SAN DIEGO — As she typed on a laptop computer on the dining room table last month, wrapping up some work for her job at UC San Diego, Yvonne Grobe could feel the weight of a very serious stare burning into her from the next room.
Working in her current office space in San Carlos, Calif., during the COVID-19 pandemic, Grobe slowly turned her head to the left. There, just above a half wall separating the dining area from the family room, the family’s energetic 31/2-year-old dog, Marcus, was up on the back of the couch — his head tilted, tongue out and panting, big brown eyes focused on Grobe, tail wagging furiously.
Marcus jumped off the couch and bounded into the dining room as the victor. Again, he had won the eye contact game.
Grobe has been working from home for more than a year, and during that time, the 28-pound gray and white French bulldog/Boston terrier has grown very close to her. Grobe said that Marcus can be cuddling with her husband or playing with her two daughters, but as soon as she enters the room, the dog heads her way.
“I went from somebody not necessarily wanting a dog to saying that he’s the best thing that’s come into our lives,” Grobe said. “He just loves me, and I love him. He completes our family.”
Grobe’s husband is an electrician, so he has worked all through the pandemic, going to job sites. Her daughters, ages 10 and 12, were home part of the time during the past school year.
So with Grobe at home, Marcus has become quite accustomed to her daily routine — morning coffee, online meetings, short doggie breaks outside to pee, play and to say hello to neighbors. Then, there’s lunch, a quick walk and, of course, more attempts at eye contact when possible.
But those days are soon going to be over. Grobe, like thousands of employees who have been able to work remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, is making plans to return to a regular schedule, in an office that isn’t home.
“Now that we are slowly starting to return to work, I’m afraid that it’s going to be very difficult for him,” Grobe said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with him. I’m sure he’ll be fine regardless, but he is really attached to me.”
The transition back into the physical office can be daunting enough for people, but it may also pose myriad challenges for pets like Marcus who have become even closer to their families during the pandemic, said Amanda Kowalski, director of behavior programs for the San Diego Humane Society.
However, Kowalski said, there are a number of ways people can help prepare dogs — and cats — for long days without the companionship they’ve gotten used to and make a smooth transition to being home alone again.
Kowalski suggests first getting a feel for what kind of behaviors your animal has, what they’re really doing, by using a camera.
“Technology is your friend, so watch them: See what happens when you leave them alone and record them for a few minutes to see if there is any transitional stress,” she said. “Are they stressed on lower levels and bored, or are they getting into destroying toys or experiencing true separation anxiety?”
She suggests making any changes in leaving the home gradual. First, try leaving for a walk around the block, then move up to 15 minutes away, and start to increase the amount of time. Some dogs do well in a crate or pen, she said, and that could be a good step for those animals, but for other dogs, being in a crate for long periods while owners are away working can make them claustrophobic and exacerbate anxiety.
To test a dog’s readiness for being in a pen or crate, “always start slow, just do it for a few minutes, don’t go to the extreme to see how far you can push it,” Kowalski said. “Make any changes gradually.”
She said because dogs tend to be highly social animals, it can help to have a trusted friend or family member or hiring a dog walker to come over to break up the day. Doggie daycare centers are also a possibility.
Getting them exercise before you leave for a long period of time is important, and Kowalski said enrichment toys that provide animals with activities that increase their physical and mental activity levels can also help.
“A lot of transitional stress has to do with not getting the type of stimulation they need,” she said. “Food-dispensing toys are really great for dogs, (staving off) boredom and frustration. They are a good way if your dog needs additional stimulation.”
If you are concerned about your dog barking while it is alone, consider talking to neighbors and letting them know that your pet may be struggling with your transition out of the home, and ask if they can give you a report about any barking.
“If after trying these things you notice your dog is showing some severe symptoms of stress, like urinating and defecating, prolonged pacing and an inability to actually settle down, barking, crying or howling, or repetitive patterns of scratching or chewing when left alone, I recommend working with a behavior consultant,” Kowalski said. “We have a list online of training partners we work with in the San Diego community, and a few of them specialize in anxiety separation. They can get a custom plan for you and your pet.”
Kowalski said medication such as stress-relieving nutraceuticals and pheromones “could be incredibly helpful during this time,” and that a consultation with your pet’s veterinarian about those drugs might be an option.
Kowalski said cats also can have separation anxiety and depression related to being left alone after months of togetherness with their owner.
Donna Quinn, who works for Intuit as an executive assistant, said she is concerned about how Pumbaa, the cat she adopted in 2016, will react when she goes back to work. She’s been home with him since March 17, 2020.
She said she and Pumbaa have gotten closer during that time — one of the “good things that came out of this whole ordeal.” He follows her around like a dog, Quinn said, and likes being in every room she’s in.
“A month into (the pandemic), instead of hanging out under the bed or in my bedroom, which is what he always did, he started climbing on the desk, laying down near me or sitting on my lap,” Quinn said. “I started putting his blanket up on the desk where I worked.”
Her 5-year-old Bengal has become the star of Quinn’s online Zoom meetings and often sits on her lap.
“In the beginning, I was like a mom trying to put her kids aside while she’s on the phone,” Quinn said. “You could see me talking and with my left hand pushing him, trying to get him to lay down. Now my co-workers all know him.”
Quinn said she is starting to look into working two days at her company’s headquarters, and three days at home. She did a test run one day last month and when she walked in the door at 5:30 p.m., Pumbaa happily greeted her. She said the next day, working back at home, it was “right back to the old routine.”
“I know if I were to start going in five days a week, it would definitely not be a good thing for him,” she said. “One of the traits of Bengal cats is they are talkative and chatty. He has different voices: one in the middle of the night, one when eating, another if he is sad. If I go away for a long time now, I know I will get a low howl because he knows something has been disrupted.”