Commentary

Your Dog Is Not Ready for You to Return to the Office

By John Leland © 2022 The New York Times

NEW YORK — Look at that face, those pleading eyes, that nose that kept you company all through the pandemic. Now explain to Cooper why it is so, so important that you return to the office — leaving her alone all day, after two years of 24/7 togetherness.

Because … what? Company d’esprit?

Todd McCormick, a derivatives trader on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, decided that he is not going to do it. “I don’t believe I will ever go back to an office,” he said. As he spoke, his 13-year-old rescue mix, Higgins, demanded a cracker.

Many New Yorkers, of course, have long since returned to their workplaces, or never stopped going to them. But for those contemplating the transition now, and for their dogs, a day of reckoning has arrived.
More than 23 million American households added a cat or dog during the pandemic, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and many of those animals have never known what it is like to be left alone all day.

They photo-bombed Zoom meetings, typed cryptic messages on their humans’ laptops and found other ways to contribute to the interspecies work environment. For many people, the dogs were the only warm body around — therapist, companion and entertainment system rolled into one.

Now their employers want them to give that up.

Fat chance, McCormick said, not even pretending to delay Higgins’ cracker gratification.

“If I go to take out recycling or the garbage, or go get my mail, he will howl like a Costa Rican monkey, and it will sound like there’s a murder going on in my house,” he said, describing behavior that arose only since the start of the pandemic. “He knows I’m just going to be gone for three minutes, but it doesn’t stop me from being able to hear him all the way down in the elevator.”

McCormick has mostly stopped going to restaurants, and has not gone on vacation since the start of the pandemic, largely to avoid separation from his dog.

“But I’ve got to tell you, through it all, what an unbelievable companion,” he said.

Dogs in city apartments have always had to adjust to less-than-ideal conditions, but the return to work has meant that suddenly thousands are going through the same transition at the same time, said Kate Senisi, director of training at School for the Dogs in Manhattan’s East Village. “We’ve had a lot of separation cases coming through,” she said.

Dogs who were used to being left alone before the pandemic tend to adjust relatively quickly, she said. “But for the pandemic puppies” — dogs born and adopted during the pandemic — “they haven’t been left at all, and now they’re at a sensitive age, adolescence,” she said. “It can be pretty difficult. They have to be taught these new skills.”

Pro tip from the trainer: Don’t give your dog that special toy only when you leave, because the toy will become a trigger for distress.

Mary Sheridan, a lawyer who lives in the East Village, had not planned on getting a dog. As a single mother with a small apartment and a full-time job, she felt her circumstances were not right. But when the pandemic hit and Theo, her 13-year-old son, was separated from all his friends, she realized that he needed a companion. “He really, really was emotionally just craving some other being to love besides me,” she said.

So in the summer of 2020, she put her name on the waiting list of a breeder in Wisconsin, where she had relatives. Eight months and $2,200 later, she and her son flew home with a goldendoodle puppy they named Nala, for a character in “The Lion King.”

There were challenges. The East Village streets during the pandemic became forbidding places at 2 o’clock in the morning, when the puppy needed a walk. At first, Sheridan crated Nala and left the apartment for a while each day to prepare the dog for their imminent separation.

“As the pandemic went on, I lost that,” she said. “We all sort of just dropped the ball on everything.”
Then last month, Sheridan had to return to work. “It totally shot me back to having a baby, when you went back to work, and the panic you’d feel — Oh, my God, I have this baby, and I’m leaving the baby all day. What kind of world do we live in?”

So far both dog and owner seem to be managing the transition, she said.

When Sheridan is away, she plays public radio for Nala, who also seems to take olfactory comfort in her son’s sneakers and socks.

Sheridan’s separation anxiety has eased, she said. “But I still feel responsible, and I think it’d be much nicer to have a dog where you’re around them.”

Pam Reid, vice president of the ASPCA’s behavioral sciences team, notes that dogs who are suddenly left alone may feel “confused, lonely and wondering why everyone is rushing out the door instead of spending time at home.” She suggests short practice separations before the big return to workplace, and scheduling walks and meals to accommodate the future work schedule.

“Be sure to look out for signs of anxiety as you prepare to depart, such as nervous pacing and panting, vocalizing or trying to leave with you,” she said.

Such signs are all too familiar to Millet Israeli, a psychotherapist who lives in Chelsea. Since the pandemic, these distressing behaviors have become part of the daily routine with Milton and Rufus, both mixes of poodle and Cavalier King Charles spaniel, known to their faithful as cavapoos.

If Israeli and her husband leave the apartment at the same time, the dogs make their disapproval known, she said. “By that I mean an overturned garbage can, an overturned food bowl, perhaps they will not have used the pads that we leave at home if they need to use the loo, shall we say.”

As a therapist, Israeli views separation anxiety as a “two-way street.”

Was she feeding her dogs’ anxiety? Or more telling, was she projecting her own anxiety onto the animals?
Her solution: eliminate the separation. Now she takes them to her office, where they sometimes become part of her therapy sessions, which are usually virtual.

“In many ways I’m indulging it,” she admitted. “I wouldn’t be saying to a parent who’s struggling with their child’s separation anxiety to do this.”

Many tech companies, including Amazon, Google, Squarespace and Etsy, welcomed dogs in some of their workplaces even before the pandemic, and some other companies have since made exceptions as a way to attract and keep workers, said Andy Challenger, a senior vice president at the job placement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas. Dogs often face a trial period, and sometimes have to remain on leash.One bite typically leads to expulsion; for lesser offenses there is more leeway.

But Challenger thought the trend might be short-lived.

In the meantime, the real separation anxiety may lie with the owners, not the animals. Raf Astor, who boards and walks dogs in the East Village, said that the dogs he sees have adjusted to the change just fine. But for the people, he said, “a lot of these dogs have become emotional support animals. So now when they have to leave their dog, a good portion of the anxiety is coming from the owner, not the dog. This pandemic gave everybody who had any bit of neurosis a license to really indulge in their neurosis. And the dogs, somehow, have been free of that.”

As for the owners, they may be out of luck. For all the new dogs at home, Karen Burke, a human resources adviser at the Society of Human Resource Management, said she had not seen a movement toward allowing dogs at work, except on occasional Bring Your Pet to Work Days.

“Is it spreading? I haven’t seen it,” she said. “Should it be done? Probably, especially with the Great Resignation going on.” But don’t hold your breath, she said.

“Not every work culture can support that.”

Now, who’s going to tell Cooper?