back to school: advice for easing september stress

Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Sep 04 2013
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You can almost hear the collective sigh of parents around the country as, once again, it is time to send their kids back to school. Sure, summer has been fun, but there’s nothing quite like the feeling of getting back to a good daily schedule! In the hustle and bustle of preparing for the back to school season, it’s easy to forget your four legged kids, who have become accustomed to having their two legged siblings home with them for the last three months. With a little bit of preparation, you can ease the “back to school blues” for all members of your family.

Summer is an especially popular time for adopting pets, due in large part to the fact that many families are home a lot more in the summer. This makes the first few months of bonding and training a special time for the whole family. But it also makes the first school year a bit more difficult, because your new dog or cat isn’t used to having so much time alone during the day. If you’ve got a college-bound child, the transition can be even harder for your pet, especially if they were bonded closely.

Separation anxiety is common in the first weeks of the transition to the school year. Look for signs such as vocalization (your neighbors may report that your dog howls or cries while you’re gone), chewing on inappropriate things, nervousness (especially at departure times), and obvious signs that your dog has tried to escape the house. Some escape attempts are so frantic that dogs can injure themselves scratching at the door, chewing on the baseboards, and mutilating the window blinds desperately trying to get out.

Dogs with separation anxiety are suffering and need treatment. If you see signs described above, talk to your veterinarian. Together, you can come up with a behavior modification plan that best fits you and your dog’s needs.

But the easiest way to avoid the pet back to school blues is to be prepared. Make a plan well before school starts and gradually get your dog or cat used to being alone more. Practice gradual departures; this is an exercise to get your pet used to being alone for longer and longer amounts of time. Do everything exactly like you would if you were leaving for the day, including putting on your coat and shoes (and your kids’ coats, etc.), grabbing your keys and your purse, and head out the door. You don’t have to actually go anywhere; the exercise is meant to show your pet that you will always return. Some dogs benefit from the use of a “safe” word to cue them into the fact that, although you’re leaving now, you will return. Lengthen the amount of time you are gone each time as long as your pet is comfortable with the length of your absence. If your pet shows signs of anxiety, back up to the time period that he or she was comfortable with and try again.

Don’t make a big deal about departures and arrivals. Calmly say good-bye or use your safe word when you leave, and calmly say hello when you arrive. Making a big deal out of leaving or coming home just creates more of a problem.

If you put your dog’s crate away, it’s time to bring it back out. At least until you know how your dog will respond to all of the extra time alone. Most dogs prefer the confines of their crate, which makes them feel at ease at times of high stress.

Leave your pet with something to do. A treat-filled Kong toy or something similar can stave away boredom (which will lead to mischief). Or perhaps try leaving a radio on so that your pet isn’t put off by complete silence.

Most importantly, make sure your pet gets plenty of attention when the family is home in the evenings. Though you’ve shortened the amount of time you all get to spend together, positive attention is still beneficial. Take the time to practice your obedience commands to stimulate your pet mentally, and above all, don’t forget the physical exercise, too! A brisk 30-minute walk, a game of catch, or laser tag with your cat is imperative to the physical and mental well-being of your pet. And it’s not so bad for us owners, either!