We here at Paw know that a number of pet parents are probably seriously considering the idea of sending their fur kids back to school this fall in order to fix certain behavioral issues that may have come up during the uncertain times of the last year and a half, but that’s not what we’re focusing on in this article.
Besides, you can go to Paw University with your fur babies any time, from the comfort of home.
No, what we’re discussing here is how to prepare your dogs for when your two-legged kids return to school outside of the home, which seems to be on the agenda in a lot of places in the U.S., from Hawaii to Maine.
This means that schedules and routines will be changing.
Dogs Hate Change
One thing that dogs require in their lives is a regular and predictable routine. A big reason for this is that it greatly reduces anxiety. If your dog knows what’s supposed to happen and when, then they are not going to panic or freak out, because they really have a good sense of timing.
“I get to go outside and do my business as soon as I smell the coffee brewing in the morning, which is right after Mom gets up, and I get my food after Dad is done in the bathroom and comes down in his robe, smelling like shampoo and shaving cream.”
Now, if you’re five or ten minutes off either way, don’t worry. Your dog isn’t going to freak out. Also note: dogs don’t tell time so much by watching the daylight as they do by smelling the day.
Dew on the lawn right around sunrise smells a lot different than full sunlight on the concrete patio in the back, for example, and the asphalt on the street in front of the house has an entirely different aroma at high noon than it does at sunset. And this does extend into the household, as noted above.
For example, the humans will wake up smelling funky but then magically take on the odors of flowers and fruits and herbs, as well as fresh clothes. Breakfast is an entirely different symphony of smells than lunch or dinner, and if we’re going to keep track of things on longer scales, like laundry or cleaning day, those both come with a whole host of their own aromas.
In short, your dog’s entire calendar is one big book of stank that they keep track of in their head. Oh, yeah — the one thing they have going for them, the same as we do, is a strong circadian rhythm, which is basically a built-in 24 hour clock that is synced to the day/night schedule of the Earth itself.
But back to that change thing, this is why moving to a new area can be so traumatic for a dog. Everything smells differently. If you’ve ever done any kind of long-distance traveling, you know this. It’s true even if you haven’t traveled that far. One part of your hometown my smell completely different than another.
A change in routine in the home is going to change the schedule as well as the scent of the entire household.
Dogs Love to Bond
You probably already know which one of your family members the dog is most connected to. It may be the one that provides the food and walks, or it may not. Sometimes, the dog will just latch onto someone they feel most comfortable with and, as far as the dog is concerned, that is “their” human.
The question, when it comes to back-to-school, is whether that human is staying at home or going out. Dogs tend to show behavioral synchronization with humans in general, but sometimes they do it with the kids in the family.
Getting back to knowing the timing of things, how many of you have had this experience? Your dog seems fine until around half an hour before the time that whichever family member isn’t there is due to come home.
And what do they do? They may get a little obsessive, start staring out the front window if there is one, or lying by the front door and sniffing under it, or just pacing around. Then, when that person comes home on time, your dog explodes in joy to greet them.
This behavior is the big tell that this person is your dog’s “human,” which is something you absolutely need to know before you send the kids back to school, because if your dog has bonded with one of the kids instead of one of the adults or non-school-age kids (too young or too old), then this is going to take extra attention.
Adjusting is a Process
The main thing is to try to keep your dog’s schedule before and after as close to what it was as possible. If the person who regularly fed and walked them is going to not be available, then swap in the replacement by starting the transition with co-walks and feeding as early as you can, switching over completely after about a week.
If you don’t have the time, then make sure that the new person takes over at as close to the same times every day as the previous person
You’re Making Food... When?
This may seem totally trivial to the humans, but to the dogs it’s major. When everyone was working or studying from home, then the mid-day meals were probably getting made around the time they were going to be eaten.
But with the kids heading off in the morning, that means that those lunches are going to get made and packed the night before, and this can be a major point of confusion for your dogs.
Think about it. You go into the kitchen in the evening, get out all the great-smelling ingredients, fuddle with them for a while, and then, suddenly, they’re all packed away and stuffed in the fridge, and your dog is left sitting there thinking, “What? You had food. For me. Where did it go?”
Ways around this potential confusion are to make and pack the lunches while your dog is out on their walk with someone else, do it while your dog is distracted and eating in another room, like the pantry, or disguise the whole process while you’re making dinner.
If you’re a parent who’s ever gone through your child’s first week of school, as in “first week ever in a new grade or school,” then you know this one. At the end of that first week, they will be physically and mentally exhausted especially if they’re younger, so exercise the dog before the kids come home on Friday to lower its energy level — and don’t make any family plans for the weekend. Right now, your kids just need to decompress and do nothing, and a calm dog can help.
In fact, a calm and tired dog can probably be the best tool to help your kids adjust, but also probably the best thing you can do for your dog to get them to understand that the things that are changing are affecting everyone, so that they are not actually as scary as they might seem.
It’s an anti-anxiety win-win.
Change Doesn’t Have to be Traumatic
Even in normal times, the sudden return to school of the kids in the household can be a really big deal. There’s preparation to do beforehand, like getting new clothes and school supplies, making sure you have the right schedule, figuring out how and when the kids are going to get to school, and so on.
It’s a lot for parents to deal with and a lot for kids to process going through — but remember that your dog is going to pick up on all that possibly chaotic energy without understanding what’s going on. With the extra challenges facing us this year, it can be even more stressful for your dog as well.
Just remember that they’re going through all the changes with you, and don’t forget to be there for them as well.
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