We are all looking forward to getting out and about with our dogs again — but after nearly 13 months of lockdowns and restrictions, this year is very different, as Carolyn Menteith explains.
“...take some time to really think about your dog...”
While some people can’t wait to get out and about, some are understandably nervous, worried, or just slightly concerned that they might growl or snap at an unsuspecting stranger who ventures too close!
If this is how we are feeling, just imagine what the past year has been like for our dogs. No matter how old your dog may be, 13 months is a very long time in his life — and for lockdown puppies, it has been all of their lives.
Even a dog who has had plenty of positive experiences pre-pandemic might, just like us, struggle with going back to what was their daily life before lockdown. Don’t expect them to just go straight ‘back to normal’.
Plan a picnic in a quiet area and let your dog enjoy watching the world go by at a safe distance.
The first step to ensuring that this will be a joyous summer of rediscovering the pleasures of being out and about with your dog — or discovering them for the first time — is to take some time to really think about your dog, his personality, experiences, past behaviours, strengths and weaknesses, and joys and fears. By doing this, you can have a good idea of how he will react, what might faze him, and what things you can work on to help you both ease back into a life outside the front gate.
Start with the obvious: look at your dog’s breed, his age, and his social personality. All of these things can give you some valuable clues as to how you are going to approach the summer and your walks and outings together.
Your dog’s breed, or mix of breeds, and what they were originally bred to do will give you some big clues as to how he plays, what he enjoys, how he responds to novelty or the unexpected, and what things he will take in his stride and what things he will find harder.
And then there’s your dog’s personality… and this is the thing that people often forget. They look at the breed or type of dog they have and think that is all there is to predicting how they will behave. But they forget that in every breed there are different characters and ways of relating to the world. One of the secrets to living with a dog is to see the dog you have and not the dog you think you have!
Many people are looking forward to getting out and about with their dogs again.
Some dogs are extroverts and confident social butterflies, happy to explore and investigate new situations and environments, while others are much more introverted, thoughtful, and hesitant in new situations. And of course, if you have a lockdown puppy, this might be a voyage of discovery for you as you find out more about him in a variety of situations.
Your aim with the introverts is to understand and anticipate what might make them feel worried, concerned, fearful, or hesitant and ask yourself: ‘What can I do to make him feel better and more confident in this situation?’ These dogs are the ones who may well find being back outside around people, dogs, and all the sights, sounds, smells, hustle and bustle of summer living difficult or even highly stressful. Your aim is to take it very slowly and make sure they are happy in each situation and with each new experience.
With the extroverts, you will need to be thinking about: ‘How can I keep you focused on me no matter what is going on around you?’ These are the dogs who are more likely to be totally thrilled to be back out — and this excitement can lead to a loss of focus, forgetting their training, being overly enthusiastic in greetings, and even having arguments with other dogs who don’t appreciate their rather full-on attentions.
When it comes to summer walks and getting back out, there are several things to consider. Only you can decide what your focus needs to be for your own dog, but here are some starting points depending on your dog’s breed type and personality.
Use toys to keep your gundog happy and avoid distractions.
Most gundogs are the extroverts of the canine world. Their original job description involves working around unknown people and dogs in a variety of country environments. These are the dogs who are most likely to be totally thrilled at being back out among friends, new smells, and new experiences. They are also the ones who, in their excitement and joy, might forget all their training!
Brush up on your recall and your dog’s focus on you. Don’t just let him off the lead as you have done in previous summers and expect him to come back to you. Build up to that by going right back to the beginning with your recall training — starting in the garden with short recalls with no distractions. Remember that with dogs the old adage ‘use it or lose it’ is very true and after a year of lockdown, many gundogs may well have totally lost it! Once you do get out and about, use toys, treats, and training exercises to keep your dog focused on you and having fun, and not on all the exciting things going on around him. It is often these dogs who in their love of life and everyone in it, bounce up to other dogs who are on leads or under close control. Don’t forget that for all dogs, this summer is going to bring challenges — don’t let your dog be one of them.
Training exercises can help with your dog’s focus.
These are the dog whose job description involves them being very aware and potentially reactive to things that move in order to be able to chase them and round them up. For these dogs, being back out among traffic, people, cyclists, joggers, and excited children might well be overwhelming, deeply worrying, or just extremely distracting.
Start quiet; don’t head straight off out where there is lots of noise and movement. This can be overwhelming and can easily lead to stress, fear, and reactivity. Look first for quiet parks and walks where your dog can gradually get back into the swing of being around people, dogs, and other moving, noisy objects. Give your dog something to focus on that you can reward him for — such as training exercises — and watch your dog closely to look for signs of arousal, so you can move him away before it becomes fear, reactivity, or the understandable desire to round up all the joggers and put them in one place!
Some dogs may feel uncomfortable about close encounters with others.
These are the breeds whose original job description meant that they were never happier than when they were with their beloved humans. These dogs are usually small, highly bonded to their owner, and sometimes lacking in confidence around other people, dogs, and busy environments.
No matter how much you want to visit places with lots of people, noise, and bustle, when you go out for summer outings with your dog — especially if he has been a lockdown puppy — your aim must be to avoid places or situations he is going to find worrying. Picnics in quiet areas where he can sit down beside you on the grass and watch what is going on from a safe distance can be the perfect way for him to gain confidence in the outside world while you are beside him for security.
Don’t for one minute think that guarding breeds are large, confident, aggressive dogs just waiting to fight off a burglar or an unwary delivery person. While some of these breeds are calm and confident in their behaviour, most guard because they are worried about intruders or people who may prove a threat to the people and things they hold dear.
These dogs are often watchful and alert to threat — and after a year of lockdown, things that they would have usually taken in their stride may appear threatening. Anyone who has had someone come up close behind them in a supermarket queue these past few months knows how that feels! Be your dog’s protector for the next few months — and watch for things that he might feel threatened or worried by and avoid them. Your aim is to remind him that he can relax and doesn’t have to be hyper-vigilant — and to help him feel safe in this strange new world.
Many terriers love to dig so think about building a digging pit in the garden.
Originally bred to fearlessly hunt vermin often bigger than they are, or to charge down small holes in pursuit of their prey, terriers are funny, mischievous, and engaging, but can be brave bordering on foolhardy, and feisty bordering on stroppy! Lockdown may well have exacerbated that.
These are small dogs who think big and are always looking for the next adventure. Most terrier breeds, however, were bred to hunt and work alone and so many are not very patient or friendly with other dogs. Getting back out into a world of excitement — and other dogs — could easily push these tendencies to the limit. Keep your terriers on a lead for a while when you are around other dogs, and ease them back into being social. In the meantime, give them plenty of terrier-centric activities in the garden. Consider building a digging pit in which you can hide treats and toys, or use enrichment toys to keep their smart brains and bodies occupied.
Don’t under-estimate the lure of a squirrel!
The original job description of a hound was a dog who would follow either a scent or their prey for miles without being distracted by anything going on around them. This means that if your sight hound sees a squirrel or your scent hound finds an amazing sniff, you can easily be forgotten in the thrill of the chase. For most of these dogs, recall is at best a bit of a multiple-choice question — and after a year of not being around squirrels or scents, this is going to be multiplied.
Even if your hound had a reasonable recall before the pandemic, do not expect him to still have one! If this is your first summer out and about, don’t think that the perfect recall you have at home is going to be duplicated in the great outdoors!
Practise recall in the garden first, and use a long line attached to a harness. This will take a bit of practice if you haven’t done it before and so starting in the garden, where you can safely untie your legs without embarrassment while you work it out, will be helpful! When you do go out and about, start in quiet areas and keep using your long line until you are confident that you are in a secure area with no distractions and your recall is as good as it can be. Have great treats with you and reward your dog every single time he looks at you rather than looking for squirrels or hunting for great smells.
Always make sure you are fully aware of the latest government advice and any restrictions before going out and about with your dog.