COVID-19 has presented its own particular set of issues for dogs. As the lockdown eases and owners begin returning to work, here are four common problems affecting our dogs, and some simple solutions you can try to resolve them.
Toni Shelbourne takes a closer look at the potential problems caused by the coronavirus restrictions.
1. My dog doesn’t want to be left alone
Some dogs may slide easily back into their old routine, but it may be difficult for others who have become accustomed to company 24/7. Dogs are social creatures, so many will have thrived while you have been home-based; the problems will come when you return to work.
For those dogs who already displayed separation anxiety before COVID-19, you really need to work with a behaviourist who understands this issue, but if you have noticed your dog has become mildly clingy and whines a bit when you leave him, here are some suggestions to help him get used to being on his own again.
- Get him to spend time alone while you are in the house. Settle him in a room with a tasty chew or enrichment toy, and see if you can leave him in that room alone. If he is happy for you to close the door, do so. If he tries to follow you, sit in the room but when he is engaged with his treat, stand up and walk towards the door; however, before he follows, go and sit back down again. Do this numerous times until he ignores you leaving. Then slowly build up the time you leave him alone while you are somewhere else in the house. Do this in small increments over multiple sessions, working up to around 30 minutes.
- Desensitise cues to you leaving. Put your shoes on and don’t go out, pick up your keys and then put them down, walk towards the front door but don’t leave. If he is fi ne with all of these, go out of the front door and come back in again before he whines. Slowly build up the time spent outside the door until he can be quiet for say 10 minutes. If you have a camera to watch him, all the better; you will be able to judge when you need to return and when you can leave him for longer. The aim is to return before he barks, whines, or scratches at the door. Once he is calm, check you can move away from the house without him getting agitated. Get in your car, open and close the front gate, anything that predicts your departure. Build up to driving or walking away, and increase the time outside of the house slowly; this might have to be in just one – five-minute increments.
- When he can be left in the house while you go shopping or visiting family or friends, start to put in place your normal daily routine. Get up at your normal work time, dress for work, walk and feed him as if it was a normal working day, and then leave the house at the same time. You don’t have to be out all day, but get him used to your usual daily departure.
Did you know?
Dogs know when you are faking it, so don’t think you can go out in your slippers and non-work clothes and he will think you are leaving for real!
A large proportion of our canine companions struggle with alone time. Remember for dogs with more ingrained problems, seek professional help.
Dogs should not be left to cry it out, and they won’t just get better on their own over time.
2. My dog is showing anxiety towards people and dogs on walks
Many dogs will go back to romping joyfully with other dog friends or greeting people as the lockdown eases, but others will have been set up to be unsure and anxious about interacting.
Having to socially distance while out on walks may mean that you have inadvertently given your dog the impression that he should be wary of other dogs or people. So how can we help change this even if we continue having to stay two metres apart?
- Using a technique called counter-conditioning can help change a feeling of anxiety into a sense of happy anticipation. If each time a person or dog comes into view, you feed your dog loads of his favourite treats, over time he will start to look forward to these triggers appearing.
- Become a cheerleader and have a party with your dog each time you see a dog or person. This means use an excited voice, whip out his favourite toys for a game, chuck a whole load of treats in the grass for him to find, jump around, and do whatever it takes to get your dog loving seeing others on walks.
If the problem has only just started, this can quickly help to change his mind about the situation.
- Play the ‘Where’s the dog/person?’ game. Devised by US trainer Leslie McDevitt, this is counter-conditioning with a twist. It helps dogs have a conversation with us.
When you notice your dog looking at another dog or person, mark that look with a ‘YES’ in a happy, upbeat voice, and feed him a treat. You may have to place the treat under his nose and then lure his head around to the side away from the trigger at first, but eventually he will turn to look at you when you say ‘YES’. Timing is important here; he must see the dog or person before you mark and feed, otherwise it’s just you distracting him and counter-conditioning won’t take place.
Once you have fed him, let him look back at the trigger and mark and feed again. Keep practising this until you can see he can look at the trigger and back at you. Now you can add in the phrase: “Where’s the dog/person?” Say the phrase as he is turning to look, then mark (‘YES’), and feed. Eventually he will be able to tell you if he spots a dog or person nearby (he’ll turn to you for a treat) or you will be able to warn him of approaching triggers if he hasn’t seen them coming.
3. Lack of socialisation opportunities for puppies
Puppies may have, to a certain degree, missed out on this crucial part of their education, with vaccinations being delayed and puppy classes cancelled. When your pup arrives home with you, socialisation started by the breeder should be continued. You should be teaching important life skills, as well as introducing him to the world around him, in which he will need to fit in.
Important areas are: being comfortable left alone for short periods, playing with calm adult dogs, playing with interactive toys, visiting different places — even if it is in your arms, spending time with people, continuing to hear novel sounds, learning to settle, following you around, and starting the foundation of a good, strong connection with you.
Introduction to some of these important life skills may seem difficult in these times, but on a positive note it does mean you can avoid a few pitfalls too. Many puppies are overwhelmed and become shy and anxious when introduced to too many people, or exposed to rough play with other puppies at classes. Others become over-aroused, which leads to boisterous play or over the top greetings. Socialisation isn’t about allowing your puppy to have free-rein to interact as he likes with all and sundry, it’s about teaching him to be calm and confident in all situations, and showing self-control in certain circumstances. Here are some tips on what you can do to help your puppy grow into a confident adult.
- If vaccination status allows, invite friends with calm, puppy-friendly adult dogs to come and play with your puppy in your garden. Ask if you can visit them too.
- Take your puppy to lots of different places and just sit and let him watch the world go by, taking in all the sights, sounds, and smells. Feed him yummy treats, or play a game with a toy. If his vaccinations aren’t complete yet, let him sit on your lap.
- Play dressing up: put on coats, hats, scarfs, walk with a stick, and open umbrellas, making it a fun game and the predictor of nice things.
- Play novel sounds. Search the internet for bangs, traffic noise, and smoke alarms. Start at a low volume and use food and fun when training.
- Give him lots of different objects and surfaces to walk over, around, and through. Make them different textures, have some of them wobble a bit, put items in a shallow tray of water, and move novel objects around, or see if he can confidently walk up to them.
- Take him on short car journeys.
Think of as many different novel experiences as you can to help your pup to be brave.
4. My dog has become frustrated on the lead and is lunging and barking at other dogs
Adult dogs may be suffering from lack of socialisation due to being on-lead and not seeing their doggy friends for a romp in the park. This can result in lead frustration; shouting at other dogs or people in the street because he wants to say hello (to be clear, I am not talking about dogs who are reactive and need remedial work to be able to interact safely). Letting the socialised but over-the-top greeter say hello to the other dog or person often curbs the behaviour in that moment, but how do you achieve this when your dog looks aggressive on the lead and other owners want to avoid you? It’s also often not appropriate to allow your dog to go and say hello to another dog while on-lead. So, what can you do?
- Meet up with one of your dog’s pals and go for an on-lead parallel walk. Start at a distance and decrease as you walk along until the dogs are calmer. Once a little more settled, you can allow them to sniff the same area and walk side by side. If appropriate to do so, you can then let them off for a romp around together. Make sure, as guardians, you both have long leads so you can maintain social distancing.
- You can use the same doggy pal to practise passing another dog. Start at a width that your dog can cope with, and walk towards and past each other maintaining the distance between you. As you repeat, if your dogs are calm, decrease the width at which you pass. Eventually, over several short sessions, you might be able to stop and chat to the other person for a short time. Before you do, practise asking your dog to settle at your feet when you stop anywhere. Reward him for calm behaviour. If he gets excited, go back a stage in training or increase the width between him and the other dog.
- If you are walking and he can’t say hello, use the ‘Where’s the dog/person?’ game described in point 2.
- Use ‘Grandma’s law’; this is where you ask your dog to do something less exciting before being allowed to do what he wants. So, when meeting dogs he is allowed to go and greet, he has to come to you first. Give him his recall cue and walk away from the other dog for a few steps. Once he has returned, give him a release cue, something like ‘OK’, which tells him he can now go and greet the other dog. You will have to start teaching him this on-lead first. For dogs he can’t go and interact with, call him to you but instead of releasing him, feed a jackpot of about 10 treats; one treat after the other.
Don’t struggle alone; get professional help. It is much easier to deal with a behavioural problem if it has only just started, rather than trying to change an ingrained one.