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How to Support Your Dog During the New Normal of COVID-19

Tips for helping your dog, and you, navigate the pandemic together.

It’s Monday morning and I am about to sign into my video conferencing program to see my first patient (and pet parent) of the day. I am a veterinary clinical behavior resident and I used to see 10-15% of my cases through telehealth, but now I see the majority of my patients this way.

I have five minutes before my first appointment starts. I quickly grab my dog’s favorite food puzzle toy out of the freezer, and we head to the bedroom where, for the next 45 minutes, he will stay happy and quiet while I see my patients. I head back to the living room, shutting the door behind me.

Ilana Reisner, DVM, PhD, DACVB
Source: Ilana Reisner, DVM, PhD, DACVB

I have dreamt of working from home full time. I envisioned hanging out in my pajamas on the couch, snuggled up to my dogs (and computer). COVID-19 shifted the majority of my work to telehealth, and it has not been all snuggles, rainbows, and sunshine. The first hint that my work-at-home dream was not going to become a reality was during my first telehealth appointment. My patient was wearing a collar with tags that jingled when he moved. Each time my dog heard that jingling sound, he replied with a bark at ear-piercing levels. I had forgotten that my dog doesn’t appreciate the company of other dogs as much as I do.

This was a stressful change to my dog’s routine, but not the only one that came with the stay at home order. The uptick in walkers with dogs has also been a challenge for us. Remember that my dog doesn’t appreciate the company of other dogs. We have, however, employed some key strategies that have significantly reduced stress for both of us.

If you feel your dog’s behavior has changed in the past few months, you are not alone. Many pet owners are noticing changes in their pet’s anxiety level as well as the emergence of new problem behaviors. You may have noticed changes in your dog, including: increased barking, panting, following you, pacing, stressed body language (e.g., ears back, tail down), difficulty relaxing, awakening at night, and destruction. There are more sounds outside as people take to the outdoors to exercise and get some fresh air.

To help your pup cope with the new normal, follow the tips below.

Maintain a routine

Prior to a life of stay-at-home orders, many of our pets were used to walking, eating, napping, and playing at a similar time every day. A sudden change in your dog’s schedule can be stressful, leading to anxiety.

Try to stay on a schedule even in this time of pivots and changes. Pick a time to walk, feed, and play with your dog. Give him some alone time every day (if he wants it). This will help alleviate some anxiety as you establish a new routine.

Keep them active

Exercise is a great form of enrichment, both for you and for your dog. It’s also important to recognize when exercise may not be beneficial.

Many of our furry friends are reactive to things that they see on walks, such as other dogs, people, skateboards, bikes, and cars. Increased activity outside the home poses a challenge for these dogs. If your dog has been more stressed recently on walks, there are things you can do to help.

If you have a fenced yard, consider exercising your dog in the yard instead of going for walks until there are fewer people out again. They won’t have to meet all the new dogs, walkers, and cyclists outside who have magically multiplied overnight and can instead exercise in their own personal space.

Walking earlier or later in the day can also be helpful to avoid the triggers that cause your dog stress. You might also drive with your dog to a quieter park or neighborhood for walks.

If you can’t work these solutions into your schedule, there are online reactive dog classes that may help your dog, such as the new Dog Nerds' Reactive to Zensational.

For dogs who pull or are reactive on walks, it’s important to use the proper gear. Shock, pinch, and prong collars are not appropriate for any dog and can lead to a worsening in reactivity and aggression over time. Instead, a well-fitted no-pull harness or head collar can make walking easier and less painful for both you and your dog.

Make sure you have the right tools

Exercising the brain is just as helpful as exercising the body for dogs’ welfare and happiness. Giving them stimulating toys from which they can forage food gives them a way to express natural behaviors. If you feed them their meals from a food toy, you can also slow down quick eaters while giving them stimulation. These are especially helpful when you need some extra quiet time for that Zoom meeting.

There are many types of these toys, and each dog will have their own preference. It’s important to start slowly with easy puzzles so your dog doesn’t get frustrated. To start, try swapping your dog’s bowl with a puzzle bowl containing ridges and swirls. Then slowly progress in difficulty, such as introducing a classic Kong toy with food spread inside and outside of it. As always, make sure to supervise your dog with any toys that can be destroyed or ingested.

Daily training and play sessions

Daily training sessions help improve the bond between pets and pet parents, and they can be a fun way to pass the time while home. Training sessions can be as short as the time it takes you to microwave a meal. In fact, short sessions several times are more effective than marathon sessions.

Scheduling five-minute play sessions at least two to three times daily will give your dog something to look forward to, and a way to burn pent-up energy. Grab their favorite toy, or teach them a new game. You can teach them to find a toy or treat that’s hidden, retrieve toys, and fetch. The sport of Nosework is also a great way to have fun inside the home.

Give them some space

Our pets may need more space than we want to give them sometimes. They may not be used to their humans being home all day, every day, and may benefit from some alone time, just as we do. You may notice your dog spending more time in their crate, in another room, or acting more irritable when you interact with them. Your dog may want more space if you try to pet them or sit with them and they look away from you, lick their lips, yawn, turn their head away, or more obvious signs such as showing teeth or growling.

Solutions can be as simple as letting your dog be if they separate themselves into another room, and letting them approach you for petting instead of approaching them. Of course, any time your pet exhibits new fearful or aggressive behavior, there can be other causes too. It’s helpful to check in with your veterinarian to make sure nothing else is at play.

Be vigilant as we go back to normal schedules for signs of separation anxiety after this prolonged time we have spent with our pets. Signs can include following pet parents around the home, barking or crying when you leave, trying to leave with you, destruction to the home, and urination or defecation when alone. Contact your veterinarian if these behaviors occur. They may refer you to a veterinary behaviorist, who is an expert in treating anxiety and other behavioral disorders in dogs.

Enriching your dog’s life with exercise, playtime, training, food puzzle toys, predictability, and space will help keep your dog’s life more joyful during this difficult time. If you feel your dog needs more help, make sure to follow up with your veterinarian.

Megan Petroff, DVM, Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB

Megan Petroff, DVM
Source: Megan Petroff, DVM
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