Dogs finally got what they always dreamt of; humans spending far more time at home. But getting what you want in life often comes with unforeseen consequences. Dogs tend to do best in stable, predictable, environments. But just as Covid-19 impacted human lives, it has also affected the lives of many dogs and may, in some cases, have long-lasting effects on a dog’s future ability to cope in a human world.
Dogs are naturally crepuscular (most active during the twilight hours of morning and evening) and sleep for around 12-16 hours per day. This is one of the reasons (amongst many others) that dogs fit well into the world of humans. They are often happy to doze the day away in short sleep cycles, while the human goes about their busy life. But in suddenly very busy households with children and adults all staying home, the dog may be bombarded with household noise & activity and find it difficult to get enough quality sleep.
It’s also likely that the dog’s usual walks have been disrupted through regulations on our ability to leave the house, the closure of open spaces, and us, rightly, avoiding contact with others. In addition to the dog’s normal routine falling apart, they may find their human family members are all a little bit stressed from the pressures of working from home. Adults working from home, running Zoom conferences, educating & looking after children, shopping for elderly relatives, and running out of loo roll, can be a lot to contend with; is it any wonder if in the middle of all this we don’t consider how the dog is coping. At a time when the dog has their whole family around them, life may, somewhat paradoxically, become less enjoyable.
So, what can we do to help them?
Ensure they have a quiet area where they can go to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life. Maybe a spare room, set up with their bed, water, and a few toys. It is a good idea for dogs to have two or three beds around the house. This allows them to choose where to sleep and gives them a way to escape to a quieter or cooler spot without losing the comfort of a bed. In my house, the dogs have beds in the living room, kitchen, bedroom and landing. It’s not always possible to do this but try to give them some choices.
Try to build a routine to their day. For example, grooming and feeding at roughly the same time each day. Provide enrichment toys; the best form of enrichment activities are those which allow the dog to use their instincts and dominant senses. Simple scent work may be practised by hiding pieces of food around the house for the dog to find, like a treasure hunt. You may begin by allowing the dog to see where you placed the food and then slowly increase the challenge over time. But we must always play fair and only place the food where they can reasonably access it and on items we don’t mind the dog investigating. Chew toys are also excellent for dogs and fulfil a natural urge. The K9 Connectables range is a fabulous mix of scentwork and chewing. The dog must sniff out which compartments have food inside and then break the sections apart, then bite and lick at each section to get the food out. I often combine both games by hiding the connectables around the house for the dog to go and find. This extends the usual treasure hunt time because my dog must work a little to get the food from each one he finds. If we don’t build these activities into our daily routine they can easily be forgotten; perhaps set aside 30 minutes each morning and evening to spend quality time with the dogs.
My method for reducing general stress in the household is a very simple one; when problems occur, I simply ask myself, ‘how can I best respond?’. The answer is never, ‘by being grumpy with the dog or stomping around the house’. We are all creatures of emotion so it’s not quite so easy as asking ourselves this simple question, but at least it makes us think and perhaps take a moment to reset.
Of course, the day will come when life returns to normal and we can all go about our business as we did before the virus abruptly impacted all our lives. But for dogs, this will be another potentially stressful period. They may have become accustomed to a house full of people and many will undoubtedly struggle to cope with the new normal. Many puppies have been bought during lockdown; so much so that I read recently of a shortage of pups in some areas. For these dogs to be able to cope with a post-lockdown world, great efforts must be made now to prepare them for their future. These dogs must develop some independence and learn that it’s safe to be alone. If possible, they should be left for very short periods, maybe just a few seconds. This may be increased over time until they can be left for a few hours. The general advice is that 4 hours is the maximum any dog should be left alone. Using positive training methods, enrichment activities, and giving dogs some choices, makes dogs more optimistic; and you don’t need a behaviourist to tell you that optimists are happier, and cope better with change, than pessimists do.
Shay Kelly – Canine Behaviour Consultant
Author of ‘Canine Enrichment: The book your dog needs you to read’ and (soon to be released) ‘Dog Training & Behaviour: a guide for everyone’.