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Stretch Your Dog’s Comfort Zone

I have a new young dog, Laz. He came to live with me in June, and the timing was great for raising a new pup. My schedule has been pretty consistent since I got him. I have frequently worked from home and traveled very little, which is somewhat abnormal for me. Being home a lot allowed me to easily meet his needs, train, and bond with him. Sounds ideal, right? Yet, as wonderful as it has been to spend all of this quality time together, I knew that in doing so there was potential to set little Laz up for long-term failure.

My work-from-home, around-all-of-the-time lifestyle isn’t necessarily normal for me and is likely to change at some point in Laz’s lifetime, probably sooner rather than later. Regardless, even if I did manage to stay home most of the time, there will inevitably be trips or times when I am forced to stay away from the house for long periods of time.

If during Laz’s first several months of living with me I never left him alone or prepared him for long absences, I’d essentially be pulling the rug out from under him and without preparation when I finally do need to go on a trip, and that could really rock his world, in a bad way. Sudden, drastic changes don’t sit well with many dogs and can leave a big impression that leads to anxiety and stress and subsequent behavior problems.

Keeping this in mind, from the very first week he arrived, I made sure to vary my routine and to leave the house to work from coffee shops and the office solely to practice leaving Laz behind with a ton of chew toy projects to keep him occupied and content.
Additionally, I brought him to the homes of trusted friends and left them to puppy-sit occasionally, so Laz could get accustomed to multiple environments, learn to have fun with others in my absence, and grow to understand that though I may leave him somewhere, I always come back.

Dogs are very good at following routines, and most of them quite enjoy the status quo, whatever that may be. This can be good news or bad news. If you run your life with the precision of a Swiss watch, your dog may not be very malleable when life throws a curveball. Conversely, if your schedule is peppered with twists and turns, your dog will likely be able to stretch to meet most circumstances with confidence.

Whether you have a new puppy in your home, a newly adopted dog, or a longtime companion, I strongly recommend altering your routine occasionally to help make your dog’s expectations more elastic. Even if you think you’ll never go anywhere (or at least anywhere without your dog) trust me; things happen. The most common scenarios where an elderly dog must be boarded after a lifetime of family care are weddings, funerals, and emergencies, such as car accidents, too—the types of situations where a dog simply cannot come along or is unintentionally left alone. Dogs who are suddenly put in this position often don’t do very well. It’s heartbreaking and avoidable.

Here are some tips to help stretch your dog’s comfort zone:

Rather than sticking to an actual feeding time, feed your dog on flextime. For example, I feed my dogs their morning meal sometime between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. and their evening meal between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. This way they know it’s coming, but they don’t know exactly when, which keeps them from fretting or getting overly excited simply because it’s a certain hour of the day.

Occasionally plan to stay out longer than normal, and have someone your dog knows come and do part of your daily care or exercise routine.

Take your dog to a hotel or for a sleepover somewhere, sometimes with you, sometimes without.
Make sure your dog is comfortable eliminating in places other than your backyard. You’d be surprised how many dogs “hold it” on trips due to stress, distraction, or habit when on a new adventure.

These same tips will help also help you when you travel with your dog. When you are on adventures together, mealtimes will be more haphazard or in a different time zone; your dog will have to sleep and potty in a new environment, too. Travel can add stress in and of itself. Wouldn’t it be great if your pup were already comfortable with a myriad of situations? One less thing to worry about.

Try to mix up your schedule now and then, be mindful of your deeply embedded habits, because I guarantee your dog is aware of them. Routines can be great, but variety truly is the spice of life. A dog that can go with the ever-changing flow will have an easier time navigating seas of change when they occur with smooth sailing.

Kelly Gorman Dunbar is Director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior, where she recruits and trains the instructors for the Dunbar family business, SIRIUS® Puppy & Dog Training. She is the creator of the SIRIUS Sniffers scent-detection program. Kelly is also Founder and President of Open Paw and consults on various matters.