This informal CPD article on Managing change for our dogs in our changed world was provided by The International School for Canine Psychology & Behaviour (ISCP), a specialist teacher in canine psychology and behaviour from beginner to professional level using positive, reward-based methods.
The restrictions placed on all of us by the COVID-19 pandemic have affected our dogs, too. There are numerous studies and anecdotal evidence from dog guardians that tell us some dogs are sufficiently resilient to manage change. For example, companion dogs who live with education staff learn to manage and adapt to the difference between term time and holidays. Our clocks change bi-annually, and dogs can quickly adapt to daylight saving changes.
However, as with some people, some dogs struggle with change and find themselves stressed and anxious at the slightest change to their routine. Some dogs will already experience separation related distress – an upsetting situation for both dog and guardian. It can take a huge amount of work to improve the situation, and guardians need to be dedicated to managing and improving things for their dog. There is no quick fix.
Separation distress is often just a label for the anxiety experienced by a dog when left alone. There may be underlying issues such as noise phobia, underlying pain, or canine cognitive disorder, which also need to be investigated, rather than just applying a label to the issue. Canine behaviourists have seen a varied response to lockdown in dogs, ranging from too much exercise, over-arousal, and lack of sleep, to over attachment issues developing. Dogs who usually have one walk per day may have suddenly found themselves with more time for walks and exciting play. That might sound wonderful to us but, for dogs who usually spend some of the day home alone, the lack of opportunity to rest can be difficult in a busy household. Dogs need sufficient sleep, so their bodies have a chance to rest and recover – just like humans.
But what about those dogs who grow used to having us home, available to them for extended periods? When we return to work, we often do not consider how this may feel to our dogs. There is a great deal of evidence for bonds between people and animals throughout the ages, and the benefits of the human-animal bond are well documented. Dogs are sentient beings and science has shown us that they experience emotions in the same areas of the brain and in similar ways to how a human experiences emotion. Change needs to be carefully managed, and lots of opportunities for environmental enrichment should be provided.
While you are still home, you could practice going out and coming in for brief moments, starting with seconds rather than minutes. Dogs pay a great deal of attention to our movements and gestures, too, so you could try picking up keys and sitting down, putting on a coat and then making a cup of tea. We need to change the association between all the things that tell our dogs we are leaving. This will help prevent anxiety starting long before we leave the house.
We know that scent work can help dogs relax and can help remove some of the stress that has built up in their bodies. Laying simple treat trails or hiding toys can help engage a dog’s olfactory senses. Sniffing is a natural behaviour for dogs. Dogs have 60 times more olfactory receptor cells in their noses than in a human’s nose; they experience their world through their noses, and we cannot fully appreciate the richness of the information it provides to our dogs. Using simple household items such as cardboard rolls and boxes, utensil holders and muffin trays you can hide tiny pieces of food for them to find.
Let’s help our dogs by carefully managing change during this time in which many of us are also finding this challenging.
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