May 20 / Dr Andrea Breen

Empty Nest Dogs

I just came from delivering a presentation to our incoming university students. I ended up having a nice chat with a family whose daughter is getting ready to leave home for her first year of studies. Her biggest worry is that she will have to leave her dog behind. She's anxious about how she'll cope without her best friend and very worried about how her dog will deal with the transition--he'll have her parents looking after him, but "his person" is leaving home and this is likely to be a confusing and sad time for him.


I hear this kind of thing a lot. Once students find out about my research on dog-human relationships and work with dogs, they often tell me about the worry they feel when they leave their dogs behind and how terribly they miss them when they are away at school.

Whether the transition is for school, work, or another new chapter, these life changes can be hard for the people involved and terribly difficult for our dogs—especially when the dog’s main person is the one who is leaving. When we think about helping families transition to an “empty nest”, it's important to remember ALL family members, including the furry ones.


There's a lot that can be done to support dogs through these kinds of predictable transitions (which are different from the sudden ones that happen when life throws its curve balls). The months leading up to the transition are a great time to revisit the dog’s needs and see what might be tweaked to boost their well-being and capacity for resilience. This includes things like limiting exposure to stressors, ensuring adequate time for relaxation and good quality sleep, providing excellent nutrition and appropriate exercise for their individual needs, addressing any potential underlying discomfort or pain, and providing opportunities for daily enrichment, exploration, and social interaction in ways that the particular dog enjoys.


It's a good idea to plan as a family.

If the person leaving home has been the primary caregiver, who will take over primary responsibility for the dog? If other family members are already stretched with work, family responsibilities, etc. and not able to meet all the dogs' needs, who else might be recruited to assist with daily care (e.g., dog walkers, sitters, neighbours, relatives)? If emergencies arise and decisions need to be made about the dog’s veterinary care, who needs to be involved in the decision-making and how will this happen?


At least a few months before move-out day, other family members can start to take a more active role in the dog’s life. At first, they might go along on walks, join in on play, help with setting up enrichment. Over time, their involvement can increase so that they are spending more time alone with the dog and finding their own ways to enjoy each other’s company. It’s important not to rush this process--developing new patterns of interaction and nurturing deeper relationships takes time.  


When it comes time to say goodbye (for now) to the person who is leaving, extra understanding and patience may be needed. If problem behaviours emerge or the dog begins to regress in their life skills, remember that behaviour is a dog’s way of communicating their emotions and the situation should be handled with gentleness and care. A qualified trainer or behaviourist can help. There are also excellent self-study courses for caregivers who want to gain a deeper understanding of dogs, like those offered at The Dogenius Institute.


Caring well for a dog during a transition in the caregiving relationship is hard work, but it is well worth it for everyone involved.  


Nurturing stronger relationships between a dog and other members of the family can provide those (human) family members with a wonderful source of support and love that can help them navigate their own way through this transition. 


Once they are confident that their dog is very well taken care of, the person leaving home can have peace of mind--they may miss their dog terribly but knowing that they don't have to worry about their best friend will help them focus on succeeding in their new life stage.
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