Lockdown life continues for the foreseeable future, and we are all feeling the challenges of restricted living. As we have adapted and found ways to manage, how might our 9 million+ pet dogs in the UK be coping? Lintbells have teamed up with animal behaviourist and PhD researcher of clinical dog behaviour, Helena Hale, to discuss how owners can support their dogs’ behavioural and emotional needs in unusual times.
1. Keep a regular routine
Dogs use information from their environment, including from our human behaviour, to predict what is going to happen next. Many dogs thrive on routine, especially in homes with regular patterns of activity. Change can be stressful, so if your daily life is now very different, consider ways that you can still fulfil your dog’s needs with few changes for them, whether that’s dinner time, play time, a time when they take themselves off to relax, going out for walkies or a quick comfort break, doing some training exercises, snuggling up for chill out time with you, or bed time.Top tip: keeping your dog’s daily routines similar to life before lockdown and meeting their needs at the times of day they are used to will not only support them now, but it will also help you and your dog make an easier transition when lockdown life ends.
2. Take safe walks
Whilst meeting up for social dog walks or driving a great distance to reach your favourite spot are not possible, it’s still important to fulfil your dog’s need for mental stimulation and physical exercise.
- Go to your regular location for walks to keep things normal for your dog, if this doesn’t break social-distancing or lockdown rules.
- Stick to the usual time of day for your dog’s exercise to maintain a routine.
- Keep your dog on-lead for safety and social distancing.
- Do not over-walk your dog! Consider their limits and exercise your dog only as much as usual.
- Make your walks as stimulating as possible, by taking along your dog’s favourite toy to play with or treats to play ‘find it’ games!
- It’s OK to drive to walk your dog* (*England only – please keep updated with UK Government rules)
- If lockdown means your dog cannot have as much exercise as usual, consider alternative activities below
3. Alternatives activities
In place of additional walks, other activities can help keep your dog active and mentally stimulated:
- Play ‘find-it’ games: hide treats (or part of your dog’s daily food allowance) around your house or garden and ask your dog to find them! Dogs have an incredible sense of smell and this simple game is really enriching.
- Short play sessions using your dog’s favourite toys and games will give them chance to fulfil physical and mental needs.
- Try this agility game with your dog if you have a garden – click here to find out more
- Do training exercises: give your dog a treat, lots of praise, or their favourite toy as a reward! Training uses a lot of brain power so is enriching but tiring - short and sweet sessions (5-minutes) will keep your dog engaged.
- Remember your dog’s individual needs – activities are important but so is down-time so don’t ask your dog to do too much.
4. Make meals last longer
For most dogs, dinnertime is a favourite time of day, but it’s over so quickly! Extend the experience for your dog and make it more enriching by feeding in a maze bowl or puzzle feeder.Top tips:
- Remember not to over-feed, even if your dog asks for extra food.
- Treats are fine, in moderation!
- If using puzzle toys, make sure your dog can do them –they can cause frustration or lack of interest if your dog cannot access the food.
5. Allow your dog time to settle by themselves
Dogs are social animals, so most will be happy to have us around 24/7. However, for many dogs this will be a big change, especially if you have children and the house is much busier. It’s important that your dog has the opportunity to relax and rest and doesn’t come to rely on you being around all the time!*
- Ensure your dog has unrestricted access to places where they like to relax and sleep.
- If you have children, ask them not to disturb your dog while they are resting and make sure your dog can leave of their own accord if they wish.
- If your dog doesn’t already have a favourite place to relax, or it’s in a place where your family are now, try creating a space that is just for them – make it quiet and associate it with their favourite toys and treats so they enjoy being there.
- Don’t invite your dog to join you in everything you do to ensure they’ll be comfortable when you aren’t around.
* If you think your dog experiences separation anxiety, you should ask your vet to refer you to a Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist for professional advice and treatment. We will be releasing another article that covers preparing your dog for life after lockdown with a focus on separation anxiety – what it is, how to recognise it and how to help prevent it or support dogs who have it – later this month.
6. How does your dog feel?
We encourage owners to notice their dog’s behaviour and how they might be feeling to help maintain happy, healthy relationships during lockdown and beyond. Just like people, dogs are unique individuals and sadly, we know that up to 80% of dogs in the UK feel fearful or anxious towards experiences in daily life. Untreated, fear and anxiety can compromise pet wellbeing and cause behaviour problems that are difficult for owners to live with. It is often the case that fearful or anxious behavioural responses go unrecognised or are misunderstood.
Common fears in dogs include:
- unfamiliar people
- other dogs
- specific / loud noises
- anxiety when left alone
- visits to the vets
- new experiences
Recognising the signs: the three ‘A’s
Dogs have 3 options for response towards a perceived or anticipated threat: Avoidance, Appeasement or Aggression. They often use a mixture of responses, depending on the context and whether their behaviour has worked to remove or stop a similar situation in the past. Behaviour can become more aggressive if less obvious signals of discomfort have been ignored.
What do these responses look like?
AVOIDANCE: looking or moving away; keeping weight back over the hind legs, ready to flee.
APPEASEMENT: (to show they mean no harm) cowering or low posture to appear smaller; lip licking; narrowed or almost closed eyes; tucked-under tail; ears flattened against head; revealing front teeth ‘appeasement grin’; roll on back, exposing belly.
AGGRESSION: barking; lunging; raised hackles; stiff, raised tail; forwards posture; growling, snapping or biting.
- Other signs of emotional distress include: Howling and whining; excessive panting; salivation; refusing food; yawning; attention-seeking; restlessness; inappropriate toileting; shivering or shaking; destructive behaviour.
- During lockdown, some fearful dogs might be more relaxed because they are being exposed to situations they are frightened or anxious about less, whereas others might experience the opposite. Either way, it is important not to ignore the problem and hope it goes away, as an untreated fear usually worsens.
- Dogs misunderstood: There is no evidence to suggest that dogs can act to spite us or feel guilt, and yet the behaviours they use to express fear or anxiety are often mis-labelled as ‘naughty’ or ‘guilty’.
- Avoid situations that cause your dog distress – repeated exposure can cause your dog’s fear to deepen.
- Be calm and kind: If your dog is being restless, destructive, has accidents in the house, growls, barks or bites, for example – don’t punish them as this can deepen their negative emotional response – instead, stay calm, kind and seek professional help.
- Ask for help: Your Vet can check there are no medical problems underlying the behaviour, before referring you to a Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist who will fully diagnose the problem and provide a bespoke behaviour treatment plan to support you in changing how your dog feels.
- How to find a Certificated behaviourist: