How will dogs handle our return to the office?

Expert advice to help your pandemic pooch spend more time alone

Dogs in Office
Happy #InternationalDogDay!

Of the many shortages reported over the past 16 months (from the perplexing—Grape Nuts? to the panic-inducing—toilet paper!), one of the most pervasive was dogs. Of any kind.

From rescue dogs to purebreds, puppies to mature dogs, people took to buying furry companions in droves throughout the pandemic, eager for companionship and keen to take advantage of time at home.

How many dogs are we talking? Of the 7.7 million dogs owned by Canadians, 11 per cent of them were acquired during the pandemic, or roughly 850,000 dogs.

And as fall approaches and companies start to announce plans for the return to office, how will all these dogs adjust to suddenly being alone?

Experts are already predicting a surge in people returning their dogs when they return to the office. Andre Yeu, founder of When Hounds Fly, a pet dog training school with five locations in Toronto, says he’s already hearing about more dogs being listed for re-homing on Facebook and other sites. “And I think it’s only going to get worse in the next 12 months,” he says. “People got dogs because they felt they had all that time to take care of the dog. Were they thinking of post-pandemic life?”

Preparing for the Return to Office

As we prepare to return to the office, experts are also foreseeing a spike in dogs with separation anxiety, but not to worry, “You can always teach an old dog new tricks,” says Vanessa Jaramillo, founder of The Balanced Canine, a Toronto-based training, behaviour modification and wellness centre for dogs.

A veterinary technician and dog trainer with over 13 years’ experience, Vanessa is already seeing a surge in clients looking for help as they begin leaving their homes to head back to the office, out to restaurants and out on vacations.

“I’ve been contacted by people whose dogs are already showing signs of separation anxiety. Some are saying they can’t even take a shower without the dog crying at the door to be let in the bathroom, they’re so accustomed to being side by side,” she says.

She encourages dog owners to start easing their pets into being alone gradually, step by step, so nothing comes as a surprise.

Baby steps to being alone

Start by preparing a safe space for your dog away from where you typically work during the day. Maybe it’s a quiet room, a cozy dog bed or a crate with some toys to keep them busy. The key is that it be isolated from where you are sitting.

Then, while you’re at home, gradually get your dog to stay alone in that space for longer periods of time, rewarding good behaviour with positive reinforcement.

“It’s best to start with small increments of time—one to five minutes.” The key is consistency, which Vanessa acknowledges can be hard to do while working from home. For example, if you’re on a work phone call, it’s not always possible to get up and reinforce good behaviour.

Start mock and actual departures

Then, it’s time to up the game to actually leaving your dog alone.

“Even if you’re late to the game, this should be the first thing you do,” says Andre. “You’re not back in the office yet, so don’t delay; start practising planned departures now. And if you’re lucky, your dog may do fine.”

Vanessa suggests you first practise all the individual steps associated with leaving without actually going anywhere. Pick up your keys and put them down, open the door and close it, put on your coat and take it off. “Do all of these little things calmly throughout the day, several times a day, so when you actually do have to leave, it’s not a big deal for your dog.”

Next, she recommends you leave for short periods of time—five to 10 minutes, half an hour—ensuring your dog stays calmly in its space. “It’s also important the way we leave and come in. I always leave calmly, and don’t make a big deal of it, signaling that I’ll be back.”

Spy on your dog

How do you know how your dog behaves when you leave? Spying helps.

There are multiple free, video-based meeting platforms like Zoom, Google Meet, Teams and others that not only help you connect with colleagues, but also with your dog.

Andre recommends you create a web meeting with the platform of your choice, set up your computer with the camera pointing to the door, leave your home calmly, and then join the meeting from your phone from down the street to watch your dog’s reaction. 

“If your dog barks for 15-20 minutes the first time you leave—even 30 minutes—but then you see the barking diminishing over time before they finally fall asleep, you’re probably in the clear,” he says. But if your dog gets worse over an hour-long departure, you need professional help, says Andre. 

Call in the professionals

If your dog exhibits signs of separation anxiety that aren’t going away with repeated practice departures, start by trying a dog daycare like No Bones About It, where Vanessa works, taking dogs for walks and plays brain-stimulating games with them.

You could also ask a friend or family member to pet-sit while you’re away, which can help buy you some time while you look for a trainer. Ultimately, however, you will need to address the behaviour by hiring a trainer like Andre or Vanessa.

Andre cautions that dog owners need to be patient. “Separation anxiety is not a quick fix,” he says. It takes a lot of time, work and effort. “Typically, separation anxiety takes months to resolve and not everyone has the inclination to do that.”

Even if your dog is okay to be alone, it still needs some company during the day. The average dog has a hard time being alone for 10 hours, so if you don’t have work-life balance or family members who can come by during the day, Andre recommends you hire a dog walker for a mid-day let-out. “Your dog will be more relaxed when you come back at the end of the day.”

Taking your dog to the office

You may be wondering if you can just bring your dog (or another pet) to work with you (in a recent Altis employee engagement survey, 74% of our team said they’d like to bring their pet to the office).

Provided your employer is open to furry colleagues, it could be an option, but Andre and Vanessa both caution that it takes work because dogs don’t generalize well. “A dog can be perfectly housetrained in your house, but then visit someone else’s house or your office and not realize they can’t go to the bathroom inside,” says Andre.

So, if you’ve managed to train your dog well in your home, you’ll also need to retrain it to behave well in the office or anywhere else you go, practising all the basic behaviours everywhere. And again, it requires baby steps, starting with practice runs to the office, short stays, and working your way up gradually. It’s also a good idea to bring Rover’s bed, so he knows where he’s supposed to stay.

For employers, Andre has consulted with multiple companies on how to have harmony in an office with dogs. First, he recommends that employers set the minimum requirements for dogs to come into the workplace, kind of like a temperament test. For example:

  • Sociability with strangers—you don’t want dogs who bark at couriers or clients or nip people
  • Good with other dogs—you need dogs who are calm and neutral around other dogs
  • Comfortable with noises—people knocking on doors, phones ringing, etc.
  • Good, basic manners—no stealing food in the lunchroom, jumping up on people, etc.

Practice makes perfect

Both Andre and Vanessa agree that training a dog requires ongoing work—it’s not a one-and-done process. “We’re constantly learning and evolving, and so are our dogs,” says Vanessa, so it’s important to be patient and prepared for a lifetime commitment.

“People don’t realize how much time, energy and effort it takes to own a dog every day. It’s every day for the rest of the dog’s life.”

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