The last days of summer and the start of a new school year mark big changes for your family, your dog included. If your anxious dog got used to having people around for two months, how will he handle the back to school reset?
Getting back into the school and work groove can be tough on everyone: alarm clocks going off, early starts, and long days. Your separation anxiety dog most likely had a blast over the summer, with a houseful of people, a friendly dog sitter for when you went away, and hanging out with you and the kids.
But, a different picture lies ahead when school restarts.
Dogs and novelty don’t always mix
Although many dogs breeze through change, anxious dogs can be thrown by it. If it could talk, the stressed dog would probably say: “Ok, I was feeling good about everything, but I worry when I don't know what’s round the corner.”
Regularity can help anxious dogs become comfortable with whatever might be stressing them out, especially if the worry is only mild. But switch the routine, change even one thing, and suddenly all bets are off.
Anxious dogs are continually working out “is it safe or is it dangerous”? Context is an especially important safe/dangerous cue for dogs. And non-anxious dogs also get muddled by context changes. The best example of this is your dog who sits beautifully at home, but whose sit falls apart when you’re at the park. You think it’s the same – a sit is a sit, right? But for your dog, it’s a whole other thing.
Switch the context, and the entire picture can change, which can be a challenge for a separation anxiety dog. As some research studies show an adjustment in routine or household circumstances can exacerbate home alone distress.
Renowned trainer, Karen Pryor, coined the phrase “new tank syndrome” when she was training aquatic mammals. Get the behaviour solid in one tank, but then move the animal to a new tank only to see the behaviour fall apart.
Assessing the impact on your dog
What this means for owners of a dog with separation anxiety is that we need to anticipate the effect an adjustment in routine might have. Perhaps your dog was settled over the summer while you were all around. But that doesn’t mean his separation anxiety has been cured. If he had a problem before the summer, he’s likely still got it. And you heading off to work or school could send him into a tailspin.
I know you’ve got lots on your plate right now, and addressing your dog’s separation anxiety might not be top of your list. But getting back into the swing of things could be an excellent opportunity to start (or restart) separation anxiety training. Separation anxiety treatment works best when you take the “little but often” approach. We break training into short sessions of less than 30 minutes that you do five days per week. You may find being back in the Monday to Friday pattern helps you to plan regular slots for these exercises.
New term, new schedule, “new” dog?
Think of separation anxiety training as you might a new exercise regime. Do it regularly enough, for long enough, and it becomes a habit.
You’ve got a run of a few weeks before Thanksgiving or Christmas, which is plenty of time to develop a new habit of doing consistent separation anxiety training. Wouldn’t it be nice if your dog could do better on his own by the time you get to the next holiday?
And, while your long-term aim may be to leave your dog for several hours, setting short-term, tangible goals can help enormously. Here’s a quick video on goal setting for separation anxiety training.
So once everyone is on the Fall cadence, see if you can take a step or two towards getting into the separation anxiety training rhythm. Like any challenge, the more you break it down into manageable chunks, the more likely you are to stick with it. And if you need extra help, enlist a certified separation anxiety trainer for training advice, cheerleading, and moral support. You can go to our website to learn more about how we can help.
You’ve got this.
Are you worried your dog might not handle the end of the vacations? Share your thoughts below.