PORTSMOUTH — Kittery resident Andrew LaMonica said he and his girlfriend, Rochelle, have been home more during the pandemic and are beginning to return to work. He said they have been taking 4-year-old dog Khaleesi on long hikes and to the dog park more often, with the idea of tiring her out so she stays calm when they need to leave her at home.
“We rescued her from a kill shelter,” said LaMonica. “I think some people do not realize the responsibility when you adopt a dog. It’s for life.”
Portsmouth resident Rachel Kushan got her dog Leila in August. She is retired and loves the companionship, but also recognizes the need to socialize her and to make sure the dog can be alone and remain confident she will return.
“I take Leila to multiple places every day, where there are people and other dogs,” said Kushan. “It’s good for both of us. I also make sure to leave her for short periods of time and she’s so happy when I come home. I would never give her up. I made a commitment for life when I got her, and I knew that.”
These dog owners are not alone. Many people took in “pandemic puppies” to help with loneliness as quarantines and lockdowns due to COVID-19 became a way of life.
Now that restrictions are easing and more people are going back to work, a new set of issues is arising surrounding separation anxiety from pets accustomed to 24-7 companionship. After spending as much as an entire year with the undivided attention of their owners, the dogs have no idea how to be left alone for extended periods of time while their people go back to work. Many first-time pet owners also are new to this concept.
Coping skills for dogs and their people
Helen St. Pierre, owner and trainer at No Monkey Business Dog Training in Concord, has more than 20 years of experience. She also volunteers to assess dogs taken in at a shelter and runs a senior hospice dog rescue, meaning she places older dogs that people abandon, or she takes them home. Currently nine dogs live at her house.
There are strategies pet owners can use to reduce separation anxiety.
“Start acting right now as if you are going back to work,” she advised. “While you are home, crate them or go onto another room and do some work, go outside, and make some phone calls, so they know it’s OK to spend time alone. Gradually go out for an hour, for a few hours. It is better than the shock of suddenly leaving them all day. Dogs are highly adaptable, and they will adjust if you train them.”
St. Pierre recommends making it fun for your dog while you are gone.
“Give them safe chewies … filled with frozen peanut butter,” she said. “When you come home, take it away. They will learn to associate you leaving with getting something good, something fun.”
Because of COVID-19, Laura Gendron, owner and trainer of Miss Behavior Training in Northwood, does much of her work virtually, in Zoom video conference sessions, in groups or one on one.
“I have been doing this since last March,” said Gendron. “I have a lot of clients concerned about transitioning their dogs as they return to work.”
Gendron said there are two issues she sees in dogs left alone: separation anxiety and isolation issues.
“Some dogs can’t stand being away from their person,” she said. “They have full-blown panic attacks. Others are OK as long as there is a person there for them, someone around.”
Gendron said exercise for the dog can help. Doggy day cares or hiring a person to walk the dog or spend time with it can make the difference. Calming medication or supplements from your veterinarian can be a temporary tool.
“Music therapy is useful,” said Gendron. “I don’t mean just putting on music when you leave the house. Play music when they are relaxed. Then play it and ease into leaving the dog, for 10 seconds, for 10 minutes and gradually increase it. Keep coming and going until the dog gets bored of this and they will stop reacting to you leaving.”
Linda Haley, behavior and training coordinator at the N.H. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, suggested a similar approach. She advises to start leaving the dog alone in a room for a brief period of time, making sure it is a place the dog is comfortable.
“Give your pet something entertaining to do,” said Haley. “Give them a chew stick or food. Once engaged, sneak quietly out of the room. Return before the pet has a chance to become upset. Slowly increase the time you are away. Once they seem comfortable, start leaving the house for short periods of time. Do not make a big deal of it in front of them. Plan your strategy and you and your pet can be successful in your return to normal.”
Attachments are strong for dogs
Durham resident Jan Tornick got a pandemic puppy and has no intention of giving it back. She holds a PhD in zoology and teaches animal cognition as a senior lecturer at the University of New Hampshire.
“I’ve been at UNH since 2004,” said Tornick. “I came for grad school and did a master’s in zoology, then PhD in psychology, so I could study animal minds. I’ve taught all sorts of courses on animals and human behavior and animal cognition is my senior-level course. Psychologists study ‘attachment’ in humans. Dogs absolutely form attachments. It is a commitment. You must honor it.”
After the death of her mother in August, and the recent death of her own dog, Tornick and her partner Ralph Norden decided to adopt Kora, a Sato, from a rescue in Puerto Rico.
“My partner Ralph was very ready for another dog,” she said. “I had mixed feelings as I was exhausted from dealing with my 92-year-old mom at home and then dealing with the aftermath and arrangements of her death. I was still mourning mom, too, and dealing with COVID stress. But I knew Ralph was lonely and needed something to cheer him up. I didn’t feel it was fair to make him wait any longer. We adopted in November and we are not giving her back.”
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Tornick said she feels many people view animals as disposable.
“They don’t understand that they are capable of a rich array of emotions,” said Tornick. “I teach this in my classes. Scientists have some cool experiments that measure emotion. … I get so upset that people think pets are like a purchase that you just return on Amazon if you’re not satisfied. I get so infuriated when I hear it.”
St. Pierre said many people think they can have a dog because they like the idea of it.
“Social media makes it look easy and fun,” she said. “Puppies are cute, but they eventually become adolescent, hairy teenagers with teeth, and they will be a handful unless you take the responsibility and do the work to assure they become well-behaved members of the family. Cuddling them, loving them is great, but add training to make them manageable.”
Finding a good trainer is key. St. Pierre said do the research.
“Dog training is not a standardized profession,” said St. Pierre. “There is a lot of misinformation out there so make sure you go with a trainer with the reputation and experience to back it up.”
Barking can be signal of stress
Gendron said re-homing or surrendering a dog is often happening because the dog has not been exposed to the normal triggers other dogs got when they were out more, pre-COVID-19.
“These dogs were never desensitized to noises outside, to other people,” she said “So, they do not know how to cope, so they are stressed; they bark. But we can gradually give owners the tools to socialize their dog. Then they need not think of giving them up.”
NHSPA offers private sessions as well as multiple classes to help all dog owners.
“We have been inundated with new dog owners both in classes and privates so there is help out there and people are seeking it out,” said Haley. “As always, we recommend that if a person is unable to keep their pet for any reason that they contact their local humane organization, like the NHSPCA, to responsibly surrender their pet so the pet can find a suitable home. It is against the law in New Hampshire as in many neighboring states to simply abandon an animal.”