Snap your dog back to reality after the pandemic

Snap your dog back to reality after the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is a unique situation for everyone, causing considerable confusion in the lives of both people and their pets. The existing order of things has been dramatically changed. Most people started to work at home, which had its positive implications, i.e. no need to waste time on commuting and more time for the family and… pets. Our pets certainly enjoyed being close to us at that time. However, can this change in their rituals have a negative impact on their behaviour?

Dogs love to have their rituals. It was quite easy for them to switch from the situation in which they were alone for hours, as their carers were at work, to the situation in which they could be constantly caressed and have steady contact with their beloved owners. However, once we go back to mobility, we will have to part with our pets again, e.g. for the duration of our stay at work. This may be a very difficult time for dogs.

What problems can we face?

Dogs which are very attached to their owners and tend to follow them constantly, may develop the so-called separation anxiety. This is a complex problem caused by a number of factors. The factors can occur both individually and in various combinations. For the sake of full transparency, we define separation anxiety as a state based on the emotional system resulting from the loss of contact with who the dog feels safe. The dog feels scared of being away from the group, e.g. its owner or another animal companion. In gregarious and social animals, separation from the group can cause a very strong emotional response resulting in the release of cortisol (stress hormone). In short, the release and synthesis of catecholamines, GABA, glutamic acid and serotonin is disturbed. This may also result in absorption disorders, diarrhoea, and mucosal inflammation. Moreover, behavioural changes, such as apathy, biting and licking body parts or hair, pointless movements or even self-aggression, may occur.

Your dog may also experience other problems, not resulting from the classic separation anxiety, such as boredom, frustration, lack of activity or too much activity, and simply the stress of being left alone.

These anxiety states may have internal causes (hormonal imbalance, genetic predisposition) and external causes (sudden changes in rituals and changes in everyday life.

The most common symptoms accompanying the separation problems include:

  1. Destruction – may occur in dogs which do not have enough physical and mental activity. Dogs often bite objects with a specific texture, from specific materials they prefer, or show too much attachment to their owner, try to get out of the room in pursuit of their carer and, characteristically destroy doors and windows.
  2. Vocalisation e.g. barking, whining, squealing and howling, is usually caused by external stimuli and social interactions.
  3. Environmental contamination, e.g. urinating or defecating in the house – if other factors, such as medical problems, dog’s lack of awareness of the need to keep things tidy and age-related imbalance, can be excluded, the reason for that can be attributed to stress and fear.
  4. Compulsive behaviour – in some cases, excessive and persistent licking, biting, wriggling may occur. This includes any activities the dog does not want to interrupt or immediately goes back to after interrupting.
  5. Aggressive behaviour – occurs occasionally; a dog is aggressive, sometimes even bites and grabs things with its teeth, trying to prevent its carers from leaving the house.
  6. Self-injurious behaviour – licking or biting oneself.

To precisely identify the cause of the problem, it is a good idea to record your dog’s behaviour while you are absent. Based on the recordings, the behaviouralist can determine whether your dog’s behaviour is due to anxiety, fear, or frustration, or simply it does it to kill boredom.

What should you do to avoid these problems?

Before you return to your regular work away from your dog, take preventive measures to avoid future problems resulting from leaving it alone.

Remember that leaving your dog suddenly and being away for hours can be a traumatic experience for it. Before you return to work, observe the following rules:

  1. Make sure that your dog does not follow you everywhere. Make sure that it does not follow you when you enter another room, e.g. bathroom. Close the door behind you.
  2. At the beginning, leave your dog home for a short time, and then preferably extend the time gradually.
  3. Let your dog remember what you do when you leave home (e.g. touching the keys, putting on and taking off the jacket, etc.) and sensitise it to these activities.
  4. Before leaving, give your dog something to play, e.g. interactive toys filled with food. Remember to check how your dog plays with the toy first to ensure that it is safe. Not every toy is appropriate for every dog! For more on this, see the advice “Interactive Feeding
  5. Before leaving, take a quiet walk with your dog. It is not a good idea to let your dog “run around” just before leaving. A very long and active walk may tire your dog physically, but not mentally. Your dog will keep feeling strong emotions and will try to release them shortly after going back to normal state. Also note that your dog is provided will another stimulus as it feels great after a fantastic walk with its owner. As a result, your dog is likely to feel even more attached to you and experience even greater feeling of loss once you leave it home alone. There is no one to play with, there is no activity, there is no carer. The dog is too excited. The reward system (dopamine) is activated and the dog tries to find further stimuli to satisfy its needs. It is likely to snoop around the house, look for things to bite, pull out clothes or rubbish, etc. Alternatively, the panic system will activate.
  6. Also remember not to be effusive when you say goodbye to your dog. Dogs do not find it natural, unlike greetings. Busy your dog with something so that it knows that your leaving does not mean anything bad.
  7. Teach your dog to stay calm when you are away and ensure that it can relax. You can use outdoor scent games, e.g. looking for hidden treats during walk, or various indoor scent games. This includes snuffle mats, basics of nosework, logical toys or even classical chew toys.
  8. Some dogs may find it easy to calm down in a kennel cage. However, you will have to prepare your dog for this experience first, which is not an easy task. In addition, in the long run, your dog may find it tiring and uncomfortable.
  9. Use appeasing pheromones. They are fully safe and should be used 2–3 weeks before a potentially stressful situation. They help your dog calm down and relax.
  10. Dietary supplements rich in tryptophan, which is a precursor of serotonin, perfectly support the ongoing therapy or prepare your dog for a potentially stressful situation.

The primary aim is to prevent potential behavioural disorders. Since you know that the coronavirus pandemic has strong impact on the psyche of both humans and, indirectly, animals, plan your next steps in advance. Remember that dogs have a very strong bond with their carers, which is even strengthened during a long time spent together. This beautiful relationship may turn into the lack of a sense of security combined with solitude. Take measures to prepare your dog to be home alone.

dr Agata Kokocińska-Kusiak, Piotr Kleszczyński
Ethoplanet Etologiczne Centrum Szkoleniowo-Doradcze
Warsaw University of Life Sciences

10 July 2020