Slow steps can help pandemic puppy and you ease into work-school transitions

Aug. 2—As a puppy, Jesse joined Grace Leaf's family in late March 2020 when COVID-19 shutdowns brought everyone home. Leaf and her husband had gone two years without a pet after moving from a condo to a home. Then the pandemic opened a door.

"I thought, OK, this is a good time to get a puppy and potty train and socialize him, and also to keep me company while I'm working at home," Leaf said. "A lot of times when I was on Zoom meetings, he'd be sleeping on my lap because he's only 16 pounds, so he was literally a comfort animal."

The Havanese is among thousands of pandemic puppies welcomed by isolated Americans in 2020. Now, after a pet paradise of nearly 24/7 together, families returning to worksites and schools are looking to ease those separations — both for them and pups.

Leaf, who works for Community Colleges of Spokane, knew that day would come and started leaving Jesse for short periods to adjust gradually. Then, she recently added a bonus: Coco, a half-sibling now about 12 weeks old.

"Once we were told we were going back 50% in June, then fully back July 1, we called our breeder and said, 'We want a dog for our dog' because then he has companionship while I go back to the office."

"He has really changed the way he focuses; it's less human-centered, and he's taking care of this little dog so he has less separation anxiety. We've been leaving them alone a little bit at a time."

Karin Thompson, Spokane Public Schools director for early learning, has with her family eased their two pandemic pets toward alone times. The family got a French Brittany puppy — Arete Belay or Ret for short — and a kitten named Neo Sirius. Both were born a day apart in May 2020.

"We had been wanting them for a while," Thompson said. "We have five children, four who live with us ranging from age 7 to 18, and they each have shared that they don't think they would have made it through the pandemic without the love and connection with Ret and Neo."

She predicts the transition this fall should go smoothly, with two older children who drive and can help with care.

"Neo can roam freely. Ret will need to be crated for a few hours at a time, but with the variety of schedules in our home, there will be someone home every few hours most days," Thompson said.

"We have been transitioning all summer with both of our older kids working and both of us working, so we are starting to get a feel of things."

Natalie Sinton of Happy Tails Dog Training & Behavior in Liberty Lake tells pandemic pet owners to start with those short departures. Balance absences with quality time interacting with dogs — in training, food rewards, games, toys and play, she said.

In a pet-safe space, perhaps first leave a young dog with an activity such as a Kong for a few minutes, "so that the dog gets exposed to being alone in very short increments," she said. "You slowly increase a couple minutes a couple times a day to 20 minutes three times a day, then an hour three times a day, then two hours twice a day."

A pet camera is one way to monitor that an animal is calm. If struggles continue, reach out to a trainer or veterinarian. "There's a lot more help out there than you realize," Sinton said.

Professionals are getting those calls about pandemic pups and workplace returns, said Nicole Ellis, a dog trainer and animal lifestyle expert who partners with the pet-care service marketplace Rover.

"It's a big transition for us and our dogs," Ellis said. "You cannot get started on this soon enough. That means your pet will be less stressed, and there will be less stress on you, too."

Remember that dogs thrive on routine, Ellis said. If you have flexible work hours at home or are transitioning back, it's time slowly to adjust toward that away work schedule.

"We're getting up later, not commuting, our pets are probably getting fed later and walked at different times, so start to adjust it closer to your work routine," she said.

"If we start getting up a little earlier, and feeding them closer to when they're going to be fed, it's going to make these changes a little easier. Ease into changing an evening walk time and adjusting dinner time."

Also, try to give dogs some exercise and mental stimulation before leaving — walking, playing, training, perhaps a puzzle game. The owners should be low-key in their departure and return, Ellis said.

"When I come back, my greetings are super calm," she said. "Slowly build up that time, five minutes, then 10 minutes. We want to build that time up for them. We want them not to be stressed about us leaving."

Puzzle games also can help to train. "I'll often give them a treat ball, then walk into another room, then come back, and I don't make it a big deal. We want our dogs to learn they don't have to follow us around the house."

A pet owner can desensitize anxiety triggers slowly — visual clues that tell a dog you're about to leave — such as putting on shoes and grabbing keys, she said.

"For a lot of dogs, that means we're either going on a walk or it's anxiety time that you're leaving the house," Ellis said. "Pick up your keys and then go sit on the couch and watch some TV, or put on your shoes and instead of going outside, play a game of tug-of-war with your dog. We want to break the negative association."

A stressed pup might turn to barking or destructive behaviors, but a tired dog that has learned it's OK for you to be gone is more likely to relax and nap.

"It's making sure we're not leaving our dogs at home with a ton of energy stored up because then we're just asking for problems."

Hiring a dog walker or sitter such as from Rover is one option for pet owners returning to work, Ellis said, perhaps transitioning from a few hours to a short midday visit.

"Having someone come let them out for a potty break and a little walk midday, it's super helpful. Some dogs need baby steps," Ellis said.

Socialization is another concern as people have stayed at home more with pets, Sinton said. It helps to give them slow, positive exposures to people and other dogs.

Kathy Stice, a Spokane teacher, was mindful of that socialization. Her family got a Border Collie-mix puppy, Ziggy, in March 2020 to join an 11-year-old Labradoodle, which died in December. Stice, her husband and their two daughters were all home when Ziggy arrived. "He loves to fetch; that's his favorite pastime," she said.

During COVID-19 shutdowns, Stice went on runs socially distanced with a friend who has two dogs to get Ziggy used to other animals. Because the family was home without people visiting for months, they're training now for him greeting at the door without barking and growling.

They've also prepared for times away, crate-training him from the beginning, "so we'd leave him for bits of time."

Leaf thinks her pups also are adjusting. Jesse and Coco play a lot together, and he's protective of the puppy.

"We did have a serious conversation before we even got the first dog," Leaf said. "It's not just a pandemic commitment; it's like a 15-year commitment, so we wanted to make sure we were ready for that."