Many modern dogs face a massive obstacle, which pressures their physical and emotional well-being, often resulting in unwanted behaviours that are blamed on the dogs. Destruction, digging, barking and howling, over-excitement, anxiety and depression – all of these can lead to a dog being labelled as ‘naughty’, ‘spiteful’ or ‘just a bad dog’. In reality these dogs are isolated, lonely and frustrated because their needs are not being met. The culprit is the long working day.
For many people, the day starts early and ends late, leaving little time, energy or patience for a long walk with the dog or an intense training session.
The modern dog is at great risk of benign neglect – the best food, the best veterinary care, the most expensive beds and toys. But not enough human interaction. And this is all dogs really want. A recent study showed that the part of the brain associated with positive expectation and reward is activated to a greater extent when dogs smell their owners as compared to smelling other people or dogs (even familiar dogs).
Fortunately, there are simple ways of fulfilling your dog’s needs without quitting your job, and ensuring that they’re safe and coping well in your absence.
Although these are great ideas to keep your dog busy when you are not home, don’t take advantage of it. Spend as much time with your dog at home as you can. They are family.
Make sure your property is secure and that there is no way your dog can escape. If your dog stays outside, they should be confined to the back of the property – theft and poisoning are very real dangers. Remove any items that could potentially harm your dog (such as pieces of metal), or that they may target for chewing. Your dog should have a sheltered, comfortable sleeping area and plenty of fresh water.
A pilot study has shown that petting your dog before leaving home could assist in calming him during an absence. Take a minute to sit calmly with your dog before you leave and touch him gently – this is not a time to excite him. Similarly, when arriving home, acknowledge your dog but don’t go over the top with greetings. Save that for when he’s settled down a bit to reinforce calmer behaviour.
Certain types of music have a calming effect on dogs, so leave the stereo on when you leave the house – a speaker near a window is fine for outside dogs. Light classical music is best, but there are also many options online of relaxing dog music.
Obesity is a growing concern in dogs, and when left to their own devices, many dogs will spend most of the day lying around. Walks, tossing toys or tiny treats, agility at home or simply running around the garden and calling your dog to follow you are all good options.
Dogs need to use their brains. Fortunately, there are a multitude of treat-dispensing toys and puzzles available for dogs, either to buy or make yourself – just search on the internet. Training is also great, and it doesn’t have to be hard. Simple games, like giving a treat for eye contact, responding to being called, or a few sits are hugely beneficial.
Chewing relieves tension
Look for chews that your dog can enjoy safely when you’re not home – stuffable toys such as Kongs are a good option. Otherwise, provide chews when you’re home to supervise.
A dog’s nose is a magical thing, and it needs to be worked! Sprinkle lavender and chamomile around the garden for a calming effect, or hide some treats for your dog to search for. This is a great activity to leave for your dog as you’re going out.
Dogs can have fun while they’re alone. Apart from toys and treat searches, you can create a digging patch for your dog or a sensory garden – the internet abounds with ideas in this regard.
Quality over quantity
You don’t have much time with your dog, so make it count. Do something with your dog that he enjoys, whether it’s a massage or brushing, walking around the garden, or just sitting together. Put away your phone, switch off the TV and focus on your dog for five to 10 minutes – it will be good for both of you. If possible, take your lunch breaks at home and allow your dog to sleep in your room; these are small ways of integrating your dog into your life and providing for their emotional needs.
Don’t get another dog
Thinking that a second dog will keep your dog occupied and prevent loneliness – and therefore prevent certain behavioural issues – is often incorrect. This approach often backfires, resulting in two bored, lonely dogs instead of one. It may help in some cases, but ultimately your dog needs you, not another dog.
Prepare treats or stuffable toys the night before. Make sure you have all relevant phone numbers saved. If you’re going to be at work longer than usual, ask a friend or neighbour to help in advance. Having a variety of people to call on when you can’t be there is essential. Family, friends and neighbours can all play vital roles, especially if something goes wrong. They may also be able to visit your dog during the day to provide some interaction. Professional assistance is important too, so ensure that you have a reliable vet and a qualified behaviourist to call on when necessary.
Set up cameras that you can check on your phone. You’ll be able to observe how your dog copes when you’re not home, and which activities and approaches are having a beneficial effect on his behaviour. You’ll also be able to spot any health issues or emergencies as they arise.
Day-cares, sitters and walkers
A word of warning – these are unregulated industries. Should you choose to use these services, be extremely careful. A reputable day-care, dog-sitter or dog-walker can be a major boon to your dog’s life, but they can also cause harm if the people involved are unqualified, unknowledgeable or inexperienced.
“But I don’t have time!”
Yes, you do. A five-minute sniffing walk; two minutes of playing during an advertisement break; training while you’re making dinner; sitting in the garden instead of scrolling through pointless rants on social media. Hours of fun with your dog are for weekends; minutes make all the difference during the week. Also, you don’t have to do everything advised here at once. Start with one thing and once it’s an easy habit, add something else. Go at your own pace.
If you’re struggling with your dog’s behaviour, and you suspect it may be related to your working-parent status, don’t hesitate to contact a qualified dog behaviourist. Although these tips will help the majority of dogs, those suffering from separation anxiety, severe frustration or depression will need additional help. Contact the Animal Behaviour Consultants of South Africa for assistance.