We are twenty five days into the lockdown in South Africa. If you're in another country it may be day ten, or day fifty three, and you may be confined to your home or on some sort of loose lockdown arrangement. What's going on? Nobody really knows. From the evening serenade of the World Health Organization panel of doctors to 5G, to the lab in Wuhan to the great 'Murican “hoax”. All we truly know is that more than two billion of the world's population is currently under some sort of lockdown and as the days go by our levels of stress increase. Financial stress, the stress of simply not knowing, the stress of being peer-police or being affected – directly or indirectly - by peer-police. Whichever way you look at it, nothing is the same as it was, the same as we know it to be and are comfortable with it being.
Many trainers and canine professionals have used the time to make available free or paid-for content dealing with all sorts of things from training your dog to ways to mitigate potential separation anxiety. Without any interventions at all, your entire routine and regimen with your pets has changed.
We can train and condition for a heap of things but we couldn't train for a pandemic that would see owners trapped in their own homes 24/7. The good news is that you have plenty of time to restore the routine to pre-lockdown parameters and in doing so, save your pets and yourself from lockdown fallout.
We must consider things holistically, and take a look at the world from our dogs' perspective.
The number one thing we need to look at is environment. With social distancing comes a more sterile environment. According to our pets' senses and instincts, their world has mostly changed for the better.
Visual and auditory stimuli has been reduced. There's been no shadows or movement past the gate. Fewer cars driving past. Reduced doorbells. No bicycles. Less wheelie bins. Less environmental noise that pets can hear but not see. Less vacuums, less hooting, less of everything.
There's been the addition of white noise – music, TV, the hum of the fridge compressor kicking in as the door gets opened thirty times a day. These sounds have become the backing track of isolation.
Our own bodies have added something to the environment. Our sweat has contributed pheromones which are providing olfactory stimuli. Whether isolating alone at home or with a partner or other family members, “home” smells different to the pets; we smell different to the pets, and that change in smell gives rise to all sorts of behaviours that may not have manifested before. These behaviours may be favourable or not.
From a tactile perspective, life has been fantastic for the dogs. Permanent access to the inside of the home no matter the time or the weather – comfort levels on fleek!
Emotionally, there's nothing better for the dog than the human home 24/7. We are literally giving the dog everything it evolved to need in its ten thousand plus years of evolution.
The only thing we have not been able to give is a walk outside the home. This is not as important for everyone as one may think, as some people do not walk their dogs, and some dogs do not need to be walked. For dogs used to going for their walks, this would have been a confusing time, but has undoubtedly been mitigated by another activity by the conscientious dog owner.
What level of involvement in your dog's well-being during this time makes you a conscientious and woke dog owner? It really depends on the dog. Some dogs will have excelled at training and activities, others will have done fine with no additional human input whatsoever and some will have reaped huge benefits from learning to rest and relax in the presence of their owner; learning that owner presence does not warrant demand behaviours for exercise, food, affection or play.
If you have trained hard during this time, ensure that you bring your training back to a sustainable level; one that can be maintained when you return to the grind. The same applies to any sort of activities you have done with your dog, be it a new eating routine, games you've played or anything else that your dog has come to expect.
The real biggy though, is separation anxiety, and whether you are the custodian of a dog that did or did not show signs of it pre-lockdown, you need to keep reading.
Who are the prime candidates for separation-related challenges? This October 2014 study isolates a few characteristics as being more likely to result in separation behaviours being exhibited: dogs with female owners, male dogs, dogs who engage in phobic or compulsive behaviours, dogs acquired from a shelter or pet shop, dogs with a higher level of human attachment (example: following owners to the toilet), dogs who exhibit aggressive behaviour towards the owners or visitors, dogs with skin conditions. When considering these characteristics one can quickly see that anxious dogs are more likely to suffer from separation challenges.
However, a March 2020 study provides us with confirmation into what behaviourists and other canine professionals have always known. “The team, led by scientists from the University of Lincoln, UK, identified four main forms of distress for dogs when separated from their owners. These include a focus on getting away from something in the house, wanting to get to something outside, reacting to external noises or events, and a form of boredom.”
Separation anxiety is not a diagnosis in itself. Their destructive or other behaviour is an external manifestation of their anxiety and we need to get to the bottom of that before we can help the dog.
It is during this time of lockdown that we are feeding the anxiety wolf in our dogs, and the wolf is eating voraciously. The wolf is devouring our own emotions - our fear, our trepidation, our uncertainty. All the while we are projecting this onto our dogs in various ways. We are giving them more affection and acknowledgement simply because they are near. We are reaching out to touch them because the action of loving on them is scientifically proven to reduce our own stress and anxiety. We are feeding them more, outside of routine, giving more treats and doing all sorts of things that we typically wouldn't be doing on a normal day. We are training them and creating a stronger bond with them. We are making them more reliant on us. Each time we do these things, we increase the human attachment and one day the dog who never used to follow us to the bathroom, starts following.
Separation behaviour does not have to be a lifelong “condition”. Getting a handle of the root of the dog's anxiety and managing it, is where we humans have an enormously important role to play and it starts with acknowledging that there is a high likelihood of our dogs being negatively affected by our return to normal life. It is known that pre-empting and preventing behaviour from becoming a pattern is infinitely easier than counter-conditioning established behaviour.
Pre-lockdown there was a move to foster a shelter pet for the lockdown period. Plenty of animals were pulled from shelters and placed into homes. Some pets have thrived; for others it has been very difficult. There is a huge amount of joy about all of the confirmed foster failures. Yet anyone involved in welfare will tell you that these levels of foster failures are disproportionate, and there is work to be done before the happily ever after can be celebrated. No doubt these shelter animals are tremendously content and loved enormously, but they have been brought into a fantasy world.
One day in the very near future we will wake up and we will compute what is going on on a human level, one that makes sense. We are the brains of the human/dog operation and it is up to us to have it all make sense for them.
Ensure that your dog's routines revert to sustainable inputs and outputs now, so that your dog is prepared for you to leave for a reasonable amount of time under normal circumstances. Your dog cannot go cold turkey on the input front from one day to the next.
If you are the custodian of an immediately-before-lockdown fostered or adopted pet, start teaching them today about the real world. If your plan is to return them to the shelter, please think long and hard about it. A shelter return was always going to be stressful but the level of stress will increase a hundredfold going from this muted fantasy world to the shelter.
Have a read through this article from Friends of the Dog, dealing with separation anxiety. There are other articles on the website dealing with brain games and the like. A good focus point for now is having your dog learn to do something on its own; something that doesn't require your presence nor proximity and in doing so gives the apron strings a snip.
And may we never forget the companionship that our pets have unselfishly given us during this time.
- Robyn Eshelby-Theart Founder Farm Girls Doggy and Kitty Daycare, Boarding and Behaviour