As the lazy days of summer begin to wind down, South Florida families start turning their attention towards sending the kids back to school. The many preparations and changes in routine can be stressful for both children and caregivers. They can also be a source of anxiety for our pets.
Many families start off their summers by adding a new pet to the family. The logic here is that there will be plenty of time help the new pet get adjusted, and bond with the family at a time when children are spending the most time at home. While this reasoning is both sound and logical, a new pet, especially an adolescent puppy or kitten, can become easily confused and upset by the sudden change in routine. Even older pets, who have been through this drill before, can become depressed or anxious when summertime fun gives way to an empty house. Here are some tips to help your pets avoid the back-to-school blues.
Start back-to-school routines early
While nobody wants to admit that the party is almost over, most parenting experts agree that gradually transitioning to a schedule resembling the school year will help children make the necessary adjustments. This gradual transition can help your pets as well. For the last week or so of summer vacation, start the days earlier, and discourage dawdling through morning chores and rituals. Feed your pets one of their main meals at this time, as they will be more likely to sleep throughout the the day if their belly is full and happy. Schedule playtimes with pets and kids at roughly the same time the kids will be arriving home from school. When school starts, keep this ritual in place. Pets are much less likely to mope throughout the day if they have something to look forward to later. Additionally, both kids and pets are less likely to act out when they are getting plenty of exercise. When school resumes, and playtime is followed by homework, allow the pet to sit or sleep quietly near your children while they study. Get a head start on encouraging earlier bedtimes, and more efficient use of time during bedtime rituals.
Don’t create anxiety triggers
The things we do in preparation for leaving the house do not go unnoticed by our pets. Jingling keys, calling the kids, grabbing a purse or cell phone - all are cues to our pets that they are about to be left alone. The back-to-school essentials our children require can act as additional anxiety triggers for pets. At least a week before school resumes, hang school uniforms in a place where your pet can see them. Leave lunchboxes and backpacks in obvious, visible places. Encourage children to pick up these items and walk around the house with them two or three times per day. Next, try gathering all the gear and walking out the door. You can even drive around the block a few times. The goal is to desensitize your pet to the cues that he will quickly associate with being left alone for long periods of time. Present the activity to children in the form of a game that will help Fluffy to not be sad while they are in school. If they protest, explain that keeping a pet happy is one of the many requirements of a responsible pet owner. Obviously, parents are the most qualified to decide on the best way to get the kids on board, but most will happily step up to the plate if they understand the reasoning behind it.
Separate the Velcro
Now is the time to really observe Fluffy and ask yourself if she is a “Velcro pet”. Does she shadow family members constantly? Does she always have to be physically touching someone? Does she cry when you leave the house? Does she whimper when a family member is out of sight? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may have a Velcro pet, one that is seemingly not happy unless physically attached to a human family member. While these behaviors can be endearing and flattering, they can also be an early warning sign of separation anxiety. Before these behaviors become a problem, start teaching your pet the coping skills she needs to self-soothe when she is alone. Teach her how to go to her crate or bed, and stay there using “place” or “stay” commands. Give her a mentally stimulating toy like a food puzzle or stuffed Kong toy to keep her mind occupied while she is alone. If you suspect your pet already has separation anxiety, or need some help teaching the commands, please consult with a Certified Professional Dog Trainer.
Give her something to do while you are gone
At Casa Kupkee, Grendel and Zohan spend their alone time with frozen “Kongsicles”. These consist of a durable Kong toy stuffed with baby food and peanut butter that has spent the night in the freezer. It takes hours for them to empty the toy, and the excitement of getting them before we leave crowds out any possible fears of abandonment. When school resumes, have the children give these special treats to the pet. Do not give them at any other time. The goal is to replace the feelings of dread associated with the emptying of the house with the anticipation of something interesting, fun, and delicious. Dispense the treats calmly. Long, apologetic, emotionally charged goodbyes will only add to any existing anxiety. If your pet does not do well in a crate, hide interesting toys, treats, food puzzles, and food-stuffed Kong toys throughout the house for your pet to sniff out and find while you are gone. (Do not do this in multiple-pet households as it can lead to fighting). The kids can be given this task as well. In addition to being fun, it also a great opportunity to teach them about responsible pet ownership.
Don’t tell the kids…
...but all of these rituals will help them adjust to new routines as well! Both children and pets respond well to routine, but replacing old habits with new ones is often met with resistance. By assuring them that these new initiatives are all about making Fluffy happy, parents are likely to get a lot less blowback. Changes made for the sake of Fluffy’s well-being will help everyone make the transition smoothly. But that can be our little secret!
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