Julie Naismith, author of books on dog and puppy separation anxiety
Julie Naismith, dog trainer and author of books on dog and puppy separation anxiety

Would you pull a sickie to look after your pup?

One of this year’s biggest challenges for new dog owners is without a doubt, separation anxiety. As more and more of us return to work outside the home, it’s the biggest worry we’re facing. Although preparation and training are key to a successful change in routine, a new survey suggests many of you would be willing to take more extreme measures for your beloved pooch.

Yes, a new survey has revealed that the vast majority of you would consider pulling a sickie to care for your pets as you return to post-lockdown work. And almost three quarters of you are worried about how returning to work will affect your pet.

Facebook poll reveals dog owner dilemma

This new poll, carried out by leading UK separation anxiety expert and author Julie Naismith, may be just a snapshot of how dog owners are feeling, but it’s a good indicator of problems to come. The Facebook survey reveals that more than 85% of respondents would consider taking sick days to look after their pets.

But that’s not all. Just over half of the 900 people surveyed, also said they would consider quitting their current jobs if their employers didn’t allow them to take their dogs to work. Which is quite surprising, but just goes to show how much we value our pooches.

What’s less surprising, is that more than 80% said they’re looking into doggy daycare. Although some think it’s too expensive to be a realistic option. Of course, money isn’t the only issue to consider. Suitable doggy daycare places need to be available where you live or work. However, getting your dog used to daycare or a petsitter is a good way to keep everyone happy. And with a good daycare provider, your dog will get the chance to socialise with other people and animals, and develop new skills whilst you’re busy working.

Naismith said she wasn’t surprised by the survey results and was encouraged to see how much owners love their dogs, putting their welfare above other considerations. And while Naismith said she couldn’t condone taking a ‘sickie’ to care for them, she could understand the desperation owners may feel if their pets suffer with separation anxiety.

“Honesty is the best policy,” said Naismith. “I’m hoping there are some understanding bosses out there who would appreciate that caring for a beloved part of the family is vital and a frank conversation about this would be better than fibbing.

“The key is to make sure you train your pet to be alone, they can respond really well, my 10-year-old cockapoo Percy is a perfect example of this, he used to be really stressed when I wasn’t around but he is comfortable with it now.”

Separation anxiety and training

So, it’s heart-warming to hear that more than 80% of owners said that with a return to working away from home, they’d invest in dog training to reduce their dog’s separation anxiety.

But not everyone feels this way and many dog owners don’t like the idea of training their dog to be alone. Whilst every dog is different and some breeds do prefer company, it’s certainly worth giving training a go. Despite the fact that we work from home, there have been times when we’ve had no choice but to leave our dog for a short time. And if there’s an emergency, it’s not always possible to take your pooch with you or find a sitter at the last minute. Something we know about first hand!

Naismith says, there are harmful myths about separation anxiety that need to be busted – for the good of both the dog and the owner.

“The thing is, some dogs are really going to struggle. Being alone doesn’t come naturally to dogs. We’ve spent 30,000 years selecting dogs for their desire to be with humans. No wonder so many get upset when we leave. We’ve seen two things happen over the last year – either puppies who never learned how to be alone or adult dogs who used to be fine forgot how to be alone.

“The good news is though that we can still teach these dogs how to handle being alone. Even though you might be in a panic about this you can train your dog to be comfortable when you leave.”

Tips for overcoming separation anxiety in dogs and puppies

And Naismith should know. Her expertise has helped thousands of dogs and their owners from around the world overcome this complex behavioural condition. Plus, she’s the best-selling author of Be Right Back, a guide to overcoming separation anxiety in dogs.

Here’s Naismith’s top five tips for helping your dog overcome separation anxiety:

  1. Start by teaching your dog that you coming and going is no big deal. I call this the ‘Door is a Bore game’. You step in and out of the door repeatedly until your dog goes ‘this is silly’.
  2. Then start stepping outside for small amounts of time. Watch your dog on camera as you do this. Gradually build up the time and let your dog dictate the pace. The technique we use is the exact same technique we use to help people overcome their fears: gradual exposure therapy.
  3. When a dog doesn’t like being home alone, they’re not being spiteful, they’re not being bad, they’re frightened of being home alone. They have a phobia of it. And that’s why gradual exposure really helps – by exposing them to their fear and overcoming it.
  4. Letting your dog ‘cry it out’ is an old training method and it doesn’t work. You have to be more gradual and gentler about it. Crating your dog won’t help either. Most dogs with a fear of being left alone hate being crated.
  5. Avoid the many things you might have read about as fixes for separation anxiety. Food toys, calming chews, diffusers, pressure vests, leaving music on and natural remedies just don’t work for most dogs. Stick with training instead.

What worked for us

When we adopted Poppy, she had spent time alone in the kennels. So, I was keen to keep her downstairs at night, so she wasn’t always in the room with us. And generally, she does like a bit of time to herself.

Poppy at work, photo by Good Doggy Guide
Poppy the dog loves working from home! Photo by Good Doggy Guide

But when we have left her for a few hours, we’ve made sure she’s had a good walk beforehand. This is because she likes a good snooze after a good walk. So, most of the time, she can have her nap and not worry about us not being in the house. We don’t make a big deal out of leaving and give her time to settle down before we leave. Usually we’ll switch off the TV and sit quietly without interacting with her, before leaving the room.

We’ll check she’s got plenty of water. And make sure there’s nothing left in the room that’ll be tempting for her to eat or chew (such as chocolate or newspaper). And once we return, we’ll try not to make a big deal of it. Although she’ll usually get a treat!

About Naismith and the dog owners’ survey

Yorkshire-born Julie Naismith now lives in the Canadian Rockies. And pandemic restrictions permitting, divides her time between the UK and Canada. Naismith acquired her skills and knowledge at the Academy for Dog Trainers, often referred to as the Harvard for dog trainers, where she was taught by world-renowned trainer Jean Donaldson.

Naismith’s new book, Be Right Back! The Puppy Separation Anxiety Edition is out now. It follows her international bestselling guide to separation anxiety in adult dogs, Be Right Back!

The survey was carried out in the open Facebook group Dog Separation Anxiety Training. All questions had 900 responses and no questions were skipped. And three-quarters of pet owners surveyed had got a dog in lockdown.

If you’re thinking of working with a dog trainer in the future, why not read our post on working with a dog behaviourist?