Molly, 30, used to leave her dog home alone for hours a day — but that was in the Before Times. Now, eight months into the coronavirus pandemic, she says their relationship become a bit codependent. "I am so attached to my dog right now," she says, "I get stressed about being away from him when I am making a quick trip to the grocery store."
Since the start of the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, people have been spending lots more time with their dogs. The positive effects of quarantine on dogs and humans alike are obvious; emptier shelters, more walks, less alone time, more bonding, and more play time. But all the extra time together has created some confusing side effects.
"Dogs can help people cope with stress, which is why many dog owners are becoming even more attached to their pups during this incredibly stressful year," Erin Askeland, C.B.C.C.-KA, C.P.D.T.-KA, animal health and behavior consultant of Camp Bow Wow, tells Bustle. "But while it may be enhancing some dog/human bonds, it can also have adverse effects of codependency, making it difficult for either to leave the other alone."
How Dogs React To Human Stress
"I feel like my anxiety is making my dog anxious," Elisa, 29, tells Bustle. "He follows me from room to room and has trouble settling down now, especially when I'm having a stressful day. He used to just sleep all day,"
Dogs get their cues from their owners, Askeland says. This means that while giving them lots of affection will cue them into thinking that yes, they are a good dog, and yes, they can relax and feel safe, too much attention might cue a dog into thinking something is wrong. Fawning all over your dog every second of the day, not giving them time to be alone, or not enforcing spacial boundaries can give your dog the message that you need help. When your dog thinks you're in need of their services, they can experience stress — it's almost like telling them they have to be on duty.
Quarantine behavior changes might also impact how dogs see other people. "Dogs may become less adjusted and more fearful of strangers and other dogs when they haven’t had a chance to be around them for extended periods of time," Askeland says. For dogs, increased time together during the pandemic can trigger behavior changes, difficulty doing things independently, and trouble coping when left alone. "Without meaning to, we’re training our dogs to stay away from other people (and dogs!) too," she says, adding that it will be a challenge to overcome this aversion as we return to pre-2020 programming.
When you add avoidant behaviors to stressful triggers, you're left with a dog that can "feed off of and react with their own anxiety or aggression towards that situation, including protectiveness, aggression or fear towards people or other dogs, general anxiety at home, or separation issues," Askeland says.
How To Fix A Codependent Relationship With Your Dog
Whether you're headed back to the office in the near future, or planning on working from home long-term, experts agree that taking the time to set boundaries between you and your dog will help to ensure that you're not stressing each other out. Jenny Essler, a scientist and animal behavior expert, tells Bustle that even if you have nowhere to go, it's important to get in the habit of leaving your dog alone. "Start slowly, a few minutes, or maybe less, and gradually work that up and keep practicing until you have to go back to work or leave the house for real," Essler says. Because whether your dog is experiencing secondary anxiety from witnessing your own anxious clinging, or primary anxiety due to separation, it all manifests in the same extreme behaviors, like chewing their body or dangerous items, or even escape attempts. If you have access to a WiFi video camera, Essler suggests using it to monitor your pup during your trial absences to observe your dog's behavior.
The more regularly you leave, the more accustomed your dog will become to being alone, and equally important, the more you will get used to being away from your dog.
"Humans can feel great empathy for other animals. This can result in this feeling of, 'Oh, they are sad when I am gone', or, 'Oh, they are missing me'," Essler says. "To some extent that is likely true, but also dogs sleep the vast majority of the day, so a well-socialized and confident dog is probably sleeping while waiting for you to come home."
While having a furry little shadow following you around the house all day can be comforting, the happiest, most well-adjusted dog is one that feels comfortable enough to give you some space. So soak up some of the affection, but punctuate your love fest with moments of independence, alone time, and boundaries.
"I'm currently trying to break my habit of dragging my dog onto the couch with me to cuddle with me when he's peacefully sleeping on the floor," Elisa tells Bustle. "I'm taking baby steps; I'm ordering some extra pillows instead."
Jenny Essler, a postdoctoral researcher at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania