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Fall is just around the corner and with it comes seasonal changes that are as obvious to your dog as they are to your human family. After a summer together of hiking and swimming and camping, the transition back to cooler weather and shorter days jam-packed with indoor activities generally results in your dog taking a backseat to a list of other priorities. While some dogs handle these changes fine, for others it can be scary or frustrating to see the world they’d gotten used to in the summer months suddenly change. Here are some ways to address the biggest potential pitfalls to your dog when the kids head back to school and summer fades into memory.
Isolation Distress and Separation Anxiety
For many parents and teachers, when school is out of session, days revolve around your home. This is great news for your dog—suddenly they are spending less time alone and more time having adventures with you. But, when fall rolls around and classes begin again, long days without your company return, too.
The abrupt change from a little alone time to a lot of it can be enough to send some dogs into a state of panic. Maybe your dog can’t remember back to the spring when their days were safe but solitary. Or maybe the constant attention over the summer has simply resulted in a dog who now thinks being alone is abnormal and frightening. This type of panic when being left alone more frequently becomes particularly problematic as dogs age and become less malleable and open to change. A college teacher friend’s dog did fine with the summer-to-fall school transition when he was a pup but, now at 10 years old, has developed a fear of being left alone for long periods of time when fall rolls around. In his case, it’s cumulative: on Monday he’s okay, Tuesday he’s a bit more concerned, but by Thursday he’s barking continuously and digging and chewing at doorways.
The easiest way to help your dog through the transition from summer-to-fall is to gradually increase their alone time in the weeks that lead up to your (or your kids’) return to school. This process will help to desensitize them to long regular absences and make them easier to handle. If you haven’t been regularly leaving your dog alone during the summer, begin by taking off for 30 mins or an hour. Over the next two weeks, increase the time each day or every other day until you work up to a full eight hour day away. (For example – Day 1: 30 mins, Day 3: 1hr, Day 5: 1hr 30mins, etc.) If you have been regularly leaving your dog for short periods of time over the summer, get some practice with longer absences in before you go, beginning with leaving for 3-4 hours a few times the first week and increasing that to leaving for 5-8 hours a few times during the second week.
Make things a little easier on your dog by offering them a puzzle toy stuffed with delicious goodies when you first walk out the door and playing some white noise or relaxing piano music while you are away. Using a DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) collar or diffuser may also help to calm your dog when they are alone.
Hyperactivity or Depression
The back-to-school/work transition can be tough for dogs in other ways, too. I don’t need to tell you that, when you are busy, you don’t have as much time for your dog and that means their walks and playtime become shorter or less frequent and they are on their own more often.
If you have a high energy dog, the transition to fall can result in a build-up of frustration and excitement that can result in behavior challenges. A dog without good regular outlets for physical and mental stimulation is much more likely to explode with jumping, vocalizing and rough play when you are around than one who is having those needs met. And, when we are busy, our first reaction to this kind of hyperactivity is likely to be frustration and anger, not understanding.
On the flip side, even if your dog isn’t showing signs of isolation distress or separation anxiety, being left alone can be terribly depressing. A bored or depressed dog may not enjoy things the way they used to and could begin to increasingly isolate themselves from the family when they are home. It can be heartbreaking to watch a happy, fulfilled dog transition to a depressed one, especially knowing that you’ve contributed to it.
So, now you know it’s essential to include your dog’s needs among your list of priorities but when you only have the bandwidth for a bare minimum of walks and play, how do you go about it. My advice? Build a network of local dog care providers and a hoard of the right kinds of toys.
These days most cities across the United States have doggy daycare facilities; some have small-scale doggy daycare providers who run their business out of their home. Once your dog has passed any behavioral assessments a daycare might require, most facilities will allow you to drop them off whenever you need—whether that’s an afternoon on a weekday or a full day on the weekend. Some daycares also offer overnight options.
Where I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, dog walking is its own industry. There are literally hundreds of dog professionals who do everything from mid-day hikes to round-the-block potty breaks. They will pick-up and drop-off your pup without you needing to be home. Most dog walkers do not require your dog to be enrolled in walks every day but they typically need a set schedule of specific days each week your dog will be joining them. You may also be able to find a reliable walker on a dog care site like Rover.com.
E-nannies and puzzle toys
While human and/or dog interaction during long days alone is always the best option, it’s not in everyone’s budget. There is an alternative, albeit one that is primarily a form of mental stimulation without providing much in the way of exercise: e-nannies. There are a number of these types of treat-dispensing toys available for purchase online. Some, like PetSafe’s Treat & Train, use a timer to dispense treats or pieces of kibble randomly throughout your absence. More advanced tools like the Furbo Dog Camera can dispense treats remotely via a Smartphone app. On the low-tech end, any kind of puzzle toy that encourages your dog to play with their food is good for mental stimulation. Pack a KONG or similar toy and leave it for your dog when you walk out the door. Even better, pack multiple toys (or make your own) and hide them around the house for your dog to find while you are away.