COVID-19 has filled our lives with challenges that we haven’t seen in our lifetime. But one of the silver linings of being quarantined at home, as most of us are at this particular time in history, is that for better or for worse, we get to stay home with our dogs. This could be a good thing–or it could be overwhelming. Every dog is different. For my husband and myself, staying home with Annie, Tess, or Lola–three well-socialized, well trained dogs we were lucky enough to share our lives with–would be far different than dealing with our rescue, Vera–the wild, untrained, anxious, reactive German Shepherd described in my novel, “Finding Vera“–twenty-four hours a day.
When I first decided to write a blog post about COVID-19, I decided to write about how the virus interacts with dogs. But since new information is coming out daily about the virus, I will instead include this link to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Social Tools resource on that subject.
When you stay home with your dog:
Realize, right from the start, that there are two beings (at least) involved in the changes that occur when you stay home from work:
- First and foremost, your dog(s), who has had an entire apartment or house to himself five days a week for as long as he can remember, where he can snooze undisturbed for up to ten hours a day, chew on toys, and look out the window or play with his sibling(s).
- Secondly, you (and everyone else who is staying home), who are most likely in a state of stress. Your dog can not only read the level of stress that you’re under by observing your body language and the pitch of your voice, but by using his exquisite sense of smell. Your house will also be louder with kids running amok, conversations, telephone calls, laughter, computers, television, and games etc.
Things to think about:
- Start to integrate structure into your routine right away. This is will tell your dog right from the start what your intentions are so he can go about his day accordingly. By knowing what you will be doing in advance, he won’t be plagued by the anxiety of wondering what his new role is. Dogs love routine and structure in their lives, and setting things up in a way that will work for you both right from the start will benefit everyone. Expect an adjustment period at the beginning while you both adapt to your new lifestyle.
- The old adage “A tired dog is a good dog” rings true. Plan to spend time walking your dog before you start your day. When my husband and I had three dogs, that meant getting up early–at 4:30 AM–to be sure the dogs were tired and exercised before work. Working from home without a commute will give you more time, so get up early and take your dog for a socially-distanced walk before you buckle down in front of your computer. Adjust this walk to the age, energy level, and interests of your dog, being sure it is quality time for each of you. You’ll be more clear-headed and productive after some time outside, and your dog will be more relaxed and ready for a nap.
- Decide where you want your dog to be while you work, and what you want him to be doing. Even if you aren’t actually moving your job home, you might have projects you’re focused on, or creative endeavors that require concentration such as playing an instrument, writing, painting etc. If your dog is mature, he might just need some loving and a chew toy to settle down. However, if you have a puppy or a demanding adolescent, or if your work or project is making him anxious, you might need to set up a quiet, comfortable enclosed area with water, his favorite bed, chew toys, and a stuffed Kong or two.
- Decide how often you will take breaks with your dog. It isn’t fair to expect your dog to be a perfect dog for 8 hours in a row with his favorite companion at home. Nor is it reasonable for you to work for 8 hours without a break. You might decide that you will take a break every two hours. Set your alarm.
- Think about how you’d like to spend break times with your dog. Would another short walk together help to relax you and your dog? Would a wild game of fetch distract you, and help you and your dog laugh together? Would snuggling on the couch or playing “find it” with a few low-fat treats give you the contact you both need to mellow things out after a bathroom/ potty break?
- Dogs who are exercised a lot tend to become more and more fit, requiring more and more exercise to tire them out. However, exercising their brains tires them out in an entirely different way. Ten minutes of training your dog (I call it playing with my dogs), by teaching them a new skill or trick, having them find an object with their noses, or teaching them to be creative, can leave them content and ready to pass more time on their own, plus it relieves you of the guilt you might otherwise feel if you were to ignore your dog.
- Be consistent with your dog. This means that if your dog is being demanding of your attention by nudging your hand or elbow, barking at you, asking to go outside, then asking to come in again repeatedly etc, respond in the same way each time. You know your dog, and can most likely predict what his attention-seeking behaviors will be. Decide how you will respond to them ahead of time and respond exactly the same way the first time every time. Behaviors that are intermittently reinforced will be strengthened and be harder to break. The best way to deal with unwanted behavior is to ignore it. Shouting at or hitting your dog not only gives him attention, but will damage the bond you have build together. For instance, if your dog bumps your elbow for attention don’t ignore it the first four times, then absent-mindedly start petting him the fifth time he does it. You have to stay the course since unwanted behaviors will often get worse before they improve. If you do respond to him, he will be much more likely to continue trying to get you to respond to his nudge one more time.
- Be patient with yourself and your dog. He/she knows it is a difficult time for you and so her behavior could well be more clingy, barky, or unpredictable than usual. Spend short periods of quality time with her through the day, and it will pay off by building an even stronger bond between you.