Have you heard of the ‘latchkey children’? The term was first used in the early 1940s when children wore the keys to their homes on ribbons around their necks. With their fathers off to war and their mothers working in factories to support the war effort, thousands of children had to fend for themselves when they returned home from school. Today, the term ‘latchkey dogs’ refers to pets who are left at home while their owners are at work.
The Latchkey Dog is actually the name of a children’s book by author Mary Jane Auch, published in 1994. Eight-year-old Sam needs to come up with a solution for his lonely dog, Amber, who barks all day after his mother returns to work. Sam eventually comes up with a plan for the dog, but not before chaos ensues.
The plot is all too familiar for many pet owners today. Some dogs are content at home alone, but for others, it’s a disaster in the making. Their owners repeatedly return from work to face a destroyed home and a depressed or severely stressed dog.
Loneliness and behaviour problems
Dogs are social animals and are not ‘built’ to spend hours of time on their own. So while your pet may be bored and under-stimulated, he is probably also lonely.
“Dogs are biologically driven to form bonds and have an enhanced dependency on other species,” explains accredited behaviourist Samantha Walpole. “A life change such as a re-homing, the loss of a companion or extended working hours of an owner may result in the dog not being able to cope.”
Walpole says social deprivation and loneliness may manifest in different ways – from destructive behaviour or trying to escape to inappropriate elimination, early onset of obsessive behaviours or even increased sensitivity to sound. Because these types of manifestations are in no way clear-cut, it is important to assess the situation from a holistic viewpoint.
“A thorough veterinary examination to rule out any possible underlying medical cause and a practical assessment in the home environment by a behaviourist is warranted,” says Walpole. “These intricate details will allow a professional to establish the underlying cause of the behaviours.”
Pet owners may be quick to take a dog to the vet for physical problems but problems relating to mental anxiety and stress should not be overlooked.
If you have a lonely ‘only dog’, it might make sense to get another dog as a fur companion, but for many pet owners this ‘solution’ has turned into a secondary disaster.
“One needs to establish what company the specific dog needs,” says Walpole. “It may be a dog companion, a particular person or any person. If the dog is seeking out human company, a second dog will not make any difference at all and we would end up with two highly stressed dogs. If detailed history is pointing to ‘dog company’ it would be prudent to do numerous playdates to ensure the potential new dog companion is a good fit for both the family and the dog. Just like humans, not all dog personalities get on.”
Dogs seeking human company
If your dog needs human companionship through the day, you’ll have to consider a different tactic. Pet daycare is an excellent solution for some pet owners, but not everyone is able to afford the cost and it isn’t a good fit for all dogs.
Consider options for in-home care – domestic staff who work in your home, or hire the services of a dog walker or pet sitter. Some pet owners consider different care options on various days of the week. For example, two days of daycare, two days of in-home care and one day where the dog walker pops in.
Your home helper or gardener may be able to provide your dog with companionship and care at home. You need to consider if the employee is comfortable with your dog (and vice versa) and if he or she needs training to handle the dog correctly. Additional remuneration should be offered for the extra workload.
“If part of the worker’s job entails taking care of the dog, it would be unrealistic to expect them to automatically know what is required, unless the owner explains and the worker understands it,” says Karin Pienaar from COAPE International. “Keep in mind that different people have different concepts and viewpoints of the responsibility that goes hand in hand with having pets, so while you may think it’s obvious that your dog needs a daily walk – on lead when walking in the road – it may not be obvious to someone else. If your worker is not familiar with canine body language, he may be scared when your dog runs up to him barking in excitement.”
Pienaar advises pet owners to decide exactly how they want their staff to be involved and to tailor the care for the individual dog. “If you have a dog who gets bored easily and who requires ongoing enrichment and stimulation during the day, you need to make sure that your worker understands the necessity for it and possesses the skills to correctly implement the programme to combat the behaviour problem,” explains Pienaar. “I often work with staff whose responsibility it is to care for the pets and the biggest obstacle in our way when we start the process is understanding, both how and why.”
• By upskilling the employee in general pet care, body language and emotional needs, you can avoid putting them and your dog in a difficult situation. COAPE International has developed an enrichment techniques course for anyone caring for a dog or cat, to facilitate the process of addressing problems at home.
• Consider a few training sessions with your staff member and your dog so he learns to listen to his new handler. “If your dog has not learnt to listen when your employee calls him, he certainly won’t do so if he escapes during a walk,” cautions Pienaar.
• If the staff member needs to feed your dog in your absence, explain what food to provide, how much to give and when and caution against any foods that should not be given to dogs.
• To avoid a tragedy, remind staff members to ensure that your property gates are securely closed at all times.
Another option is to hire the services of a dog walker or pet sitter who will visit your home during the day to walk your dog, play with him and give a meal if required. The concept is well-known throughout the Western world and South Africans are slowly following the trend. Anyone can advertise, but are they able to keep your pet safe and flexible enough to provide the care you want for your dog?
“We fit in with what the owner wants and the dog requires,” says Ondine Schultz of Power Paws in Edenvale. “Sometimes we walk several dogs together, but if the dog is reactive, we may opt to walk him alone.”
Schultz and business partner Davina Toale don’t only walk their doggy clients around their own neighbourhoods but also take them to a safe field for additional off-lead exercise. Schultz says that even though South Africans are concerned about safety, both of their pets and who they allow onto their properties and inside their homes, many are willing to look at the option of pet walking due to time constraints and what is in the best interest of the pet.
• The safety of your dog and your home are paramount – always ask for several contactable references before you sign up.
• Ask the dog walker about their training and experience with dogs. The walker should be able to handle a tough situation that may arise on the walk.
• Arrange a meet-and-greet with the walker and your pet. The walker should be happy to spend some time getting to know your pet. You may be billed for the time, but it is important to be on hand and see how your dog interacts with the walker.
• If your dog has certain behaviour problems or isn’t comfortable on lead, do be upfront with the walker. Also mention any injuries or limitations your pet has.
• Establish where items (lead, poop bags) are kept and where the walker can find them.
• Do a test run. Book a walk and allow the walker to take control but accompany them on the walk so you can see how your dog responds. If everything runs smoothly and you feel comfortable, sign up for the service.