Returning to the office causing separation anxiety in pets

Recurring 10 p.m. news recording
Published: Jul. 13, 2021 at 8:53 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - After more than a year of working from home, many people are getting ready to head back to the office. That is anxiety inducing on its own, but especially for the pets who now have to spend their days alone, many of them for the first time.

Rafa, a 10-month-old Australian Shepherd in Madison, is the perfect example. His owners, pharmacist Char Ruiz and UW Madison graduate student Lawrence Letchuga, got him last October. Since then, he has never had to be home alone for more than a couple hours. That is going to change once in-person classes begin again for Letchuga.

“I’ve started to worry about, you know, separation anxiety and things like that with him,” Letchuga said. “We came home the other day and he chewed up our TV remote.”

“Every time we’d leave, he’d like whine at the door and kind of just sit there and wait for us to come back,” Ruiz said.

World-renowned Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and UW Madison Zoology Professor Dr. Patricia McConnell said Rafa likely has a mild case of separation anxiety because he paces, whines and is a little destructive. She said a more severe case of separation anxiety could be dangerous for pets.

“I’ve had clients whose dogs went through the window and hurt themselves badly, so like a two-story window. A second story window,” Dr. McConnell said.

As society eases back into the office, owners need to wean their pets into isolation. They can start with toys and treats.

“You just give your dog something wonderful, and then you say bye. Be good, and you walk out the door, and then you turn around and come right back in. Literally like 10 to 15 seconds later, which seems crazy, but you’re conditioning them in a Pavlovian way to learn to feel happy and comfortable and relaxed,” Dr. McConnell said.

Letchuga and Ruiz said their biggest help has been keeping Rafa in a kennel or a crate when they are gone.

“It’s his, like peaceful spot where he can nap or he can like have his toys, instead of being like something where we like cage him up,” Ruiz said.

Dr. McConnell said crate training is an excellent tool but to never use the crate for punishment.

“This is, this is not a bad dog. This is a dog who’s really distressed. It’s really important not to come home and yell at your dog,” Dr. McConnell said. “So, you just ask your dog to go in the crate, take a breath, you know, and then move on but that’s as much for you. It’s not punishment for the dog. It’s just giving you both the timeout to just take a breath.”

Dr. McConnell worries pet owners will be too tired to play or take their dogs for a walk when they are home from work. But she said teaching your dog tricks can be a great way to exercise your dog, even if it’s just mentally.

“Teaching dogs tricks is my favorite thing to do when you come home from work and you’re tired, you’re just exhausted, and you’re like, I do not have the energy to take you on a 45-minute walk. You can teach that you can do 10-minute training session. And just like us, is mental exercise, and some dogs get mentally tired,” Dr. McConnell said.

At the end of the day Rafa’s owners don’t think his world will be entirely upside down.

“He’s a very smart dog and so, I think he’ll adapt and be resilient and kind of figure it out,” Ruize said.

Letchuga on the other hand said he will miss Rafa.

“He’s my little partner in crime, but I’m not going to chew up the remote when he leaves. It’s a little bit more manageable,” Letchuga said.

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