Joan Merriam: Your dog in the time of COVID
With the slight relaxation of restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are easing uncomfortably toward a new, peculiar normal as we spend a little less time cooped up at home, possibly start back to work or school, or participate in outside activities that have been missing from our calendars since March.
You may be feeling some semblance of relief at these changes … but what about your dogs? How are they adapting to these new patterns, and a suddenly empty house where you’re not around 24/7?
While the COVID crisis has turned our lives upside down and inside out and cost far too many people their health and even their lives, our pets have been reveling in the unexpected delight of having their human parents hanging around with them so much. But now that you’re heading out again? Not so much.
Dogs aren’t huge fans of change, which is one reason why experts advise you stick to the same routine of feeding, exercising, sleeping, and so forth if you move somewhere new or even go on vacation. When their fixed daily routines shift drastically, dogs tend to feel anxious and confused. For instance, when you stopped heading out to work or school or whatever every day, your dog was probably initially excited, but later may have become a little unsettled. Not only had his calm and peaceful world turned chaotic with kids underfoot, constant phone calls, and you with your face stuck in a computer, but he likely also picked up on your own stress and uncertainty, which bewildered him even more.
If your pup was social, frequently visiting dog parks or meeting with friends for “doggy dates” or even attending doggy day care, after COVID all that suddenly and inexplicably ended. At the same time, you may have been corralling him into more frequent or longer walks just to relieve your own boredom.
And now he has to adapt to the fact that you’re not around as much, that you’re heading out to work or running errands or to social events more often, leaving him alone to try and figure out what’s going on and whether he did something wrong to precipitate the sudden abandonment.
All this can take a toll on a dog’s emotions.
It can also lead to never-before-seen behavior problems like separation anxiety. Many dogs struggle with isolation, and your sudden disappearance after months of togetherness can create fear and uncertainty: Will my human ever come home again? Will she leave me alone forever?
Being alone can create fear for your dog, not unlike how I’d feel if I were trapped in a room full of tarantulas. (I’m not really afraid of spiders, but all bets are off when it comes to hairy arachnids the size of a small child.)
Your dog remembers the pre-COVID days when every time your keys jingled or you picked up your purse or briefcase, you’d be leaving them alone. That provokes fright, which is at the heart of separation anxiety. We know the signs: they whine and whimper, they slink to their beds, they bark or howl or piddle on the floor, and sometimes they even chew the door, the walls, the floor, the furniture.
So what can you do to help ease this transition to being alone again? Try some classic desensitization ploys: does your dog start whining or cringing when you pick up those keys? Then pick them up, hold them in your hand for a second or to, then set them down. Does he start to come apart when you reach for the doorknob? Try just walking to the door, then walking back and sitting down. Is he OK when the door is partway open, but not all the way? Practice opening it halfway then closing it, until your dog doesn’t even look up when you approach the door. Then you can move on to actually going out the door, waiting a couple of seconds, then coming back inside. Increase the time you’re out of sight until he gets the idea that you will be back, no matter how long you’re gone.
None of us knows what the future holds in terms of this pandemic, or how long it will be before we return to whatever “normal” is. In the meantime, you can work to make this time of transition — and any that lie ahead — easier for your dog by adding structure to his days, being patient, and taking time to reassure him that somehow, his world will be OK.
Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County with her Golden Retriever Joey, her Maine Coon cat Indy, and the abiding spirit of her beloved Golden Retriever Casey in whose memory this column is named. You can reach Joan at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you’re looking for a Golden, be sure to check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue .
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