How is the pandemic impacting dog behaviour?

When there is a sudden change in routine, all dogs will respond and adapt differently, and it’s not to be unexpected that some behavioural issues may surface. The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown everyone’s lives and daily routines off kilter, and this is, of course, having a big impact on our dog’s lives too. At Wood Green, The Animals Charity we offer a pet support service online and via the phone, and since the lockdown began, we’ve received a number of enquiries relating to concerns about dog behaviour

Out on walks

Many owners are finding that their dogs are barking and lunging more at other dogs and people when they are out on walks. In a lot of these cases, we suspect that the dogs are acting this way because their walking routine has changed and this has unsettled them; where many people would usually take their dog out early in the morning before work, if that person is now furloughed or working from home, they may choose to enjoy the opportunity to stay in bed a little longer, and walk their dog later in the day.

Indeed, as a dog owner myself, it seems that the ‘dog walking window’ each day has narrowed to around 10am-4pm, and, not only does this mean that many dogs will be feeling more anxious due to a change in routine, but it also means that more dog owners are out at the same time.

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Where a dog that is being walked at 6am would usually only see one or two other dogs and people, they may now be seeing nine or 10 other dogs, which can lead to troubled behaviour. This can also be accentuated by some dogs now not being let off the lead as much as they normally would. 

Some of the early warning signs that a dog is feeling uneasy, and that it could be developing a habit of barking and lunging, are that it tends to be more focused on other dogs – it’s more fixated and attentive to other dogs, and owners may notice a slight increase in barking initially. 

Fortunately, there’s a lot that owners can be doing to support their pet to feel more at ease and to ‘distract’ them from other dogs – both now, and at normal times too. Something that I regularly advise is that dog owners always take some treats with them on a walk – preferably something of “high value” to the dog, like pieces of hot dog, ham or cheese.

When approaching another dog or walker, owners should then offer their dog a treat and should repeat this process every time they go out and pass other people. In time, this will help refocus the dog’s attention to their owner, and, when they do see other dogs, their instinct will be to turn to their owner, successfully distracting them until the other walkers have passed. 

In the home

We’re all now in our homes a lot more, and, where some pets will be relishing the extra attention and quality time with their owners, some pets, particularly younger dogs, may be finding it difficult to relax with lots of activity going on. It’s important to remember that dogs need more sleep than people do, and during the day, dog owners need to ensure they’re giving their pets an opportunity to rest – away from people. Ideally, pets should have an area that they can rest for portions of the day where there isn’t stimulation, allowing them to switch off.

Some owners may notice that with lots more people around the house, dogs may be finding it difficult to settle. When the owner moves room, the dog will follow them or might even try to overtake them. Dogs might be barking more, and, in some cases, families may experience more nips and bites, particularly when children are constantly in close proximity to the dog.

It’s perfectly normal for children to want to spend more time with their pets when they are at home, but, when it comes to dogs and young children under five, parents need to always proactively manage the interaction. It’s not good enough just to be in the same room, parents need to actively watch their child and the dog, and intervene when anything happens that might lead to an issue. If parents cannot manage, then they need to keep the child and dog separate.

During this pandemic period, for some, there may be times when we cannot leave the home at all. I know that I always feel a sense of guilt when I’ve not been able to take my dog out, but owners should feel rest assured that there are plenty of other ways to keep their dogs stimulated, even when they can’t leave the house. 

One of my top tricks is to feed pets in more inventive and interactive ways, encouraging them to use both their brains and bodies to find food. If they have a garden, pet owners could scatter food across the lawn, otherwise, putting food in a plastic bottle with the lid removed, or wrapped in scrunched up newspaper, will mean dogs will need to do a bit more to get their food – and of course, they will put in that extra effort! It’s also important to keep dogs stimulated through play: encouraging search games around the house, two or three times a day, can go a long way in compensating for walks outside. 

Research suggests that if we can engage a dog’s brain, they tend to be more worn out than when we give them physical exercise. If owners or their children have more time on their hands during this lockdown period, it might be the perfect opportunity to try a new training exercise, or try some new tricks. 

Wendy Kruger, Dog Behaviour & Training Specialist at Wood Green, The Animals Charity

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