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Tips to help your dog deal with life changes

Dog trainer Laura Garber helped TODAY's Natalie Morales train her adopted dog Zara, and now she's offering advice for you and your dog!
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Dog trainer helped TODAY’s , and now she's offering advice for you and your canine companion.

Dogs can be sensitive to changes in their lives, just as humans can be. A family member going off to college, the arrival of a new baby, a change in the family’s work or school schedule — all of these can upset a dog’s routine and trigger troubling behavior changes. A dog who has been comfortable with human absence in the family’s old schedule may start to whine or bark upon departure, be destructive when no one is around, even to the point of self-injury, or even break housetraining. In the most severe cases, this sensitivity to being alone can progress into full-blown separation anxiety. Though separation anxiety tends to be over-diagnosed, real separation anxiety, which can be likened to a human panic attack, is truly painful for all involved. 

The most prudent — and least agonizing — approach is to prepare your canine family member for what lies ahead. Anticipate what the new family schedule will look like, including what stretches the dog will be alone, who will be leaving when and in what order, and who will be the dog’s companion at different times during the day. Then, try to morph your current schedule into this new schedule gradually. The trick is to identify the changes the dog will experience, unbundle them, and then work on each of them separately. 

So, for instance, the pooch may be most bonded to the mom who, on the old schedule, left the house first, and the dad would distract and redirect the dog by calling him and getting him started playing a favorite game. But, in the new schedule, the dad needs to leave first. Start by practicing when other family members are home but offering no distraction to the dog. The mom can take the trash out, a trip which will take just a few minutes, and then return, all without fanfare. Gradually randomize the departures, with different lengths of time and different family members present, and ultimately with no family members present. 

Another disruption might be when the teenage son, who had been the dog’s afternoon playmate, goes to college, leaving the dog without company until the first parent returns home from work. So, to begin working on this, the son should simply do other things around the house rather than playing with the dog. When the first parent returns home, the three can engage in a favorite game together and, over time, the son can become less involved as the parent takes over this activity. 

Start preparing weeks, even months, in advance if possible, so that adjustment can be gradual. Particularly in the case of the arrival of a new baby, it can be harmful to the relationship if the dog attributes his new life-scape — getting less attention, not being allowed on the couch or into the second bedroom turned baby nursery — with the sudden arrival of the tiny tyke.

Here are some tips to help with the process:

  • If the dog is losing his most bonded person, either due to increased or long-term absence, start strengthening the dog’s relationships with other family members.
  • Gradually prepare your dog if he will have more time alone at home. For more detail on preventing and treating separation distress, see my article "Home Alone"
  • Exercise is a great way to diffuse the anxious energy that can accompany changes in routine. Dogs, like humans, are best equipped to relieve stress through physical outlets, so increasing exercise, even just in the early stages of the adjustment process, can help. (See my articles "Exercise Indoors" and "Exercise Outdoors" for creative ideas about games to play with your dog.)
  • Dogs are genetically programmed to hunt for their food. One reason there is such a prevalence of behavior problems in pet dogs is that they have so little mental challenge; they need to have work to do! A healthy, balanced day should include mental stimulation as well as physical exercise. So, instead of giving your dog his food in a bowl, give him problems to solve, by way of stuffed puzzle toys, in order to obtain meals and snacks.  (See my Kong handout for some stuffing recipes.)
  • Have a dog walker lined up well in advance of the schedule change and make sure that your dog is acquainted and comfortable with them long beforehand. It would be a good idea to have them take trial walks with your dog.

Of course, all dogs are different and some dogs are more sensitive to change than others. The soft, bondy dog may be more affected by changes in playmates or time spent alone than the more independent dog. The playful, energetic dog may be more sensitive to changes in exercise routine than the couch potato dog. You know your dog best and so are best equipped to help him navigate the challenges. Just give him, and yourself, plenty of time, patience, and love to make peace with what lies ahead.

Owner of , Laura Garber, is a dog trainer and behavior specialist who regards training as an exercise in building relationship rather than obedience. She is Interim Head of Behavior at the Town of Hempstead Animal Shelter in Hempstead, Long Island.