As restrictions start to lift for people in the UK, puppies and dogs are poised to enter their own kind of lockdown. Having enjoyed more than a year of having their owners at home 24/7, many dogs will now find themselves expected to spend time alone, as people pop out to hairdressers and beer gardens, or even return to the office. And this sudden change in routine could trigger a boom in welfare and behaviour issues for our furry friends.
“The biggest issue that we are going to see is routines, for dogs especially, are going to change quite dramatically,” says Sam Gaines, a pet welfare specialist with the RSPCA. ‘Lockdown puppies’, who have been welcomed into homes during the last year, may never have known anything else, but even dogs that have lived with their owners for years may have become habituated to a new way of life during the pandemic. “Many of them have got very used to having their family members around them and spending little time by themselves, and we know that once dogs are in a position where they spend lots of time with people and don’t spend time by themselves – when they then have to go into that situation, they can find it very difficult to cope with,” she says.
Dogs are pack animals by nature; while their psychology and behaviour varies among individuals, they are generally very sociable and can form strong emotional bonds with people. Indeed, Gaines points out that we have been specifically selecting dogs that form a close bond with humans. Previous research by the RSPCA has found that eight out of ten dogs can struggle to cope when left alone. “I think that the pandemic is going to exacerbate this,” Gaines says.
Behaviours that suggest your dog may be struggling to be by themselves can include destroying objects and furniture (and particularly targeting the door you left from), howling or barking while you’re away, and going to the toilet in the house. If you have a camera set up, you may also see more subtle signs while you’re away, such as excess drooling, pacing or trembling.
While this struggle for dogs to cope on their own is commonly referred to as “separation anxiety”, Daniel Mills, a professor of veterinary behavioural medicine at the University of Lincoln, says that “separation related behaviour” is a more accurate term. “[Whilst] the dog might appear anxious before the owner leaves, the behaviours that they show once the owner has left are often more related to frustration than anxiety or fear,” he explains. Treating it solely as an anxiety issue may therefore not get to the root of the problem.
His team has also been studying the impact of lockdown on dogs; while they have not yet fully analysed their data, he says that the initial results suggest that lockdown hasn’t necessarily made more dogs struggle with these issues, but has exacerbated problems for those already predisposed. “The lockdown has made matters worse for those dogs at risk, rather than created a new risk for otherwise healthy dogs and healthy relationships,” he says.
The best way to address any potential issues is to start now. The basic idea, says Gaines, is to teach your dog that spending time alone is absolutely fine, and that you will return. Start small: leave your dog for a small length of time in a separate room, then gradually increase this. But don’t leave them to be distressed; give them something fun, such as a toy stuffed with treats, to keep them occupied and teach them that spending time alone can actually be a positive experience. The key is to move slowly. If you try to go from spending 24/7 with your pup to leaving them at home for hours at a time, you’ll likely have issues. It’s also a good idea to try to match your training with your anticipated new routine – if you know you will usually be around to interact with your dog at lunch time, for instance, make that your play time and practice having quiet time before or after.
Gaines experienced separation related behaviour with Flo, a dog she adopted a few years ago, who barked and went to the toilet in the house whenever she left for the school run. Gaines worked with Flo gradually, bringing out a special mat for her to lie on and giving her a rubber toy filled with dog-friendly peanut butter while she spent short lengths of time by herself. She also leaves the radio on for Flo, as the sound can help muffle noises from outside that could disturb her. “We spent a good few months, basically just teaching her that it is okay to be by yourself,” Gaines says.
Sometimes, dogs can struggle even if other people or animals are around; in Flo’s case, she had become particularly attached to Gaines and would still be vocal and urinate inside even if other family members were home. To help address this, Gaines delegated feeding and walking to her husband, until Flo became less reliant just on her. Like many people, however, Gaines has been working from home during the pandemic, and worries that Flo may have become used to having her human family around all the time. In preparation for the return to the office, she has started leaving Flo for short periods of time to get her used to the new routine.
Mills says that it’s crucial to work to the capacity of your dog, which can vary. He says it is helpful to give your dog a clear cue as to when you are available to interact with them and when they should entertain themselves; he suggests hanging something decorative on the wall to signal when you are going to leave or ignore them. This can help the dog understand that they are going to be on their own for a while – but that you will return. The RSPCA advises that you shouldn’t be leaving your dog alone for more than four hours at a time,so if you plan to return to work full-time, you may wish to look into pet sitters or doggy daycare services. It’s a good idea to introduce your dog to these before you need to leave them for the whole day.
As routines shift, some dogs may struggle with other effects of lifting lockdown. Chloe Jackson, a canine behaviourist and training manager at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, says some pets may struggle with other people suddenly coming into their homes as more socialising is permitted. Lockdown puppies will be entering adolescence, already a trying time, just as their routine is upended, and may struggle with learning to socialise with new people and dogs.
One concern is that, as people’s routines change, they may feel they can no longer provide a good home for their dog, especially if they are also struggling with behavioural issues. But although giving up a pet is a highly emotional issue, Jackson says that sometimes this may be the kindest option for the animal. “I say this in a very non-judgmental way, for some people, the right answer is actually going to be, unfortunately, their setup is just not right for that dog,” she says. If this is the case, she implores people to work with a rescue centre as opposed to trying to sell or rehome their dog online, where prices for some breeds shot up under lockdown. “One of my biggest fears is actually that people are rehoming them personally, as opposed to using different rescue centres to support them in that journey,” she says.
This is because rescue centres will work to make sure a dog finds a suitable home, which is particularly important if behavioural issues have contributed to their owner’s decision to rehome them. Sometimes this can result in a dog going from home to home before eventually finding itself in a rescue centre – “and at the point they come to us, that problematic behaviour has escalated tenfold.”
Vicki Turk is WIRED’s features editor. She tweets from @VickiTurk
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