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How to help your dog with back-to-school blues

After spending the summer with your kids, he may suffer separation anxiety when they aren’t home. Animal behaviorist Tamar Geller has advice.
/ Source: TODAY

On “Today’s Pets,” we look at what happens to your family dog in the fall. During the summer, your pooch gets plenty of fresh air, sunshine and attention. But what does he do when your kids go back to school. Animal behaviorist Tamar Geller was invited on “Today” to share her tips for keeping your dog entertained when you leave him home alone.       

The kids and the family dog had a great time together this summer. But once your children are back at school, your pooch may show signs of separation anxiety. This is part of a panic response your dog suffers as a result of being left alone — either for the first time, following a long interval of constant companionship, or after a change in the family routine or structure. Typically, dogs will have the most dramatic response within the first hour after being alone. 

Some typical signs of separation anxiety are:

  • Digging, chewing, scratching at doors or windows to escape and reunite with his owner. We’re not talking about random digging, chewing and scratching — we’re talking about massive destruction, as a sign of separation anxiety.
  • Howling, barking or crying to get his owner to return.
  • Leaving his “mark” all over your house, as a result of stress, not revenge. So please don’t punish him, when you come home. Again, we’re not talking about random accidents, but destructive behavior.
  • Following you from room to room when you’re home.
  • Displaying frantic greeting behavior when you return.
  • Getting depressed or anxious when you prepare to leave your home. Be aware that sometimes the owner that has these feelings and transfers them to their dog.

Some things you can do to help your dog adjust to being home alone:

  • Keep your arrivals and departures low-key. Ignore your dog for a few minutes when you return home, so you don’t feed his franticness.
  • Make fake departures. Pretend as though you are going to leave, get your bag, keys, etc., giving your dog small treats (making it pleasurable) throughout the process.  Then go out the door and a few minutes later, come back in, ignoring your dog’s excitement (keeping your arrival low-key).
  • Leave an article of the kids’ clothing behind, to comfort the dog. An old, unlaundered T-shirt works great.
  • Consider trying doggie daycare or hiring dog walker. This way your dog has something to look forward to in his day and it also gives him an outlet for his energy that he would otherwise use to “redecorate” your house or yard.
  • Send your dog on a treasure hunt after you leave, teaching him to associate your departure with great pleasure. Right now, your dog is bummed out when you leave, but playing a game will have your dog begging for you to “go away already!”

To play “treasure hunt,” simply stuff several Kong or similar toys with a variety of treats and hide them around the house, sending your dog on a fun and challenging treasure hunt! To stuff the toys, use various treats in various sizes. Small pieces fall out easily and larger ones make it more difficult for your dog to get, keeping him focused on the task. Remember to rotate and vary the kind and number of the toys, as well as the treats. And make it a fun activity for the kids. As you’re making their school lunch in the morning, they can prepare the dog’s treasure!

     You may think that if this is your dog’s first time staying home when your kids go back to school, he should stay home. I disagree.  I believe it’s good to take the dog out of the house as much as possible — whether you’re taking him along in the car with the kids or he’s accompanying you as you walk them to school. Brief separations during the days just before the new school year starts will also help those kids and dogs that are especially close. 

You’ll probably find that the kids don’t have the time or interest in taking care of and paying attention to the dog now that they’re back to school, with homework and other activities.  So create a schedule of responsibility for the dog and make it a part of your kids’ daily routine, such as feeding the dog twice a day, walking the dog and making sure he has fresh water. Encourage the kids to find time to exercise and play games with the dog on the weekends — they can even include their friends! Make a chart and give stars to the kids for all their interactions with the dog.  If they get rewarded for their consistency, they will look forward to interacting with the dog, instead of looking at it as a chore. 

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