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Vacations are often an exciting period for us humans to plan and anticipate. But with those fun vacations comes the reality that we are not always able to bring our beloved pups along with us.
Whether it’s with a boarding facility, pet sitter, or a neighbor, our dogs often have to stay behind. As a dog trainer who has done plenty of pet sitting and boarding in my home, I’ve seen firsthand the reunion pet parents expect is often not the ones they get. Whether that’s a dog that’s mad, less than excited, or just distant I’ve seen the disappointed look on plenty of owners’ faces!
So what’s going on here?
I talked with Not A Bully Advising Veterinarian Dr. Nita Vasudevan Patel and she explained that:
“Changes in behavior after you return from vacation are often due to stress, sadness, or separation anxiety experienced in your absence. Such behavior is generally a temporary reaction to the disruption of their routine and environment. The longer you’re gone, the greater the disruption.
However, if your dog’s unusual behavior persists for more than a few days, or if they show signs of physical distress like not eating or lethargy, it’s time to consult a veterinarian.
To mitigate these issues, maintain a consistent routine as much as possible, even when you’re away. Providing familiar items like their blanket or toy can also help. After returning, give your dog some time to readjust to your presence and gradually reintroduce them to their regular routine, offering extra affection and reassurance to help reestablish your bond.”
That’s the quick answer, but we’ll take a closer look at each possibility and help you understand which explanation makes the most sense for your dog. We’ll also dive a little deeper into how you can recover if you come home to your dog’s distant behavior and even try to prevent it next vacation.
Let’s get started!
Reason 1: Your Dog’s Routine Has Been Thrown Off
The most likely explanation is that your dog’s routine has been thrown off leading to an emotional response. While our dogs may not feel the exact same emotions that we do, there is evidence that they can feel sadness and uncertainty, and even hold “grudges” against something that has caused them to feel upset. This is in line with how they learn, which is primarily through association (a process called classical conditioning).
If something happens that causes them pain or fear, dogs will associate those emotions with the thing that they felt caused that pain and fear in the first place. Similarly, if something causes them happiness or excitement, they’ll associate those emotions with whatever caused them in the first place.
When we leave on vacation, our dogs are not aware that we will not be returning at our “usual” time. They are relying on the previous association they had made that when you grab your coat and keys which tells them that you’re leaving but will return shortly.
Depending on your dog, they may react with anxiety or indifference towards your departure. And yes…there is growing evidence that dogs CAN tell time! It is hypothesized that they do this through scent and whatever internal clock they may have (which is also based on routine and what associations they’ve made with their environment and your actions).
If you are expected home by your pup after a certain period of time and fail to show up, they may start to become anxious because their routine is now thrown off.
When that period of time is extended even further, or if you board them in a kennel that is unfamiliar to them, that stress and uncertainty are only amplified. As the days go by, they may adjust to their new situation and feel a bit better, but this is not always the case for every dog.
When you return home, your dog’s routine is once again thrown off balance. Dogs rely heavily on routines and habits to dictate their actions, and if there is a sudden change in those routines it can be difficult for the dog to process.
If you were only gone for a few days, it’s unlikely your pup adjusted to whatever routine the boarding kennel or pet sitter had them on since it can take some time before a dog transitions to a new routine. Upon your return, it’s likely your pup was slightly confused, but overall, they often get back into the swing of things pretty quickly without any odd behaviors towards their owners.
However, if you’re gone for an extended period of time, though, their behaviors upon your return could be much more noticeable and drastic. How quickly a dog adapts to a new routine is dependent on the individual dog and the consistency of the routine, but if your pup has fully transitioned to the routine the boarding kennel or pet sitter had them on, they may react quite coldly to your return home.
It may take them a second to recognize you, and while they appear to be distant and upset with your return, it’s more likely that they are feeling several conflicting emotions at once, all of which can be traced back to the change in routine and handling while you were gone.
These emotions can be overwhelming to some dogs, and they will “shut down” and appear lethargic or uninterested in anything around them. They may even stop eating for a few days or they may show no interest in walks or playtime.
Many owners might become concerned at this, but once your pup has readjusted to their old routine, these concerning behaviors usually disappear (if they don’t, schedule an appointment with your vet). Each dog has their own unique way of dealing with negative emotions, so it’s important to give them the time to process your return.
If at all possible, veterinarian Joseph Menicucci suggests “Try to maintain some elements of routine even when you’re away, like keeping feeding times consistent or providing familiar toys. This can help reduce the impact of the routine changes.”
Reason 2: Your Dog Is Tired
Just like their human owners, dogs can become overwhelmed and exhausted from their emotions. Combined with the process of learning any new routines with their boarding kennel or sitter, or your arrival home from vacation, the exhaustion can add up quickly! That makes this explanation also quite common.
Our dogs may want to be excited and happy at our return (and many of them likely are), but the exhaustion from everything they have been through and are currently feeling might be too much for them to handle. When we return from our vacations, our pups may become tired quickly and act lethargic and distant.
Depending on their level of exhaustion, they may have difficulty processing cues from you, or they may opt to distance themselves in the car ride home or in their crate to rest.
Stress can tire dogs out, too! If your pup is normally pretty high-strung, or if they struggle with poor frustration tolerance on the regular, then it’s even more likely their cold attitude towards you is a result of stress-induced exhaustion.
This is especially true if additional signs of stress are seen in your pup, such as yawning, lip licking, drooling, excessive panting, avoidance of eye or body contact, or crying. If you suspect your dog is tired, Dr. Menicucci suggests “Try to help your tired dog relax and destress upon your return. Activities like gentle play or quiet time together are great options. Avoid exhausting activities like the dog park or other areas with a lot of stimulation.
Once your dog gets some good R&R, they’ll likely return to their normal, happy selves. If they continue to act lethargic or show signs of illness for more than a day, though, it’s best to get them into your veterinarian for a checkup.
Reason 3: Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety is, unfortunately, one of the most common and most difficult behavior issues to treat. For some dogs, this anxiety is a result of poor breeding or poor socialization, and for others, it is a result of a well-meaning owner who unintentionally sets their dog up for anxious behavior whenever they leave.
In most cases, this type of behavior begins before you’ve even left on your vacation. As you gather your belongings and pack your suitcases, your dog will notice these “odd” behaviors. If you regularly travel, even seeing the suitcase could trigger your dog’s separation anxiety.
If you don’t regularly travel, you’ll likely not see any signs of anxiety until you are saying your goodbyes. Once the anxiety has started, it often only escalates until the dog reaches a point of exhaustion or until you return. Since it’s likely you won’t be returning immediately from your vacation, exhaustion is the more likely outcome, and it can have some very negative (and even dangerous) side effects.
When your dog reaches that point of exhaustion, they’ll likely shut down and become lethargic and unresponsive to their surroundings. As with any other type of exhaustion, they may refuse to eat, drink, or interact with anyone or anything.
Because separation anxiety runs much deeper emotionally than other forms of exhaustion, these behaviors will likely continue well after you’ve returned home. In some cases, you may notice initial excitement that is often excessive, however, once that has waned your dog will suddenly become distant and uninterested in your presence.
You may also notice an increase in your dog’s separation anxiety over the next several days or weeks, however, the behavior may only appear when you are signaling (either intentionally or unintentionally) that you are leaving. The rest of the time your dog might go straight back to ignoring you.
Once your pup has readjusted to your presence and settled back into their normal routine, then it’s likely they will warm up to you again (though a few extra treats and some special cuddle time probably won’t hurt!).
Along those same lines, if your veterinarian prescribed your pup some calming medications for the duration of your trip, then your pup’s indifferent attitude may be a result of those medications. If your dog does not regularly take these medications, then it’s likely they’ll return to their normal, energetic self once the medication has worn off.
Reason 4: You’re Encouraging This Behavior
Because dogs learn primarily through association, we sometimes help them create those associations without even realizing that we are doing it. In many cases, those unwanted associations can become a problem behavior. If we act indifferent to our dogs upon our return home from vacation and reward them when they leave us alone, they may continue to ignore us.
Rewards aren’t always so obvious either. For example, if you return home and are too exhausted to interact with your pup, you might put them in their crate with a tasty chew bone. The next time you return from vacation and are in a much better mood, you might be interested in playing with your pup.
However, your dog may still be thinking about the last time you left, and they may immediately go to their crate in anticipation of the tasty bone they think they will be receiving.
This learning process works both positively and negatively, too!
As much as we want to give our four-legged friends lots of kisses and “you’ll be okay” sentiments as we are preparing to leave, this might be triggering anxiety and uncertainty in our dogs that can lead to separation anxiety or other behavioral issues upon our departure, all of which can carry over into our arrival and lead to a cold reception from our pups.
If you’ve been training your dog to be comfortable while you are away from home, then it’s also likely they’ll maintain that calm demeanor even after you return from an extended vacation. This is a good thing!
Amping our dogs up before we leave or after we return home can be a trigger for separation anxiety or other unwanted behaviors and create poor frustration tolerance in dogs.
Working with our dogs so that they feel safe, happy, and can self-soothe while we are gone is a great training practice and helps create a dog that is mentally and emotionally happy, even if you are away for a long time.
Reason 5: Your Dog May Have Had A Bad Experience
In some cases, your dog acting distant when you return is not a reflection of you, but due to something that happened with their sitter or boarding accommodations.
This negative experience could have been entirely unintentional.
An example would be a dog who got into a scuffle with another dog at the kennel, which is normal and can happen, even in the most well-run facilities. This event can be traumatizing to a dog who is not used to these types of situations.
It could unfortunately also have been intentional, such as a pet sitter who uses punishment-based methods on a dog who has only ever been trained using positive reinforcement. This sudden pain and fear can have a tremendous effect on your dog, which can carry over to their actions towards you when you return (even if you were not the one causing the punishment in the first place).
When I take on a new pet sitting client, I ask for detailed information about the pup’s likes and dislikes, and their overall schedule. This is standard practice for most and something you should expect from your pet sitter too.
Many pet sitters (especially those who also have a training background) may also be happy to try and work in some training with your dog while they are caring for them, especially if you are working on a behavioral issue (such as jumping up for greeting) and are clear with your sitter about what your expectations are regarding any training that occurs with your dog while you are on vacation.
If the pet sitter you choose deviates from your requests more than is reasonably acceptable, then it could have a lasting negative impact on your dog. A reasonable deviation is something like having to switch the feeding times because the sitter also works a regular day job. An unreasonable deviation is a sitter who uses a prong collar on a dog for walks when the dog has never been exposed to one.
If your sitter did something that your dog found unpleasant (especially if it was repeated several times throughout the sitter’s stay with your dog), then your dog may have a sour attitude upon your return. Depending on the severity of what your sitter (or the boarding kennel) did to your dog, it could take quite some time for them to return to their normal selves.
An experienced trainer who specializes in positive reinforcement and behavioral issues can help if this happens with your dog, and thoroughly researching any potential pet sitters or boarding kennels before your vacation is another good way to prevent these issues altogether.
For boarding kennels in particular, they can often be places of noise, chaos, and constant activity. For more sensitive dogs, this can be overwhelming and cause your pup to develop a negative association with the facility.
This could result in them reacting coldly (or even aggressively) upon your return from vacation. All of that chaos causes stress, and as I discussed above a stressed dog is a tired dog and prone to behaving oddly.
Depending on your boarding facility’s resources, they may be able to accommodate your dog’s needs by giving them extra breaks from group play, avoiding group play altogether, or by booking your dog into a more private suite-like environment rather than a typical boarding kennel.
Exposing your dog to the boarding environment prior to leaving them is also a great way to prevent any issues when you leave on your vacation. Many boarding kennels require that dogs attend an “interview” session before being left, especially if they allow group play.
The more times you can leave your dog for play (if your dog enjoys it) before actually boarding them there, the more likely you are to create a positive association with the facility rather than risk a negative one by just suddenly dropping your dog off for a lengthy period with no prior exposure.
Reason 6: Your Dog Could Be Depressed
Though we often think of depression as a wholly human ailment, there’s quite a bit of evidence that other animals (dogs included) can feel depression and grief in similar ways to our feelings.
While your pup may act like they are sad and upset immediately after you return, in most cases they will return to acting like their normal selves within a day or two. But if their mood doesn’t improve, it could be that they have transitioned to a depressed or grieving state.
Dr. Menicucci explains “Depression in dogs that occurs after their owner returns home from vacation is rare, but it can happen. Depression in dogs can have a wide range of symptoms including weight changes, a shift in sleeping patterns, decreased interest, lethargy, and even changes in bowel movements.”
Some dogs may return to their normal behavior slowly over several weeks, but many others may need the intervention of a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist.
Reason 7: Your Dog Could Be Sick
The most concerning reason that your dog is acting less energetic upon your arrival home is an underlying illness or injury. Dogs can be very good at hiding when they aren’t feeling well, and one of the more subtle signs is usually a decrease in energy and interest in their normal activities.
If they are sick, as the illness progresses you will likely see additional signs such as refusal to eat, loose stool, vomiting, drooling, pacing, or crying. If your dog has sustained an injury while you were gone, it may heal up if it was a minor one but if it was a more major injury, such as a fractured rib or head injury, then it may require veterinary intervention before your dog returns to normal.
Dogs who are in boarding kennels are the most prone to illness. Just like human daycares, illness can spread like wildfire in even the most sanitary kennel. Kennel cough is one of the most common illnesses that a dog returns home. Dr. Patel explains that “the chances of kennel cough can be reduced by ensuring that your dog r receives their Bordetella vaccine prior to their stay at the kennel and I also recommend the canine influenza vaccine as well to further reduce the chance of contracting a communicable disease while in a high volume dog setting like a boarding facility.”
Dogs that already have diagnosed medical conditions may have a flare-up of their illness while their owner is away, too. Stress is a major trigger for disease flare-ups of many kinds, and if your pup is left with a sitter or in a boarding kennel that illness may flare up due to the increase in stress.
Even if no signs of illness appeared upon your immediate return, the illness may still flare up once your dog is in the comfort of their own home, and their reaction toward you may change to one of indifference during this time.
If you suspect your dog’s cold reception upon your return from vacation is due to an underlying illness or injury, you must reach out to your veterinarian immediately to get them checked out.
Should I Be Worried About My Dog’s Change In Behavior?
It’s not unusual for your dog to act a bit abnormally after you return from your vacation, especially if you were gone for more than a few days or you don’t normally travel.
It might take your pup a few days to readjust to their normal routine again (just like you!), but they should be back to normal soon enough.
However, if the behavior change continues for more than a few days or you notice other concerning behaviors that indicate something serious could be going on, it’s time to make an appointment with your veterinarian.
What To Do If Your Dog Acts Distance, Upset or Unusual After Your Vacation
If you feel like your relationship with your sweet pooch has turned sour after your vacation, then don’t worry because there are plenty of things you can do to help mend your relationship!
Step 1: Give Them Some Time
It’s reasonable to expect that the first few days after you’ve returned from vacation your pup may be acting a bit oddly towards you. While your time away may have been relaxing for you, it might not be the case with your dog.
Being patient with your pup and not expecting them to immediately jump back into their old routines is important in maintaining a good relationship with them, especially if they act negatively towards you in any way.
If you try and push them to resume cuddle sessions or walks before they are ready to interact again, then it could create even more problems.
Step 2: Work On Your Bond
Finding low-stress ways of bonding with your dog is a great way to help them overcome any lingering stress or anxiety from your time away. Giving them a puzzle toy or food-stuffed toy to chew on while you sit and watch TV next to them is a great bonding activity, even if it doesn’t feel like you are really doing anything.
Going on “sniff walks” is another great bonding activity and allows your dog to get some much-needed physical exercise and mental enrichment, both of which often aren’t done enough by pet sitters or at boarding kennels.
If your dog is receptive to it, you can even start doing some small training sessions (no more than five minutes at a time a few times a day) and ask your dog to perform very simple behaviors that lead to a big reward.
Just remember not to push your dog past their comfort zone. Always meet your dog where they are at, even if they were previously at a much higher level of training.
Step 3: Reestablish Their Routine
Depending on how receptive your dog is, they might do quite well jumping right back into their old routines. Just like people, some dogs find comfort in the familiar. But for some dogs, reestablishing a routine might take a little bit more time and patience.
After you’ve returned home, you may need to start revisiting your dog’s routine in smaller batches than you are used to. This could look like allowing them extra time outside to potty, or going for shorter or longer walks than you normally do.
As your dog adjusts, you can slowly start moving towards their typical routine.
Step 4: Prepare Them Before You Travel Again
As much as we don’t want to leave our dogs behind when we’re traveling, sometimes this is our only option. Our dogs may inevitably feel some sadness when we leave, but we can help reduce that by working to prepare them before we ever even plan our next vacation.
Good training practices include helping our dogs develop emotional regulation, self-soothe techniques, and ways to safely occupy themselves when we are not around.
We can do this by leaving our pups for short increments at a time, gradually building up to a full day or even a weekend away. For some dogs this process can go very quickly, whereas for others (especially those who have low frustration tolerance or who suffer from separation anxiety) it may take several weeks or even months before they feel comfortable being away from you.
If you hire a pet sitter, it’s also a good idea to have your sitter come and meet your dog while you are with them so that you can ensure that everyone gets along and so your pup feels more comfortable with them when you finally do leave.
Taking your dog for daycare to the facility where you plan on boarding them is also a good way to help acclimate your pup to the surroundings and environment.
Closing Thoughts: My Own Experience
Even with training, you can still have the experience of a distant dog when you return home. Last year, I was lucky enough to be able to travel to the UK for a month-long vacation. I left my three well-trained dogs in the capable hands of a friend who offered to care for them while I was gone, and whom my dogs knew very well.
As most dog owners would be in this situation, I was very nervous to leave my pups for such a long time! But I knew they were in good hands and set off on my vacation.
Upon my return, I was excited to see how my dogs might react after having been away from me for so long. I fully expected them to react like many of those videos that show immediate barking, tail wagging, zoomies, and all the joy you might expect.
Imagine my surprise when I arrived and the only reactions I got from all three were a quick sniff, and some small tail wags, and then all three immediately went to their food bowls and expectantly waited for dinner!
What I Expected:
What I Got:
No howling, no jumping up, no kisses. I was a bit disappointed in the lackluster reaction to my return, but I took comfort in the fact that all three dogs still associated me as their source of food and didn’t act completely distant.
Luckily, they got over it in a few hours (and a few days for my older dog) and the same will likely happen with your pup too. So, even if your dog doesn’t give you the welcome back party you were expecting, know that they still love you and are appreciative of having you in their lives.