How to help your dog adjust to being “home alone” in a new home.
For the last three years, Bailey (my six-year-old Chow/Shepherd mix) and I have been living with my boyfriend and Colleen (his eight-year-old Norwegian Elkhound). I am planning to move out and take Bailey with me.
I am sure I will overcome the change, but I am nervous for Bailey. She is attached to my boyfriend and has had Colleen’s constant companionship. For the first time in three years, she will be left home alone when I go to work. What precautions can I take to assure a smooth transition for her?
We asked our gentle training expert, Pat Miller, to handle this question. Miller, a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, offers training classes from her base in Chattanooga, Tennessee. For contact information, see "Resources."
You are right to be concerned. Any major changes in our lives can be stressful for our canine companions as well. Losing her packmate of three years is certainly likely to have an effect on Bailey. The loss of a close companion can be a trigger for separation anxiety, and if not carried to that extreme, can certainly make Bailey sad and lonely. It’s always the children who suffer most from a divorce, isn’t it?
There are a number of things you can do to help make the transition easier for your girl. You don’t say how imminent the move is, but the more time you have, the better. Here are some possible options:
1. Get another dog before you move. The third dog will become an integrated member of the pack, and Bailey won’t be alone in her new house because the new dog will be with her. This is, of course, assuming that Bailey and Colleen will accept a new pack member, and assuming that you want two dogs. Finding a house or apartment to rent can sometimes be a challenge with one dog, much less two! This is only a viable option if you truly want a second dog – you should never get another dog “just” to solve or prevent a behavior problem.
2. Introduce gradual separations. If you have time before your move, start taking Bailey places with you and leaving Colleen behind, and encourage your soon-to-be-ex to do the same. Start with short periods, 10 to15 minutes, so that if Bailey is going to panic she doesn’t have time to do much damage or to hurt herself.
Gradually increase the length of time you leave her alone until you are up to your full workday. To lessen the likelihood of anxiety reactions, make your leavings and returnings very low key and unemotional. Five or ten minutes before you go, give her a Kong toy stuffed with treats and peanut butter or cream cheese, or an extra-scrumptious bone, so she is busy chewing when you leave.
When you return, give her a calm “hello” and go about your business, even if she overwhelms you – especially if she overwhelms you. When she settles down, go ahead and love her up.
3. If you don’t have enough time left to do gradual separations, see if you can borrow Colleen for a while, until Bailey adjusts to her new home. Then start the gradual separation process.
4. Take as much of the jointly-owned household furnishings with you as you can to your new residence. While you may have visions of a whole new decor to go with your whole new life, the more familiar things Bailey finds in her new home, the less unsettled she will feel. If you can’t take a lot, at least take a few dog beds and rugs or blankets that will have the scent of her old home on them.
5. Take some time off work. If you can take a week off, that gives you nine days to be with Bailey in the new environment, rather than rushing off your first day in. During that nine days, spend lots of time with her, and also do a gradual separation program as described above, to get her accustomed to being there without you.
6. When you do go back to work, try to come home on your lunch hour to give her a potty break and a play session. Stop the play in plenty of time for her to calm down before you leave to go back to work. If you can’t come home, see if there is someone trustworthy in your neighborhood who might be available to come in, for a reasonable fee, to play with Bailey at lunchtime. If necessary, you can hire a professional petsitter to do this.
7. Try doggy daycare. This is an increasingly popular solution for working dog owners. You might look for a professional dog daycare business in your community, or, again, find a neighbor who is home during the day who might love to have Bailey come and keep her company. A professional day care center will give her plenty of opportunities to socialize with other dogs. If Bailey is well-behaved, she might make a lovely daytime companion for a senior citizen who would like to have a dog’s friendship without the cost or long-term responsibility.
8. Exercise, exercise, exercise. A tired dog is usually a happy and well-behaved dog. Schedule several tongue-dragging sessions for Bailey every day (morning, lunch, evening) to use up any excess energy that might otherwise be directed toward inappropriate anxiety-induced behavior. Again, be sure to give her plenty of time to calm down after an exercise session before you leave.
9. Have a complete well-dog check-up for Bailey before the move, if you haven’t had one done recently. The healthier she is, the better her system will be able to withstand the stress of separation and moving. If there are any health problems lurking, it is better to find and treat them now, before she is stressed.
10. Remember all of your alternative resources. If you don’t already use them, learn TTouch and other massage and acupressure techniques that you can use to keep Bailey calm and relaxed in her new home. Many dog owners swear by flower essence remedies – especially “Rescue Remedy,” the Bach Flower Essence that is formulated for treating stress – for helping dogs through anxious times.
11. Don’t forget to take care of yourself, too. Our dogs are greatly affected by our stress, so the calmer you can be about your own forthcoming major life change, the less stressed Bailey will be.
Many of the recommendations I’ve made for your dog would probably do a world of good for you, too! Be healthy, get plenty of exercise, find new social outlets, treat yourself to an occasional massage and your personal equivalent of a stuffed Kong (mine is chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream), and give that Rescue Remedy a try!
Change is hard on all of us, especially when it means losing a close friend and companion. The good news is that you and Bailey will weather this together, and there are other friends out there for both of you to find. Take good care of each other.