Leonie St Clair writes Pets Corner for SE Magazines. Read her latest article here:
As I write this it is difficult to know for how much longer lockdown is to continue. A phased return to the workplace in June could still leave significant numbers facing isolation, although it is hoped that by high summer there may be some respite, if only until the autumn.
In terms of the impact of the pandemic on pet owners, there has been plenty of online information. From the government and other reputable sources about managing pets as well as the important fact that pets can carry the virus on their fur and paws, making regular hand washing after contact with your pet a must. Fortunately, dog walking has been viewed as essential exercise and many will have benefitted from this, not least the dogs. However, peering into the future, two possible consequences of lockdown are of particular concern for behaviourists. The first is in igniting or augmenting separation issues in dogs, the second is the impact on socialisation of pups reaching key developmental windows just as lockdown started.
Some dogs are more prone to separation
It is not clear why some dogs are more prone to separation issues than are others. Please note, I use the qualifier ‘issue’ rather than ‘anxiety’. It is now thought that many separation problems can be the result of frustration and lack of separation training in puppyhood, rather than necessarily an anxiety disorder or some other pathology- although these clearly exist too.
What we do know is that even dogs who have learned to cope with being left for hours at a time can quickly sensitise to separation again if the family/owners suddenly start to stay at home for extended periods. This is a common occurrence at Christmas time when having enjoyed constant companionship for a few weeks the dog ‘objects’ to his owners returning to work. At such times owners can make the mistake of assuming that because the dog copes with sleeping downstairs alone at night, it knows and understands how to be alone.
The dog needs to hear the front door shut
For those continuing with varying degrees of isolation the best advice is to ensure your dog has ‘alone’ time, even if you are in the house with them. Go ahead and put them in another room, shut the door and limit access to the rest of the family. Make sure some of the alone time involves you leaving the house altogether; when you go for essential shopping is one opportunity but do vary the times of day if you can.
The dog needs to hear that front door shut and other family members should also go into another room and separate from the dog. If your dog has a meltdown then don’t panic but you will have to revisit basic separation training and build up again. Trainers and behaviourists will be happy to help if you get stuck. Fortunately, separation training lends itself to consultation by remote.
For puppy owners who got caught up in lockdown as soon as their 8- week old pup arrived you will be aware of the challenges that face you in terms of socialisation. However, try not to worry. Although not ideal, there is good research to indicate that pups of a sound underlying temperament can still recover from lack of socialisation, even if they were brought up in a shed! This is not to say you will not have to work much harder, just that all is not lost. However, please research what you need to do and ask for help from trainers and behaviourists.
This article was first published in the May issue of SE22.