Dogs and Family: Making Do When We’re Not All Together

Whether you are a family of two or twenty-two, just about everyone loves to have family all together.

This is just as true - if not more so - for the family dog. Dogs love nothing more than the cohesiveness of the family group and can be quick to mope when the “gang” is apart for whatever reason; a piece of their lives is missing.

Yesterday, my lovely wife, Susan, flew up to the Bay Area to visit with her folks for the weekend. Lilly joined us in the car for the trip to Burbank airport. She sat still, eyes half-lidded with contentment.

After we bid “mommy” goodbye, Lilly sat erect in her seat. I was proud of her for not whining as we pulled away from the curb. Instead, she looked out the window, head swiveling from left to right. Surely mommy would pop out from behind a lamp post on the next corner.

When we got home Lilly made an efficient “sweep” from room to room to flush mommy out. When reality finally sank in, Lilly plopped down about three feet away from me on the futon in our den, looked up at me with those bug, sullen eyes and sighed as if deflated of life.

Lilly had not touched her breakfast (she sensed mobilization for Susan’s trip and was on heightened alert) and was still not hungry. She was not in the mood to play.

I’d seen this before and knew what I had to do.

First, I had to let go. Just as one cannot shield their child from literal and figurative skinned knees, one cannot protect their fur child from flux and change, however fleeting. For each time we do, we rob them of the chance to learn coping skills. This would be especially important for Lilly given that the coming weekend would be filled with unfamiliar activity, including contractors and repair people sawing, hammering and sanding within and outside our walls. 

Next, I would need to strike a good balance between the known and the unknown: just enough routine to keep it “safe,” just enough novelty to make it “special.” The latter would become the doggie equivalent of a dress-up tea party or backyard camping or escorting her to the daddy/daughter dance at school. In between breakfast and her late-morning potty break, we explored a new neighborhood dappled in shade and brimming with intoxicating new smells. This afternoon, we played “find it” with a half-dozen of her favorite toys. Tomorrow, we’ll head to Lake Balboa near sunset to check out the ducks and swans and other four-legged friends.

So far, so good. Lilly had last night’s dinner for breakfast. She has inched closer to me on the futon and brought me her “ropey” for some tug-of-war. Last night, she slept with her little butt pressed against my hip.

Lilly can enjoy familiarity and fun while learning to self-soothe.

And soon, she’ll be reminded that mommy always comes home.