How to ease your dog out of lockdown

After spending a year with us at home, our dogs will have to re-learn independence. Katy Birchall finds out how we can help.

As we creep towards the light at the end of the lockdown tunnel, spare a thought for our canine companions. For them, it has been a remarkable year of round-the-clock family time, but, as restrictions ease, it is crucial to help our dogs adjust to post-lockdown life.

‘We should expect that behavioural issues will rise with young dogs and puppies, particularly with separation anxiety and socialisation,’ cautions Sean McCormack, head vet of dogfood brand tails.com. ‘Our lives have changed, as have those of our dogs, so it’s not surprising that older dogs may also experience anxiety.’

Dog looking through window while sitting at home

Signs that your dog may be anxious

Indicators might include your dog becoming distressed when you go through the motions of heading out of the door — putting on a jacket, picking up keys — and excessive whining or barking when you leave.

‘They may demonstrate destructive behaviours at perceived barriers, such as windows or crates,’ Dr McCormack notes. ‘Making a mess indoors is another sign — this is not a “dirty protest” and not something to punish your dog for when you return.’

A little Norfolk terrier sits on a sash window sill

The sequence of lockdowns greatly affected the daily routines of our furry friends — a survey conducted by the Dogs Trust in May 2020 revealed the proportion of dogs left alone for three or more hours at a time decreased dramatically, from one in two before lockdown, to one in 20.

According to the Kennel Club, 10% of owners who bought a dog during the pandemic now worry if they can care for them when restrictions end, 18% admit uncertainty about their dog fitting into their lifestyle when they return to work and 25% feel concerned about problematic behaviours their dog may have adopted during lockdown, such as shyness, separation anxiety and aggression.

 Border terrier sits on windowsill in London home

The knock-on effects of such issues can be devastating — between August 2020 and January 2021, the Dogs Trust saw web traffic to its ‘Giving Up Your Dog’ page increase by 41% compared with the previous six-month period.

How to train your dog for post-lockdown life

‘We want our dogs to be the best versions of themselves and live the most fulfilled lives possible,’ enthuses Adem Fehmi, founder of dog behaviour and training business Dog-ease.

‘It is possible to start training now to prevent separation anxiety and also to overcome this behavioural issue should your dog already be showing signs of stress when left alone. The key is not to expect too much too soon and to take training slowly at your dog’s pace.’

playing dog

Mr Fehmi advises exercising your dog before leaving them: ‘A well-exercised dog is more likely to settle and rest in your absence.’

He also recommends giving them something to provide mental stimulation, such as a food dispensing toy, creating a calm environment by playing classical or soft music and setting and practising ‘the scene’.

‘Practise asking your dog to be physically away from you when you are at home,’ he explains. ‘An easy way is to initially use a light barrier, such as a baby gate, so your dog can still see you, but is physically distanced. Once they can relax in this context, this can be built on, with further distances and times away from you.’

Top tips for post-lockdown life

  • Build up their time alone slowly and work it into their daily routine
  • Try working in a different room to your dog or put a barrier between you
  • Exercise your dog before leaving them and, when you go, leave music playing to create a calm atmosphere
  • Give them something to keep them busy when you’re out, such as a filled Kong, a chew toy or a food dispenser
  • Make sure they have a comfortable space—a cosy crate or bed—where they feel safe in your absence
  • When you return to your dog, act calmly and do not make a big fuss of them — you want them to learn that you coming and going is perfectly normal