How to Prepare Your Rescue Dog For Being Alone

As I wrote about earlier this year, one of the upsides of this awful pandemic has been the increase in animals being adopted from shelters across the country. Faced with being home, many families increased their number by taking in a rescue pet. We had nothing but time last spring, and a new furry creature would add to our entertainment and soften our loneliness.

We adopted Kumba, a four-year-old black Lab flown in from Puerto Rico by the Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida, in February. Our hearts had healed from the 2018 loss of our chocolate Lab, Django, and my body had healed from my 2019 near-death illness in Amsterdam. Bringing this sweet, unsure boy into our home was the right thing to do. As soon as he himself had healed: he arrived in Ft. Lauderdale dreadfully anemic and underweight, but the LRRoF and his wonderful foster mother, Kim, cared for him as he fought his way back to health.

Kumba at his foster home

It broke our hearts to know that his dear boy was left at a shelter by his family. His foster mom told us that he would stay by our side indoors or out, and that he did not like being left alone, much less being crated.

That all sounded fine to us. We were homebodies even before the pandemic hit. Kumba became my morning exercise companion as I continued to strengthen my legs on long walks, and he sat at my feet as I wrote until lunch. He followed my husband around the house the rest of the day, a dutiful apprentice to whatever project was underway, including watching TV. We bonded as lockdown closed off the outside world.

We knew that we would leave him at home when we needed to go out together. When my new car arrived at the dealership in mid-March, we were gone for four hours. Our neighbor mentioned that he’d barked the whole time. Kumba took his anxiety out by chewing on a paperback book. Yeah, he’s a literary critic. I agree that it’s not the best writing, but it’s a best seller.

Nearly eight months later, Kumba and all the other dogs brought into a new home have become used to their humans’ 24/7 availability. Animals brought into a home during the pandemic have not had the socialization (with other people, and, especially, with other dogs) and periods of being left alone that would have naturally occurred before lockdown. Now, as children return to school and adults resume outside activity, dogs used to the permanent company of their humans may experience separation anxiety. The stress, and the destructive behavior a dog uses to cope with that stress, can overwhelm well-meaning families, leading to surrender or abandonment

Michael W. Fox’s syndicated newspaper column Animal Doctor recently listed the American Veterinary Medical Association’s recommended steps to get pets ready for their humans’ return to normal life. Which, of course, we don’t really understand ourselves.

One: introduce a workday routine

The AVMA suggests setting the alarm clock and feeding and walking your dog as you would when you return to normal routine, and leaving the house on a regular schedule.For us, this meant forcing ourselves to get out of the house together without the dog. We go on walks without Kumba, although the neighbors miss seeing him. We give ourselves the treat of a couple of hours at the beach mid-week when it’s only us oldsters there.

TWo: take anxiety out of your departure

Practice short departures daily, gradually extending the time. Stay calm when leaving or returning. In our home, we slowly extended the amount of time we were out of the house.

Three: exercise your pet before leaving

Play and activity burn energy and can keep pets calm and relaxed. That’s true for people, too. Kumba and I do a couple of miles every morning, and he plays fetch very nicely, especially with his stuffed animals.


Four: keep them busy

Long lasting treats, food puzzles can entertain pets while you’re out. We have a Kong that we stuff full of good things (okay, peanut butter and carrots) that Kumba can chew on while we’re out. Initially, his anxiety was too high to allow for that until we got home, but just yesterday he cleaned out a Kong while we ran a 20 minute errand.

Five: create a safe space

Set your pet up for success by eliminating environmental temptations. Reduce the roaming area. The AVMA suggests using a crate while you are working from home.

We crated our other dogs, who came into our home as puppies, and we did consider forcing the issue when it appeared that Kumba couldn’t be trusted to be alone in the house. Instead, we limited the risk by closing off the bedroom doors and removing newspapers, socks, shoes, bills, books, and bags from harm’s way.

It’s like when we had a cleaning service during our working years — we always picked up the night before. You have to wonder if Kumba is training us.

SIX: LoOk signs of stress

Barking, whining, chewing. Poor Kumba’s first act when we brought him home was to pee on a piece of furniture. It was our fault for not letting him to relieve himself on the grass outside after the nerve-wracking car ride. It hasn’t happened again, but he did enjoy a good chunk of The Palm Beach Post while we were at the beach last week.

What we are seeing in our boy Kumba these days is a dog who is at home being home. Our daughter recently visited for the first time since January, when she met Kumba at his foster home. It’s fair to say that it’s mutual love now in our household, pandemic and all.