have a positive association with that alone time”
This can also be a sign of boredom if they're not mentally and physically stimulated. To observe your dog’s behaviour when you’re out I often tell people to ask their neighbour or to leave a recording device so they can monitor their dog from afar. You can then start to work out whether it's happening in the afternoon or, whether barking, crying and whining starts to happen as soon as they leave. If the behaviour happens all morning, that's generally a sign of separation anxiety, whereas boredom tends to occur later in the day. That's a good way to determine between the two.
Obviously, what we want to try and do is stop it all in the first place and prepare our dog properly so that we don't have to experience any of it.
What are the best things people can do to ensure a smooth transition?
The big one is that we want to create alone time and we want to start it while people are at home. Ideally, have a nice, safe, secure place that your dog goes to. You might have taught them “on your mat” as place training, for example, or they might be crate trained. You’ll want to have about three to five separations a day even while you’re at home. Putting them either in another room, in their crate, in their bed or out in the backyard. And ideally leaving them with an occupying, raw meaty bone (or antler) or some interactive toys so that they have a really positive association with that alone time as well. We don't just want to lock them away because that's going to give a really negative association with being alone. Create some of that independence while you are still around and then graduate to going out and leaving them. Everything with dogs works in small steps and, especially if you have a puppy or rescue dog, try going out to the shops and leaving them for one hour at a time and get them slowly used to it.
When should you start introducing these new training ideas and how do you maintain them after you return to work?
Now! Also start making sure that you go back to an exercise routine while you're still at home. Walk your dog morning and night to bring them back to a normal routine because they're going to feel it even more when you go back to work. Most dogs need to be walked every day and by introducing a morning and night routine they've got something to look forward to. And keeping that routine up once you're back at work.
Then, of course, still playing and spending extra time with them. Not enough people spend time playing with their dog – things like throwing a ball, playing games of tug, even at night-time in the lounge room when you’re watching telly gives them extra mental and physical stimulation and just helps create a bond as well. So really keep that play time and family time up as well.
What can you add to your home or your pet’s toy box to help?
Interactive toys and puzzles are really great for dogs and they’re great for cats as well. They get a dog's mind and body working and help with a lot of the problem behaviours you might see if they are left alone for eight hours in the middle of the day with nothing going on. In the wild, they would be out foraging for their food all day until they are exhausted – they will have been using their nose, their brain and they've been using their body. So we need to tap back into that and interactive toys are great for it. KONGs with frozen mince inside of them are great. Or Aussie Dog Home Alone Toys are awesome, they've got some really good toys that hang up in trees and make your dog jump up and pull on them because they make a noise and drop treats out. That just gets the dog's brain going, gets their bodies moving and also taps into that sense of smell, which is really important.
Treat dispensing or food dispensing puzzles are a great option too. But remember you have to show your dog how to use them because they don't automatically know. And try a few to find the right one for your dog. My boy Darcy’s got a noise phobia so I can't leave him with a rattling, noisy ball on hard floors, I need a soft interactive toy, for example.
A really simple idea is, if you feed your dog with dry kibble and have a backyard, hide their food in the grass before you go to work so they can go hunting for it. Again, you've got to show them how to do it but that gives them a good half an hour hunting around looking for their food, basically like they would in the wild. Scent is their primary sense too, so having a treasure hunt like that releases endorphins and makes them feel good, too.
Now onto our other pet owners. Do you have any advice for cat lovers? Fish enthusiasts? Rabbit keepers?
Yes! People forget that cats and rabbits need exercise, too. Rabbits need a good half an hour at least roaming around outside their cage each day. So rabbits are also going to miss having a family around as they thrive on human company, too. Continuing their exercise, make sure they’re safe and warm and that they are getting mental and physical stimulation and family time in the evenings is important as well. Rabbits can also have feelings of being abandoned once everything goes quiet.
With cats also it's about providing them with some enrichment. Again, interactive toys and puzzles are great for cats. They can tend to be lazy, so if you've got stairs, I suggest putting their food up the top so they have to walk up and down the stairs to get their food. You might even want to give your cat a viewing area and put a birdbath in front of a window so they can stare out and watch the birds come and go during the daytime as well. And again, it’s all about spending that time playing with them and giving them some family time in the evening.
Fish – it’s good to remember they’re not a disposable item and they need to be cared for. Give them a nice tank with some leafy plants. Give them lots of interaction as well with some good-quality ornaments to swim and hide in.
Some of Lara's recommendations for occupying toys and good-quality tools for your dog:
For more information (and more tips and videos from Lara) head to the 'At Home with PETstock' page.