In suburbia, he was used to a comfortable home on a quiet street lined with shade trees. From his perch on a bay window, he leisurely observed scurrying squirrels, the mail carrier’s creaking truck rolling up the driveway, and school buses heaving with kids. He merrily rolled around in the backyard, chasing chipmunks up trees. A walk up and down the block, with his many buddies, was always zippy.
But Kendall Square in Cambridge, only 239 miles away, was for him a world apart. In a short-term apartment on the topmost floor of an eight-story building, Toby could gaze at the sky but not below. Noises from outside the apartment door were unfamiliar — footfalls of strangers, a janitor trudging with his clunky supply cart, the ceaseless pings of the elevator doors opening and closing. Each indistinct sound sent all 40 pounds of him into a tizzy. He lost interest in food.
Toby also became paranoid about my husband and me. His favorite jostling partner, our son, had just left for college as a freshman. So, we were all he had from before, and he made sure one of us remained in his sight at all times. When I cooked, he splayed himself on the tiled kitchen floor. While I showered, he stood guard outside the door. Day or night, he was glued to one of us.
It was obvious he was afraid, and, on the rare occasions he was by himself for brief spells, he lashed out. One time, I returned home to a note snuck under my front door that said: “Your dog is barking constantly. This is not fair to your pet. Please remediate this, as this poor dog is not being cared for. Your neighbor.” Ouch!
Even being outdoors brought little respite to him, amid loud city traffic and hurrying pedestrians. There were no yards to leisurely sniff like before, only patches of groundcover around tree trunks. In the dog park, he froze behind my legs, as if paralyzed.
So went the first few weeks of this unsettling move. For us, leaving the place that had been home for nearly two decades was already emotional; lingering rawness was expected. But Toby’s altered state completely blindsided us. What was making this perky animal this dour? It turns out change can terrify canines, too.
“Dogs experience feelings and emotions that are similar to humans in so many ways,” said Nicholas Dodman, professor emeritus of animal behavior at Tufts University and the author of “The Dog Who Loved Too Much.”
Some dogs can handle anything. But many others are far more sensitive and become completely stressed and overwhelmed by change, such as Toby experiencing the gestalt of city stimuli for the first time. Their inner turmoil can manifest as destructive behavior. The separation anxiety they experience in a new place may run so high that they become completely dependent on a parental figure, said Dodman, also a researcher at the nonprofit Center for Canine Behavior Studies.
Then, as a city-dweller, Toby had to acquire a different set of cues.
Dr. Pamela Bendock, owner of Boston-based Back Bay Veterinary Clinic, said that dogs rely on their sense of smell to gather information about their surroundings. Absent individual backyards, city dogs must adjust to sharing the neighborhood streets and parks with others. They must adapt to the sights and sounds of a busy urban environment, and for some this can create or increase anxiety.
“Anxious dogs will often vocalize or become destructive when they’re left alone, and this can be more pronounced in new, unfamiliar environments,” said Bendock.
To navigate change better, both experts suggest taking the time to attune the dog to a new environment in short increments of time. Bendock also recommended exercising the dog, adding, “A tired dog is a happy dog.” Dodman said that the brief use of a mild anti-anxiety medication or a beta-blocker could ease the anxiety-ridden “desensitization” period in certain cases. Over time, most dogs can adapt to their surroundings on their own, and when the foot comes off the stress gas pedal, they will regain their old personality.
Thankfully for us, Toby’s back. He is adapting nicely to our new home in a quieter part of Cambridge. The house is right up his alley: It has a bay window. From there, he keeps guard as he had before. In dog parks, he now happily gallops in packs. Every time he’s left alone in the house, he stands tall in “his” window watching the car pull away, his bushy white tail standing upright.
A few helpful tips from Dodman and Bendock:
• Familiarize the dog with the new environment in 10-, 15-, and then 20-minute increments.
• Arrange to meet a dog that your dog particularly likes in the new location.
• Play your dog’s favorite game in the new place, followed by a reward.
• Establish small, consistent routines with your dog in the new location.
• Talk to a vet, animal behavior specialist, or a dog trainer.
• To ease separation anxiety, make no fuss when leaving or returning home.
• Leave soothing music playing in the house for your pet.
• Exercise the dog.
Suchita Nayar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.