Just a few weeks ago, one of my favorite clients (I have a lot of favorites), Laura contacted me because she was planning a trip. I was so excited to hear from her and asked after her dog, Lucy. Lucy had passed away. She was a sweet dog but in poor health the last time I watched her, so I was sad but not shocked. Laura had adopted a new dog, Bohdi, a sweet 70 lb. hound mix the previous Summer who is totally convinced that he is a lap dog.
When we were talking about the trip, I voiced some concern that she had adopted him amid the pandemic and had not had any company over to the house since the beginning of the crisis, nor had she traveled away from the house for more than a couple of hours. As I had been doing so much research on separation anxiety, I wanted to be sure that the trip would be a success for all of us; Bodhi, the Owner, and myself. We had about a week prior to her leaving so I put together a protocol to help Bohdi feel comfortable with me coming into his house.
Visit 1: Laura met me out in the driveway with Bodhi on a leash. We stood around for about 5 minutes or so talking while Bohdi checked me out. Once he seemed comfortable with me, Laura told him my name several times while we walked up to and into the house. We talked in the foyer with him still on the leash for a few minutes and then walked through the house to the backyard. She let Bohdi off-leash to run in the yard while we sat on the porch and talked. He came in to check in with Laura and spent some time letting me pet him and talk to him. Laura walked me out through the house to the front door, telling Bohdi that I was leaving and we set up the next meeting while we were walking.
Visit 2: Since everything went so smoothly on the first visit, we decided that I would knock on the front door and she would answer with Bohdi in his harness so that he would be comfortable with me coming in the front door. Everything went well and we walked through the house to his treat jar from which I grabbed a treat or two and fed him.
Visit 3: The way that I have always gone into Laura’s house is through the garage. No one had ever come into the house through the garage except for Laura, so our next step was for me to call on my way over and Laura put the harness and leash on Bodhi. I came in through the garage and then knocked on the door before entering the house with a favorite treat in hand. Bohdi was a little surprised but took it all in stride (that is took the treat as soon as he saw it.)
Visit 4: The final visit in our protocol was my coming through the garage and into the house with only the harness on. This went well and Laura was able to get ready for her trip with confidence that Bohdi would be well taken care of and I would be safe.
The idea was that if any one of these visits elicited a negative reaction from Bohdi, we would run that scenario again until he was comfortable with the scenario.
As it happened, Bohdi and I had an amazing time and we even had time to work on a little walking on leash, went through a very stressful thunderstorm together, and spent some serious cuddle time, which allowed me to send great reports and photos to Laura so that she could enjoy her trip even though she missed Bohdi terribly!
Why did we go through all of this? With the lack of ability to socialize our new dogs, there is a risk that they will either become aggressive when a stranger enters the home when they are alone, or it will cause undue anxiety to have a new person in the home on top of being left alone for the first time.
Prior to Covid, I have had experiences where after meeting the dog and owner once for the initial consult, when I came to walk or care for the dog, things were very tense or the dog was very fearful. I am seeing that even some well-known old clients of mine that have not seen me since the beginning of the Pandemic are a little nervous when I come into the house to get them for walks. It is only fair to the dog to give them a chance to get to know the person who will be coming into their home and best to be overly cautious to avoid negative outcomes.
After the success of this method with Bodhi, I think that the only thing that is missing is for the Owners to make sure that their dog is okay being alone using video cameras to see what the dog’s reaction is to being left alone. I have the equipment to lend if you want to run this experiment and am willing to help you watch for signs of anxiety if you are not sure what you are looking for.
This set of strategies will give the Owner and Pet Sitter an idea of how to best care for your pets when you go away and gives the Pet Sitter the advantage of having built a relationship with your dog so that they can enjoy the time when the owner has to be away. Every plan will be a little different, but I think that taking the time will make the difference for you and your dog!