Expert tips on how to successfully work from home with dogs

You love your four-legged friends, but let’s be honest: They can be a huge distraction. Local animal behaviorists are here to help with expert advice.

dog laying down next to owner on her laptop
Photo by Bruno Cervera

Working next to your dog or cat sounds like a dream come true, and it’s one that most workers with pets are experiencing as the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread across the region and working from home becomes the new daily norm. 

But what happens after you realize that your pet can also be a huge distraction while working remotely? We spoke with three local animal behavior experts to find out what you can do to keep your pet tame and content by your side, including Brianna Dick, the owner of Alexandria’s Pack Leader Help; James Oliver, the owner and head trainer at Dog University in Vienna; and Sandy Modell, the founder and CEO of Alexandria’s Wholistic Hound Academy. See highlights from our conversations with them below.

What new behavior from their pets can owners expect while they work from home?

JO: All dogs are different, just like people. For most dogs they might see this as a long weekend. (aka you’re home, so you have nothing to do but spend time with them–so they think). To get attention, your dog might bark excessively, whine, run off with your shoe to play keep-away, get into things or possibly knock over your house plant, things they don’t usually do to get attention. In a dog’s world, they’re bored and you’re available to entertain them.

BD: Now that owners are spending more time at home with their pets, they may start to notice their dogs behavioral issues more, like fixating and barking at things out of the window, following them throughout the house, overall excitability and an increase in jumping. 

SM: Dogs like routines and are not fans of changes in their routines. The changes in their owners’ daily schedules can upend their dog’s usual routine, which can lead to undesired behaviors. While owners are normally at work, most dogs spend the time sleeping. Now that their owners are home, their dogs are probably not getting the same amount of rest than they did before. Another change is in their owners’ emotional states. In general, people are feeling added stress and anxiety during these uncertain times and dogs can pick up on their owners’ emotions too. All of this can result in dogs feeling more anxious. Behaviors associated with increased anxiety can include attention-seeking behaviors, such as whining and barking, difficulty settling, pacing and increased reactivity. Some dogs may also display destructive behaviors, such as chewing or scratching on furniture and picking up and chewing on inappropriate items, such as their owner’s pens, shoes, electronic devices, etc. Dogs can also show an increase in depression, such as trouble sleeping, losing their appetite, not wanting to play or seeming listless.

What is the best way to encourage good behavior in dogs?

JO: Now would be a good time to teach appropriate behavior during work by giving the dog a job, a place to be or something to do. Teach them to be in a targeted location, possibly by placing a dog bed located close to your work area, but not in your work area, where you can see them and they can see you. Teach them what you expect them to do during the time that you are working, just like kids when parents are working from home. If the dog comes to you seeking attention, direct him or her to the targeted spot. Perhaps give them a nyla bone, marrow bone or a frozen stuffed kong (something that will last about 30 minutes) to self-entertain. Have several choices on hand of different flavors, and give them one at a time. If they move from the targeted spot, direct them back. Shortly, they will get the hang of where they are supposed to be while you’re working.

BD: The absolute best thing you can do for your pet right now is to keep a similar structure and schedule with them like you would if you’re going to work. Just like humans, dogs thrive off of structure. They cannot rationalize or understand why their humans are now home and with them the majority of the day. I know it may seem odd to keep your dog crated while you’re home, but it is so beneficial to their overall state of mind and behavior. When the day comes where owners get to go back to work all day, their dog is going to have an extremely difficult time adjusting to that new schedule. Prevent the behavioral problems now by providing your dog structure and guidance.

SM: If their owners are home but teleworking, dogs will look for things to do. They may feel bored from lack of activity. The best way to keep pets well behaved is to provide them with lots of physical and mental stimulation. A tired dog is a good dog. Owners should take breaks from their work to provide their dogs with enrichment, extra walks and structured playing inside the home, using tug toys or their favorite balls. Some enrichment activities include puzzle toys and treat dispensing toys. Instead of giving them all their food in their bowl, parcel some out in toys, hide some around the house and ask your dog to find the treats. Start out easy and increase the difficulty of the hides. This can also be done outside in the yard. And, of course, work on training new and good behaviors, such as sits, downs, stays, recalls and fun tricks, such as roll-over, weave through the legs, shake, etc.

Many pet owners feel they need to be constantly petting their dogs, giving them attention or taking them on walks while they’re working from home. What can they do to get the pets to calm down and, frankly, leave them alone for a bit?

JO: Dogs are very social and most have been taught that when we are around, we will pet them and take them for walks. We need to teach them we are working and when we are finished working is the time to interact with us. Making sure they understand that they have a place to be while you’re working, like on a nearby dog bed or other targeted location, is a good place to start. Also, take breaks and interact with your dog. Small training times of seven to 10 minutes a couple of times a day will help them get tuckered out.

BD: Affection is more for the owner than it is the dog. Many times, humans try to humanize their dog rather than understanding things from a dog’s perspective. Dogs really don’t require a ton of affection. What owners should do is create one area, whether it be a crate or a dog bed, and have their dogs lay down there while they work. Their dog can only become what they practice, so if their dog is practicing excited behavior and the owner gives affection to that, it will create a dog that has no limitations and constantly is looking for attention, which is unhealthy. If their dog is laying down in one area then they are practicing calmness, which is exactly what their dog needs to do to be happy and healthy.

SM: Some good chews, such as bully sticks, frozen kongs, Himalayan yaks and sterile bones to tire them out.

How often should dogs be taken outside for walks now that their owners are at home during the workday?

JO: Their potty schedules should be maintained to ensure a smooth transition to their old routine when the quarantine is over. Owners should try to stay consistent in their daily routines as much as possible for walks. Most dogs like going for walks, runs and being outside just like the rest of us and, given the chance, they will try to get us to take them out over and over again.

BD: If their owner can take them out for two walks a day, that is ideal. The length of time that’s best for the dog will depend on the dog’s overall energy level and psychological and physical needs. My rule of thumb is one to two hours in total per day. Owners can also add in a dog weight pack to help challenge their active dog even more during the walk.

SM: This will depend on the dog. Some enjoy walks more than others. But, certainly I would add a midday walk or keep your dog walker employed so you can focus on your work. Dog walkers have lost many clients during this period.

Should anything about the pet’s daily routine change during social distancing and staying home?

JO: I would suggest keeping to the same routine for feeding, grooming and walks as much as possible. Slight deviations are to be expected, as that is part of our daily lives. If your dog is used to a walk in the morning, lunchtime and in the evening, continue those walks. Anything modified (like more walks) will suddenly stop when the quarantine is over and may become an issue for the owner. Some dogs are not great with change of routines and might have difficulty readjusting to their old schedule.

BD: If possible, the structure of the day should be as close as it was before the owners were home all day. Again, dogs will not be able to understand when everything shifts again and they are back to work. If an owner was gone from nine to five, then I still recommend keeping their dog contained in areas for a few hours midday to help maintain the same routine and structure.  Their dog is looking for someone to tell them what to do and how to do it. Dogs will develop anxiety and confusion during this period of time if owners are not guiding them and giving them instructions throughout the day. Essentially, think of your time with your dog as quality over quantity. If you’re working and not paying attention to them, it serves no benefit to allow them free roam. Instruct them to relax in a crate or a dog bed.

SM: I would recommend putting less food in their bowls and using half of what they would normally put in their bowls as training and enrichment treats.

What other general tips do you have for pet owners working from home?

JO: If your dog is distracting you from work, they are just seeking attention. Teach them the appropriate thing to do. Give them a specific spot to go to lay down and relax. Schedule times to play that correspond with your normal schedule. Things to do inside might include throwing a ball down the hall and letting the dog retrieve it. Perhaps play a game of hide-and-seek or try using a laser pointer. Be creative and find what your dog enjoys.

BD: Be mindful of mindless affection with your dog. This can create an unhealthy relationship where the dog does not understand why they are constantly being pet or baby-talked. Utilize your dog’s crate, a dog bed or a blanket to keep your dog in one area. Practicing downtime and calmness is what creates a happy and calm dog. Take longer and calmer walks where your dog is in tune with you and not pulling everywhere to strengthen your relationship, so your dog looks to you for guidance rather than letting them do whatever they want. Dogs don’t actually like that!

SM: Dogs like structure and routine. Owners should be aware of changes in their dog’s behaviors. The best way to minimize these changes is to keep their dogs engaged with things that dogs like to do. Increase their mental activities; 10 minutes of training or other mental stimulation is equal to a half-hour walk. Keep the walk, but add in lots of brain games and added training.

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