We all know how hard the Covid lock­down was on fam­i­lies, but it was at least as hard for our beloved pets.  While we were stressed, they were not get­ting their usu­al amount of inter­ac­tions, men­tal stim­u­lus and most impor­tant­ly gen­er­al train­ing and social­iz­ing opportunities.

Stress

The term “stress con­ta­gion” refers to oth­ers pick­ing up on the stress of a per­son in a lead­er­ship role, such as a par­ent in the case of a child or the own­er in the case of a dog. Dogs have even been observed show­ing empa­thy for pain and stress their own­ers are expe­ri­enc­ing and to be neg­a­tive­ly affect­ed by such feelings.

While Covid restric­tions had an impact on dogs of all ages, it had an out­sized impact on young dogs, espe­cial­ly pup­pies.  At the same time a record num­ber of fam­i­lies did bring in young dogs with all of the best inten­tions because they were home to care for them!  Unethical breed­ers added to the prob­lem by sell­ing pups that had been raised in dis­mal con­di­tions.  Owners wouldn’t have known this as the breed­er met the pur­chasers else­where or didn’t bring the prospec­tive own­er into the ken­nel area.

It’s now three years lat­er and the behav­iour­al fall­out is so clear­ly being shown in a num­ber of areas.  Congratulations to those fam­i­lies that have been able to work through and the pups are still with you!

Behavioural Fallout

This term refers to a change in the nor­mal progress in a group cre­at­ed by the impact of an inten­sive­ly neg­a­tive or fear induc­ing occur­rence.  It is what we’re see­ing too often post Covid with dogs and of course for some peo­ple as well.

Unfortunately this has trans­lat­ed to a huge increase of dog bites in the past year to 18 months – a time when those young dogs impact­ed dur­ing Covid are reach­ing matu­ri­ty.  Targets include fam­i­ly mem­bers and strangers – and can cause fam­i­lies to be forced to make tough choic­es.  Owners of dogs that bite can be sued, or an order for euthana­sia giv­en.  We want to pre­vent this at all costs of course!

Resource guard­ing is one of the most com­mon issues that we see ‑guard­ing food, laps, beds and toys with growl­ing or snap­ping. Fortunately it is also gen­er­al­ly the eas­i­est to turn around!

We’re also see­ing Separation Anxiety issues  – a debil­i­tat­ing emo­tion for dogs which is becom­ing so much more com­mon due to the fact that most pups weren’t left for long at for­ma­tive learn­ing stages.

These con­cerns com­bined have led to record num­bers of Behavioural Euthanasia – when a phys­i­cal­ly healthy dog is put down due to lev­els of aggres­sive or anxious/fear behaviour.

While it is a chal­lenge to have a dog with these issues – it isn’t too late to turn things around in most cases!

Dr. Karen Overall DVM a behav­iour­al vet­eri­nar­i­an has found in her stud­ies that for a social species, fear and anx­i­ety are the most tax­ing to the body – per­ma­nent brain dam­age can occur if it is left unchecked.  The sen­sa­tion is lit­er­al­ly painful for the species – human or dog.  The ear­li­er the inter­ven­tion the bet­ter chance we have of sol­id resolution.

Even though we know that exer­cise can help a dog do bet­ter in life over­all, it is pre­cise­ly when life gets hec­tic that it can be hard to find time to give your dog enough phys­i­cal and men­tal chal­lenges. Using out­side resources can make a huge dif­fer­ence for your dog, such as a rep­utable day­care or dog walk­er. Even one day a week with a qual­i­fied dog walk­er or at a day­care can real­ly break up their stress lev­els. Just be sure that the group they will be par­tic­i­pat­ing with is a good fit.

Brain Engagement

A dog’s sense of smell is very impor­tant, so help­ing them to use it engages their brain, which in turn helps to tire them out. A short walk with lots of sniff time at the end of a long leash is gen­er­al­ly bet­ter for your dog than a long walk that doesn’t allow them this free­dom. You can even prac­tise your recalls — call­ing them back to you from those entic­ing smells to increase the men­tal chal­lenge dur­ing the walk.

There are also many ways to chal­lenge your dog’s brain inside the home. Using snuf­fle mats, puz­zles, treat-dispensing balls, and the like at meal­time or for treats can also increase their engage­ment. You may find that your dogs don’t use these toys while you’re gone, which is an indi­ca­tion of their anx­i­ety lev­el, but will sud­den­ly find them inter­est­ing as soon as you return. That’s still okay – it’s almost like a peace offer­ing when you go, and they’ll get the extra chal­lenge when you’re there.

Do be sure to give the same puz­zle to them when you’re not going out though, because dogs are great at ‘back-chaining’  — know­ing what action pre­dicts what out­come and becomes just anoth­er stress­ful pre­dic­tor of you leaving!

Practice Daily Separation

Dogs are arguably the world’s most suc­cess­ful­ly domes­ti­cat­ed ani­mals. Once past the pup­py stage, most dogs tru­ly pre­fer to be with their own­ers rather than with oth­er dogs. As such, being left on their own goes against the very nature that dog breed­ers have long strived for.

However, you do want to instill con­fi­dence in your dogs and build up their inde­pen­dence, so that they under­stand you will always come back. Dogs learn and inter­pret the world dif­fer­ent­ly from peo­ple, and they aren’t as good at pre­dict­ing that each time you leave, you’ll come back. Similarly, a four-year-old child can­not under­stand the per­ma­nence of death, and I can’t tru­ly under­stand the con­cept of bil­lions of light years in space! We need to keep how they learn and under­stand things in mind to build success.

Even on your week­ends and days off, it’s impor­tant for you go out with­out your dogs or to spend time alone in the home. For some dogs, sim­ply cre­at­ing a bar­ri­er with a gate and stay­ing with­in sight suf­fices, but for oth­ers it’s best to leave them in a dif­fer­ent room, ful­ly out of sight. If you’re unsure what’s best for your dog, con­sid­er con­tact­ing a train­er who spe­cial­izes in behav­iour and sep­a­ra­tion anxiety.

Be Patient and Stay Positive!

Dogs are like pre-verbal kids – explain­ing doesn’t work that well, but our actions can speak vol­umes! Please have patience with the inevitable behav­iour­al changes. Provide your dogs with good out­lets for their ener­gy, such as busy toys and exercise.

Calm inter­ac­tions can also help your dog weath­er a new chal­lenge.  Our behav­iour will cue them to how they should feel about the sit­u­a­tion.  Calm brings calm, angry or frus­trat­ed can trig­ger aggres­sive out­bursts. In times of stress, try to take the time to rest your hand on your dog’s col­lar and give long, slow strokes down their back. This not only reduces their heart rate and blood pres­sure, but stroking dogs helps calm the human as well! Also do your best to take a slow deep breath and relax around your dogs – it will help every­one out.

I would love an oppor­tu­ni­ty to help your dog grow to be the best lov­ing fam­i­ly mem­ber that you pic­tured when you brought them home!  I have an excel­lent track record of suc­cess and use only pain and fear free meth­ods.  Hurting or scar­ing a dog to pun­ish only ever serves to make them trust you less.  Please vis­it at www.caninebehaviour.ca.

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