It’s been hard to write this post. Heck, I’ll admit that I didn’t want to and wasn’t planning to, but have gotten requests from some of you and feel a sense of obligation to our readers and clients who are searching for information. We try to be a pretty upbeat, positive company but the reality is that we’re scared, too. We’re not sure of all the effects that this pandemic will have in the years to come. And it’s hard for all of us, ourselves included, to be at our best when we’re struggling to make sure that our most basic needs are being met. Often I can use writing and focusing on other projects as a way to step out of reality, even just for a moment. And, because of that, I often avoid writing about things that are still quite fresh and heavy on my heart: like this post. The one that I knew I would eventually have to write. The one that I know that you guys are looking for.
I suppose this is all to say that this article isn’t meant to be a comprehensive guide to your pet’s behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic. We, like you, are still learning what the ramifications are and how this impacts animal behavior. There are things we may be wrong about. There may be experts who disagree with something here. There are things that we may say later that contradict something written today. That’s okay. Part of the beauty of a learning journey is being vulnerable and honest throughout, and admitting when we’ve learned something that is different to what we used to think. And, I’ll be frank in saying that this will be one of the more candid posts you read from me (as you can already surmise). It’s just plain hard for me to be eloquent and concise at the moment. But, I’m allowing myself some grace in the name of helping pets, and I hope you can do the same. So, without further ado and with no more disclaimers, I bring you Pet Harmony’s take on pet behavior during the 2020 pandemic. Buckle up; it’s a long one.
What we’ve been seeing
Emily and I joke that behavior challenges come in waves. Sometimes it makes sense as to why that happens, like when we suddenly get a burst of leash reactivity cases every spring. Or why we sometimes see a surge of stranger danger cases right after Thanksgiving leading into Christmas. But other times there doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason. Just a few months ago it seemed like the only new cases I was getting were dog and kid cases; but I digress. This pandemic has brought forth a few behavior challenges that we’re getting many requests for, including:
- Reactivity (on leash and behind a barrier)
- Intraspecies aggression with housemates
- General anxiety (especially regressions)
These make a whole lot of sense and, you’ll notice, that these are all anxiety-related behaviors. So why would we expect to see an increase in anxiety-related behaviors right now? A few reasons:
- Change in routine. Individuals with anxiety do quite well with routines; they can help to lessen stress. It’s quite common to see individuals who experience anxiety normally to have regressions in their otherwise improved coping skills when their routine is disrupted. Like, say, when their humans are now home 24/7 and schedules are complete anarchy.
- Less nap time. I have spoken with a number of clients, and my husband, about how pets who don’t get enough sleep can wind up like cranky toddlers, thus increasing agitation, reactivity, and anxiety. Oso had a hard time the first couple of weeks that we were home and I realized it was because he wasn’t napping as much throughout the day (us pesky humans wanting to cuddle him got in the way of that).
- More togetherness. This is along the same vein as routine changes and less nap time. I’m seeing an increase in clients asking for help with their pets suddenly not getting along in the house. Oftentimes, when I learn what their routine was before and after shelter-in-place procedures, I find that the animals are spending a lot more time together than they once did. We all need breaks from our housemates no matter how much we love them; especially when we’re with them 24/7. Many people are acutely feeling that fact right now.
- Everyone and their dog, quite literally, is outside walking. I get it; I also try to get out and walk daily. But for pets who already have reactivity or anxiety from people passing by their house, yard, or while they’re on leash are now experiencing a lot more triggers than normal. And, not only are there more triggers, they’re far less predictable than they used to be. We used to know when the quieter walking times and areas were and people with reactive pets could gauge when and where it was better to walk to avoid stressors. It’s far harder than it used to be to do that.
- Some household triggers are increasing. If triggers outside increasing weren’t enough, there are plenty of pets out there whose fears are coming from inside the house. This can include things like noises, household members moving around or doing certain activities, and, for some of those newly adopted pets, fear of their new humans altogether. More triggers means more stress and more stress often manifests itself in anxiety-related behaviors.
- Our stress adds to their stress. You’ve probably heard this adage before, that when we are stressed our pets become more stressed, too. It can be true! Dogs can even smell our stress hormones so it’s very hard to fake it with them. We’re all stressed right now. That can further lend itself to our pet’s new or exaggerated behaviors.
What we expect to see
We’ve now been in this long enough that it appears the above are primarily where people are currently feeling friction. But what happens when the world resumes to some semblance of normality? There are two concerns that I’ve seen over and again: separation anxiety and puppy development. Let’s briefly explore both.
I’ll confess, I have a pet peeve (well, more than one but this one is relevant to the topic). I’ve seen a lot of articles talking about “Preventing Separation Anxiety” and it frankly gets under my skin. Separation-related disorders are complex and there are several factors that are involved, including genetics and other contributing factors we have no control over. Prevention is not guaranteed and we shouldn’t be talking about it as if it is. Additionally, development of a separation-related problem is also not guaranteed and we shouldn’t be talking about that as if it is, either. We need to strike a balance.
Experts in the field all seem to be speaking right now about their fear of a rise in separation-related disorders when people start leaving for work again. I’d be remiss if I didn’t pay attention to what they’re saying. It’s wholly possible that we will see many more separation-related cases in the future. There is certainly anecdotal evidence of pets having separation-related disorders crop up after their humans start a new job and their hours change.That will happen to some pets soon, unfortunately.
That said, it’s still a complex issue and there are many, many factors involved, some of which scientists are just scratching the surface of (like epigenetics). I expect to see an uptick in these cases in the future, but I’m not concerned about every single pet out there. I am, certainly, concerned about pets who’ve shown inklings toward this in the past and those with general anxiety. If that’s your pet, let’s do something now to address it. If that’s not your pet, let’s keep it in the back of our minds but focus on other things.
Hoo boy there are a lot of new puppies out there! In addition to the wave of cases I’m currently seeing above, I’ve also gotten more requests for puppy sessions than I have in the past several months combined (to be fair, I don’t often get many puppy requests since aggression, reactivity, and anxiety are my passion, but still). The question that’s on everyone’s mind is: how will these puppies who are experiencing their critical socialization period during shelter-in-place behave when they’re older? I’m curious to know the answer, too.
Puppies’ critical socialization period is from about 3-5 to 12-14 weeks. During this time they’re like sponges absorbing information about the world around them: the good, the bad, the familiar, and the dangerous. Learning continues throughout their entire lives, but the socialization window is over far before they reach mental maturity. So what will happen when we are limiting our own exposure to the world, and consequently theirs?
Honestly, I’m not quite sure. I can see it going a lot of different ways. An interesting thing about the critical socialization period is that it’s actually composed of two parts: one where they’re learning how to be a member of their species and the other where they’re learning about the rest of the world. While there’s a huge emphasis on socialization with other dogs in American culture, the truth is that by the time puppies enter our households at 8 weeks old they’re ending the period where they’re learning how to dog and entering the period where they’re learning how to live in a human world. The puppy should’ve already been meeting other dogs before they came to us (within the safety protocols for their health). So is it necessary for puppies to practice their social skills with other dogs after that first half of the socialization period? Absolutely. Is it necessary for them to learn how to keep their cool when seeing other dogs out in the world? Absolutely. Is it necessary for them to interact with a bunch of other dogs while they’re learning how to be in our world? Probably not. But we’ll certainly learn more as these pandemic puppies grow up.
The reason that I’m skeptical as to the claims that this will be terrible for puppy development is two-fold. One: people have more opportunities to interact with their puppies, to build relationships with them, to teach them how to interact with our human world, and to build their confidence and resiliency when they’re home all day with their puppies. Two: most other countries put far less emphasis on dog-dog interactions than the United States does, and they also have lower incidences of reactivity. When we put more of an emphasis on relationships with humans than other dogs, we see a difference in behavior. Maybe this won’t be the worst thing from the lens of dog-dog socialization.
Where I am more concerned is with these dogs having a harder time when folks go back to working in offices and when meeting other people. Specifically, I’m concerned that these puppies won’t learn how to cope with being alone, learn how to entertain themselves, and be properly socialized with people of all sorts of shapes, sizes, ages, genders, and ethnicities. The first is taught early on in day to day life and the latter often happens in puppy classes without the owners realizing it. New puppy owners will need to be more cognizant of working on these things; they are still quite possible to do even with social distancing. We’ll get into that in the next section.
What to work on now
Alright. We’ve spoken about what’s currently happening and what may happen in the future. Let’s talk about what we can do right now for our pets.
- Develop a new routine, including nap time and decompression time from housemates.
- Get window film. Seriously. If I had a dollar for every time a client thanked me for suggesting window film for their reactive pet I would be rich. It’s hard to yell at things out the window when you can’t see them (though, noises are still fair game). [P.S. That’s an affiliate link. We receive a small commission for purchases made through these links at no extra cost to you. This helps us continue to put out free content to help you and your pets live more harmoniously!]
- Tweak your management plan to accommodate new or increasing triggers. What used to work might not work right now and that’s okay. Avoid triggers for now and your behavior consultant can help you modify the behavior later.
- Build calming activities into your day. Things like calming music or background noises, aromatherapy, and massage are often calming to members of all species (but not all individuals!)
- If you haven’t already been dealing with separation-related behaviors, leave your house. Go for a walk without your dog; it will be just as beneficial in the long-run as going on a walk with him. Give him a stuffed Kong, food puzzle, or chewy when you leave so he gets to party while you’re away.
- If you have already seen separation-related behaviors, start (or continue) working with a consultant now. I would also be rich if I had a dollar for every time someone told me, “I tried to do a bunch of suggestions that I found or heard and wish I’d started with a professional sooner.” Gimmicks are just that. They don’t work for every individual. Honest to goodness behavior modification done at a pace that doesn’t elicit anxiety will yield results far more efficiently and effectively than trying a bunch of gimmicks to see if they work. Now is the perfect time to work on separation anxiety with the help of your consultant.
- Work on puppy socialization at home. I love Dr. Yin’s puppy checklist found here. Other great resources include those from Puppy Culture and Puppy Start Right. There are a whole heck of a lot of ways to build confidence and resilience in your puppy right from home.
- Take your puppy out and about and teach them humans and dogs are great at a distance. Your puppy doesn’t need to meet someone to know that they’re alright! Simple things like playing, basic training, and treats falling from the sky can tell your puppy that great stuff happens with you when all those other people and dogs are around. You become more fun and others become less scary. Win-win!
- Focus on enrichment as a way to meet all of your pet’s needs. Building a solid enrichment plan can help with all of the above and more. We can help with this; more info below.
- Just as I mentioned in the beginning of this post, I’m giving myself some grace to not be at my best right now. I invite you to do the same. Focus on just one thing that you can do right now. When that feels manageable, add another if it makes sense to do so.
- When in doubt, increase management. We can modify behavior later. Right now just focus on the behavior not getting worse.
- Reach out to a behavior consultant if you need help developing a management plan and/or if you have the wherewithal to start on a behavior modification plan. Remote sessions are just as effective as in-person sessions with a seasoned consultant!
- Register for our FREE enrichment workshop: 5 Days to a More Effective Enrichment Strategy. We’ll give you tools to create a more effective plan efficiently and without breaking the bank. Register here: http://petharmonytraining.com/freeenrichmentworkshop