Mark Vette – Internationally renowned Animal Behaviourist, Educator, Author and TV personality

Social isolation with your dog

SOCIAL ISOLATION WITH A DOG OR PUPPY

Tips for looking after yourself and your dog during and after a Covid-19 lockdown

There have been many many situations in my life when I’ve been incredibly grateful to have a dog with me. I’m guessing if you’re reading this you’re probably a dog owner and certainly a dog lover, so you’ll understand just how comforting a dog can be through such challenging times.

Now, more than ever, we can see the value of having our dogs with us at home! As I write this, big areas of our country are in lockdown to combat the spread of Covid-19. Everyone except essential workers, must remain in their homes except under particular circumstances. Social isolation for an extended period of time can be very daunting, but having our furry companions to keep us company through this time is immeasurably comforting (it certainly is for me – I have three in the house!).

There are however also some risks of behaviour problems developing or becoming more obvious in such intense, close isolation together. If you’re spending time in lockdown with your dog, here are some tips on looking after your dog (and yourself!) throughout this time.


Understanding your dog’s emotions

Dogs are very perceptive creatures. They are derived from wolves, and are pack or social animals with a powerful desire to unite and bring the pack together. They are motivated by empathy and enjoy bringing the family together to be safe.  Your dog is always reading your facial expressions, posture, tone of voice, pheromones and energy to gauge how you are feeling. This pandemic has been extremely stressful and worrying for most people, so if you’ve been feeling down or anxious, your dog will be picking up on your changing feelings. Some dogs will become stressed if you are stressed, some will become more affectionate, some will become more clingy and want to be close to you all the time, and some will respond in a completely different way. If you’re worried about how your dog is feeling, know that your dog feeds off your emotions. If you act normally and follow your usual routines with your dog, they will bounce back to normal too. To some degree, fake it till you make it!  Supporting them with structure, walks, and training will help a lot.  

However, your dog is there to support you too, so it’s okay to let them snuggle on in more than usual if you are (or they are) in need of some TLC and feeling that pandemic anxiety. 

Boredom

If your dog is used to going to highly stimulating environments, such as doggy day care, clubs, dog parks and beaches where they can socialise with other people and other dogs, then this quiet time at home might make them go a bit stir-crazy. You can (and should) get out to exercise your dog once or twice every day still, but you’ll be unable to come into contact with other people and dogs much of the time.   

To combat this, find ways to stimulate your dog at home and on walks! Teaching your dog new commands or tricks is a fantastic way to enrich your dog’s life, while at the same time strengthening the bond you have with your dog. This is a chance to have a bit of fun and teach your dog something new. Get yourself set up with a clicker and some delicious training treats, and get going.

Try one (or all!) of these:

  • Teach your dog to roll over, kiss, stand up on his hind legs, shake hands, fetch or clean up his toys by teaching him to “drop” them in a container
  • Make a treasure hunt for your dog. Put him in a room, then lay a trail of small pieces of delicious food around the house or garden. Let your dog out and allow him to follow his nose to find the hidden treats around the house or garden
  • Play tug-o-war
  • Create your own mini agility course around the house. You can use common household items such as a blanket or stool to jump over, a hula hoop to jump through… get creative!
  • Teach your dog to chase bubbles
  • Play hide and seek. Tell your dog to stay, go find a hiding spot, then call out to your dog to come and find you! If your dog doesn’t have a strong “stay” command, someone else in the house could distract  them while you hide.
  • Play the “which hand” game. Hide a treat in one hand then hold both fists in front of your dog. When your dog sniffs or paws the correct hand, open it up to let them have the treat!
  • Check out our #TipThursday posts on Facebook. These will be both enriching for you and your dog, great bonding time and good for preventing or managing behavioural issues through lockdown.
  • Join my Facebook Live sessions so you can ask me all your questions about dog behaviour and how to support your dog’s adjustment to this new isolation regime.

Separation Distress

I’ve seen lots of posts on social media about how people have loved spending EVERY waking moment with their dog, now that they are home-bound. Many people remain working from home, even after the lockdown lifts as an extra pre-caution which means very long periods of time spent working at home and constantly with your dog. While this does sound wonderful, this can later lead to separation distress when you go back to old routines, away from your dog. Your dog was probably used to you spending some time away from them most days, so when you’re suddenly home 24/7 for a number of weeks and with them all the time, they get used to this constant contact. 

When the lockdown lifts and it’s time for you to leave the house again, or when you do eventually go back to the office, your dog may develop separation distress. This can manifest in a number of unpleasant ways – your dog will become anxious and stressed if you try to leave, they may bark or howl continuously anytime you’re away from the house, they may start engaging in destructive behaviours or in extreme situations, do ANYTHING they can to escape. This is a phobia of separation, which is quite distressing to them, you and the neighbours.  

The good news is, it’s possible to take some simple steps to avoid this! Ensure you are spending some time separated from your dog each day. The ideal method is to set up a Clip Station in your home. This is just a short lead or light chain with a clip attached, secured upon a comfortable dog bed (either by screwing it into a base board, or attaching to a very heavy piece of furniture that your dog can’t move). Periodically throughout the day, you can attach your dog to this Clip Station with a stuff kong, chew bone and/or toy initially while you spend time in a different part of the house to create some healthy separation. 

If you aren’t able to set up a Clip Station, you can use a crate, or alternatively you can even just shut your dog in a different part of the house or outside in the garden. Start with short amounts of time, gradually increasing the time as they tolerate it, aiming for thirty minutes to 2 hours at a time is recommended. Ensure you are out of your dog’s sight and earshot to make it effective. 

By doing this, you’ll prevent separation distress from developing, meaning your dog will be much happier when normal life resumes!

If your dog is already struggling with separation distress, check out my Dog Zen Premium Online Training Course or my book Dog Zen. They are designed to help you tackle behavioural issues, with a section specifically dedicated to separation distress. 

Increased reactivity to other dogs

Some dogs will become more reactive to other dogs after a lockdown. This may manifest as barking, growling,  lunging, aggression or fear and nervousness when other dogs are around. 

If this has happened, you’ll need to assess how serious the reactivity is. If your dog can no longer interact with other dogs in a sociable way, then you’ll need to go establish a  formal ‘meet and greet’ routine with your dog, using a clicker and food rewards as well as a  slip collar and lead. We cover this in my Dog Zen Virtual Dog School, with videos on how  to set up a positive meet and greet, and how to fix any aggressive responses your dog is  showing. 

If your dog is just a little more nervous or unsure than they once were, then you can try  this technique: 

  • Introduce a clicker and food rewards by using a clicker to teach some basic commands  such as Sit and Zen Down. Here’s a blog on basic clicker training.
  • Use your clicker to click and reward your dog for positive, relaxed and pro-social responses when other dogs are around or as you move towards another dog for a greeting 
  • Set up greetings so that your dog goes learns the “doggy handshake” (the meet and greet routine they do in nature). This is when each  dog sniffs the other dog’s inguinal area (the groin area) and the rear-end. You can facilitate this by asking the  other dog’s owner to arrange their dog with rear-end facing out to begin with, so that your dog can go for a sniff in this area first. Click and reward after the sniff, but don’t interrupt it. Start by setting up these greetings with calm, sociable  dogs that you know so you can practise. 
  • Also teach your dog to accept the “Rear Present” as well, because there are calming pheromones in this area and if done properly it calms both dogs and leads to sociable responses.
  • The more positive interactions your dog has with other dogs (especially in combination with the use of the clicker and food rewards), the more quickly she’ll become relaxed and  comfortable around other dogs again 

Or you can teach your dog to engage and disengage with the ‘look’ command with other dogs and reward this pro-social response from a distance, like Jaz demonstrates in this video. 

 Increased reactivity to door-knocking or visitors

If you have been stuck in lockdown, your dog may have become more reactive to people coming to your home when you’re finally free to have visitors inside again. You can do some training work now to help your dog relax and prepare for when you have people coming over and door-knocking again!

1. Introduce a clicker
If your dog is as bored as you are without socialising like normal, clicker training with be very stimulating and enriching for him. Clicker training can also help you get your dog used to having visitors again.

2. Practise door-knocking
Once your dog is working on the clicker, you can use it to ‘click and reward’ your dog for being calm and accepting when the door bell rings or someone knocks on the door. For example, you sit inside with your dog and have a family member or friend in your bubble come up and knock on the door. Beforehand, run through some basic commands using the clicker to click and reward your dog to get her calm and focused on you and the treats. Then click and reward your dog if she remains quiet and happy when the knocks come.

3. Introduce a clip station
Clip stations are a fantastic way to contain your dog, while still allowing them to be nearby and part of the family dynamic and social space. A clip station is just a short lead or chain screwed into the baseboard of the wall or looped around a heavy piece of furniture, with a dog bed underneath. Your dog will need to be trained to accept a clip station, but once youve done this it will become a place of peace and calm that your dog loves to be! Its a great place to put your dog to keep them relaxed and contained when friends start to visit again, while still being involved in the social situation (rather than being shut away in another room). So introduce it now while you’re still in lockdown, so that your dog is relaxed there when people are visiting again. 

4. Reward sociability from a distance
Even if you can’t interact with other people, you can still reward your dog for sociable responses from a distance so that your dog is less likely to react when people come to your home again. While out walking, carry a clicker and food rewards and click and reward your dog when you see other people and dogs. You can ask your dog to “sit” then “look” at the other person or dog. Do this by holding a treat in the other person’s direction while saying “look” then click when your dog looks and hand over the treat. This encourages sociability without any physical contact! 

5. Use delivery drivers
If you have courier drivers or grocery delivery drivers dropping items off at your house, use this opportunity to click and reward your dog for quiet, sociable responses as they approach and knock at the door. Use the “nicely” command if you spot someone coming, then click and reward nice sociable behaviour. If your dog barks and becomes aggressive or reactive, you can use a firm “no” command then click and reward when your dog relaxes. If this isn’t enough, you’ll need to introduce a correction with a lead and slip collar, I can teach you how to do this in my Dog Zen Virtual Dog School.

Behavioural issues becoming more obvious?

Suddenly spending all day with your dog might bring to the forefront any behavioural issues. Perhaps you didn’t realise quite how often your dog barks, or jumps up on you, or pulls at the lead. Or perhaps you’ve noticed a phobia of a certain noise! Whatever it is, this is a great time to invest some energy into helping your dog with any behavioural issues. You’re at home with more time on your hands (if you don’t have to work from home while having kids home from school or childcare, of course), and the ability to train consistently for the next few weeks. My Dog Zen Premium Online Course can help you get your dog into a ‘learning state’ and arm you with the knowledge you need to fix behaviour problems and strengthen your relationship with your furry companion. You’ll be so glad you did it!

Good luck with your continued social isolation over the next few weeks. Remember to keep in touch with family and friends digitally. Remember to hug your pets! And feel free to get in touch to ask me any questions about your dog during this time.

Kia kaha.

Mark

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