The Biggest Mistake Dog Owners Can Make When Returning to the Office After a Year at Home

published Aug 4, 2021
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Credit: Sylvie Li

If you’re a dog owner and you’ve spent any part of the past year and a half working, living, and decompressing primarily at home, you’ve likely spent time wondering what will happen to your dog once you start venturing out into the world again. You’re not alone: Pet adoptions were on the rise during shelter-in-place orders, and your dog has likely gotten very used to having you around. 

According to a recent study from Banfield Pet Hospital, 71 percent of Gen Z dog owners and 48 percent of Millennial dog owners have or are planning to reach out to their employer requesting they implement a pet-friendly policy once offices open back up. For many, this is non-negotiable: nearly one in two Gen Zers and one in three Millennials say they would consider looking for another job post-pandemic if their workplace was not pet-friendly.

No matter what the future of your workplace looks like, it’s good to prepare your dog for separation. The biggest post-vaccine pandemic mistake owners can make is to go from being home all day, every day, to returning to a full day at the office without helping their dogs to adjust to the new schedule. 

Dogs thrive on routine, and the shift towards office culture is going to be upsetting and confusing to many dogs who have grown accustomed to having people at home all the time. Here are some things to keep in mind as you ease your dog back into independent time at home.

How long is too long to leave your dog at home alone? 

There is no exact answer about how long a dog can be left home alone, as this will depend on their age and overall temperament, as well as their bathroom needs. 

It’s not a good idea to leave puppies home alone for longer than a few hours without someone coming in to check in on them, and it’s generally accepted that they can wait one hour for every month of age before they will need to potty. For adult dogs, six hours is generally the maximum amount of time they can be left home alone on a regular basis. Senior dogs may struggle with being alone that long, as they may need access to the bathroom more frequently or become stressed or anxious more easily. Dogs who have free run of the home, or a reasonably sized area, can be left for longer than dogs who are crated, but you still don’t want to leave any dog alone for a prolonged period of time.

When was the last time you dog-proofed your home?

As you get ready to go back to work, you’ll want to make sure your home is prepped for your dog to spend the day home alone. Even if your dog is an adult and typically doesn’t chew on anything, it’s a good idea to “puppy proof” any areas your dog will be able to access. Pick up anything you don’t want your dog to chew, such as shoes, TV remotes, and laptop charging cords. Baby gates are a great way to partition your home into sections if there are rooms you don’t want your dog to access while you’re away. 

When you head back to work, it can also be useful to play music, leave the television on, or invest in a white noise machine. This regular noise can help to muffle outside noises that could encourage your dog to bark. It can also be useful to close curtains or otherwise mask views of your yard or the street to prevent your dog from barking at people, squirrels, or mail delivery trucks. 

Credit: Anna Spaller

Practice leaving and returning home without your dog.

If you know that you’re going to be going back to the office and need to leave your dog at home, it’s a good idea to start practicing as soon as possible. Dogs thrive on routine and a sudden change in their daily life can be jarring and lead to emotional stress, which frequently translates to behavioral problems like barking and chewing on furniture, shoes, or other things that aren’t dog toys.

Make a regular practice of leaving your dog home alone for periods of time. Start by going for a walk or running an errand by yourself, and build up towards working in a coffee shop for a couple of hours. The idea is to get your dog accustomed to you leaving and returning for varying and increasing periods of time without becoming stressed. If you can, build up to the length of time your dog will need to be home alone while you are at work — this might work best on a weekend during which you can be out of the house for up to six hours.

Even though you’re going to miss your dog, don’t make a big fuss about long goodbyes or big enthusiastic greetings when you return. Make sure your dog has everything they need and then calmly and purposefully head out the door. When you return, calmly greet your dog and then allow them to settle before engaging in any kind of enthusiastic play. This will help your dog to be calmer about you leaving and coming home, rather than getting overwhelmed by anticipation.

Prioritize exercise and enrichment before and after work.

Dogs can and do get bored, just like humans — it’s one of the primary causes of destructive behavior such as scratching at walls, and chewing at furniture or other belongings. If you’re heading back to the office and your dog will be spending an increased amount of time home alone, it’s important to make the most of the time that you do have with your dog before and after work. Your dog’s age, breed, and temperament will determine how much exercise and enrichment they need. 

Try to get up early and spend quality time with your dog before you go to work, such as taking a long walk, visiting a dog park or run, or playing a game before leaving for the office. When the day’s over, it’s important to head home to give your dog attention and some much needed exercise — that coworker happy hour can wait. 

Make sure that your dog has plenty of safe chews and toys to engage with during the day, as these can help prevent your dog from getting bored. Hard rubber toys like Kongs can be stuffed with kibble, wet food, (dog-safe) peanut butter, canned pumpkin, or Kong spray stuffer, and then frozen; this helps the treat last longer through the day, which will help entertain your dog as they work to get the treats out. 

Credit: Katie Currid

Look into support options for your dog if you’re gone for a significant period of time.

If returning to the office means your dog will be home alone for longer than is ideal, make sure someone is around to check in on them in the middle of the day. If you work close to home, try spending your lunch hour at home. Otherwise, it can be helpful to hire a dog walker or dog sitter who can spend time with your dog, take them for walks, and play with them. If your dog enjoys being around other dogs, you can also look at reputable dog daycare facilities in your area to give your dog an opportunity to be with other people and dogs on your longest work days.

Make sure to interview prospective dog walkers, sitters, and daycare facilities carefully. Check references, and ask about their training and experience, if they have insurance, and if they are certified in canine CPR. Make sure that the person you’re hiring is someone you feel is going to be responsible when it comes to your dog, and that your dog is comfortable with them. 

What should you do if your dog has separation anxiety?

If your dog is really struggling with your return to work, they may be suffering from separation anxiety. Calming pheromones like Adaptil, which can be sprayed on your dog’s bed, or a wall plug-in can support some dogs who need help relaxing, but your dog will need more support if they have severe separation anxiety. 

For dogs, common symptoms of clinical separation anxiety include extreme distress when people are gone, obsessive vocalizations such as barking or howling, destructive behavior, self-harm, panting, pacing, and excessive drooling. It’s estimated that between 20 and 40 percent of dogs who are seen by veterinary behaviorists have this condition, and it’s one that will rarely get better on its own. Look into getting your dog support from a positive reinforcement trainer, their veterinarian, and in some cases a veterinary behaviorist, all of whom can work together to find the right plan for both you and your pet. Canine separation anxiety can be a frustrating and overwhelming condition for dogs and people alike, but with support you’ll be able to slowly work towards leaving your dog at home for increasing periods of time without as much worry or fear.