Pets have become increasingly attached to their owners during the pandemic. What happens now?

With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing everyone to shelter in place indefinitely, many people have sought companionship in pets. In fact, according to a survey from Porch and Shelter Animals Count, Americans have adopted more than 750,000 animals since the start of the pandemic, and the adoption rate in 2020 was 54 percent, a 3 percent increase from the previous year.

Spending lockdown with a furry friend was fun (and, for many, therapeutic), but after more than a year of working from home and seldom leaving the house, these pets are accustomed to always having their owners around. And now that things are starting to return to normal, pet parents aren’t entirely sure what to do.

On TikTok, it’s become a running joke for parents of “pandemic puppies” to make videos highlighting their pet’s separation anxiety. This is a serious, widespread issue, though: In one Nov. 2020 study commissioned by dog supplement brand Veterinary Naturals, 61 percent of dog owners reported that their pets were exhibiting signs of distress when they left the house.

“Where before pups became accustomed very quickly to the comings and goings of their family members and being alone for periods of time at home, now we’re in a situation of the exact opposite. We’re spending more and more time with our pups so they get used to us being there [and] they don’t know how to be on their own — which leads to the separation anxiety issues we’re seeing more often now,” the behavior experts at The Puppy Academy in Hermosa Beach, Calif., explained to In The Know. “It’s super important that now more than ever we teach our pups how to be alone, so they can be confident and comfortable on their own.”

Many people are very gradually transitioning back to their pre-pandemic routine, and you can take advantage of this transitory period to prepare your dog for what’s to come. Below, we’ve rounded up some expert tips for helping your dog overcome their pandemic-fueled separation anxiety.

How to prepare your pet for a post-quarantine world

Put your pet on a schedule that more closely aligns with your post-pandemic schedule.

When you have to start commuting to the office again, your pet’s feeding and walk times are inevitably going to change. Pets like having a reliable schedule, though, so instead of abruptly changing your dog’s schedule, use whatever time you have left working from home to gradually ease them back into an earlier breakfast and a later dinner.

“Start waking up early for walks and breakfast time as if you would before heading out for work. Then, start dinner and evening walks at the same time you would when you would normally return from work,” Dr. Ragen T.S. McGowan, behavior research scientist at Purina, explained to In The Know. “Our pets thrive on routine.”

Get your pet accustomed to being home alone again.

Take advantage of the time you have left working from home to reacquaint your pet with being alone for longer periods of time. McGowan suggests leaving your dog at home while you take a walk or drive around the block and, once he or she becomes accustomed to that, starting to increase the amount of time you leave them alone so they get used to being on their own.

If you can’t leave the house for long periods of time, there are other ways to make your dog think they’re alone and get them acclimated with solitude. “For some pets, a closed door can send a message of separation, while others may need to be reintroduced to their crates or encouraged to spend time in a quiet part of the house for part of the day,” McGowan said.

Train your pet to associate your departure with positive things like treats and toys.

Animals are very food-motivated, and you can use this to your advantage when you’re working on easing your dog’s separation anxiety. Giving your dog a treat or a food-filled toy before you leave the house for a while will also help them associate your absence with something positive (and delicious!).

“Help your pet acclimate and associate you leaving as a positive thing by ensuring he has special toys and treats he only gets access to when you are gone,” Jen Jones, professional dog trainer and founder of Your Dog Advisor, explained to In The Know. “Interactive toys like Kongs and puzzle toys that utilize treats are a helpful tool as well.”

As Karen Reese, animal behavior manager at Operation Kindness, a no-kill animal shelter in Texas, noted, interactive toys and food puzzles that require a lot of focus are also great because they distract your pet from any anxiety they might be feeling as you are heading out the door. Win/win!

Keep your hellos and goodbyes short, sweet and unemotional.

If you greet your dog with an outpouring of emotion, they are going to treat your departure like a major event and think that their anxious, frantic emotions are being rewarded. It will do both you and your pet a lot of good to just walk out the door in a calm and composed manner and leave the cooing and cuddles for later.

“As hard as it is NOT to instantly say ‘hi’ to your pup when you get home, try your best to pause the affection (all those rubs, welcome kisses and baby talk!) until your pup’s initial excitement has calmed down a bit. That way you aren’t accidentally rewarding their excited frantic state, but their settled state,” the behavior experts at The Puppy Academy explained. “[And] save the long, drawn-out, dramatic goodbyes. We know, it’s tough! But it will help your pup be able to relax easier while you’re away.”

Put some music or TV on for your pup while you’re gone.

Your dog may not need to catch up on the latest season of The Bachelor, but keeping some sort of Spotify station or podcast on when you’re away might help them relax.

“Some pups enjoy calming music and some like hearing other human voices, so playing a podcast or leaving a TV show on can work. Test them out to see what works best for your pup,” the trainers at The Puppy Academy said.

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