Dog days of the pandemic
Canines are also feeling the stress of COVID-19, but proper training can stem problematic behaviors, trainers say
By Brad Spiegel via the Granite State News Collaborative
It has been a difficult seven months since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
With schedules and routines changing, much less socialization, and kids and parents first learning and working remotely and then heading back to school and work, homes are in a constant state of flux.
Those are issues humans have had to deal with for more than half of a year, but the dogs in the house are also feeling the effects of the new normal, trainers say. And just like humans, man’s best friend is having a difficult time adjusting.
“There is a lot of anxiety in general in a house with kids home (more), change[s] in structure and routine, as well as the human level of stress due to the pandemic … and we’ve seen some of that feed down into our dogs’ behavior,” said Sarah Teffner, owner of Paws 4 Training in Cornish. “It makes sense since dogs are creatures of habit and now their lives are out of whack.”
Some of the things turning dogs’ worlds upside down include changes in sleep schedules, less — if any — socialization with other dogs and humans due to social distancing, being unable to decipher facial expressions with everyone wearing masks, and separation anxiety, trainers say.
“It can be really frustrating when your dog’s behavior suddenly changes,” said Louise Daigle, who, with Jake Belmont, owns Red Pointy Dog Training in Strafford. “Dogs are not giving you a hard time. They are having a hard time. It is OK to have a dog that is struggling. Not everyone has a perfect, well-behaved dog.”
Christi Green has a 3 ½-year-old Samoyed named Finnegan. She was let go from her job just before the pandemic hit. So prior to the middle of March, Green and Finnegan had plenty of time to go on long hikes, spend time at home and generally be together all of the time, especially since Green is single without children.
Green, who lives in Barrington, went back to work full-time in July. Around that time she started to see different behavior from her fluffy, white roommate.
“I noticed he was being more reactive to every single dog in the neighborhood,” Green said. She lives on a cul de sac where 20 of the 24 houses have dogs. When they talked, Finnegan would bark or lunge at every dog and person they passed by.
“It was tough because that was not the kind of dog I was raising or training,” Green said. “And I do a lot of training with him.”
Green went to Red Pointy Dog when she first got Finnegan. She knew another visit was in order when the latest issue arose.
“I was all in because he was out of control,” Green said.
Green learned that her dog wasn’t the only one having reactivity issues – when a dog reacts to another dog, person or object. Daigle and Treffner have both seen a big rise in reactivity cases. Dee Ganley of Dee Ganley Dog Training Services in Andover, who has been in the business for more than 35 years, said that reactivity is something she works on constantly.
“There is always a lot of reactivity on leashes when walking your pets because they aren’t able to say ‘hi’ to other dogs,” she said.
One method all three swear by is “Look at That!” training. Simply put, the owner needs to notice something that might trigger the dog before the dog reacts; they then say “look at that” and toss a treat in the other direction. It diverts the attention from what is causing the dog to react negatively, and instead turns attention to the treat and encourages the dog to react to the command.
Green did a Zoom consultation with Red Pointy Dog and learned the strategy. She said that it works well, but Finnegan needs constant reinforcement.
“Samoyeds are smart dogs but are willful and stubborn,” she said. “If you give him an inch he’ll take 14 miles.”
Treffner explained that reactivity can happen with any kind of dog in many situations.
“There are so many factors that go into reactivity,” she said. “People are home more, so dogs that have not previously walked a lot are now being walked. Things are now new to them and maybe they don’t have the skills to do that and it increases reactivity.”
Daigle and Red Pointy Dog started offering webinars and Zoom meetings in order to meet the demand of reactive dogs.
“We have absolutely seen more calls about reactive dogs,” said Daigle. “There’s never a shortage of reactive dogs for us to work with, but during the pandemic the number of clients with reactive dogs has been sky high. I don’t have time to work with all of them.”
All three trainers stressed to those seeing reactive tendencies in their dogs to make sure they don’t punish or yell, since that will make the issue worse.
“What you need to do is change their emotional state, because they are really excited or uncomfortable,” said Daigle. “Help the dog focus on you and feel better about seeing another dog. The big thing to do is teach them to ignore.”
Another popular call trainers have been receiving is requesting work with puppies. It appears having more time at home has sparked individuals to get new furry family members. Still, just because people are spending less time commuting doesn’t mean that the pandemic is an ideal time to get a puppy.
“There is good and bad about getting a new dog now,” Teffner said. “Everyone’s life is in upheaval. It’s great that owners are home and can put time into training and bonding. You are here now but soon could be gone. There are definitely challenges when getting a dog at this time because there is so much unknown in the world.”
Daigle noted that while these times are difficult for people and pets, issues can be overcome.
“You get what you put in,” she said. “I think of one of the inspirational quotes I go by, ‘dreams don’t work unless you do.’ If you want (your dog) to behave better, then you have to do something about it. You are the coach.”
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information, go to collaborativenh.org.