Pets: How is your dog handling the pandemic?

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By Kim Gilliam

Have you noticed a change in your dog’s behavior in recent weeks? They can feel stress and anxiety just like we do, so the many changes to your daily routine during the pandemic may certainly have had an impact on them.

Vets report increased incidents of dogs getting into things they shouldn’t – counter surfing, tearing into the trash and other destructive behaviors. Plus, there has been a rise in depressive behavior, such as lack of sleep or appetite, difficulty settling and, in some cases, increased reactivity or aggression, even towards members of the household with whom they normally coexist peacefully.

This all makes sense: The average living space is more hectic than normal due to people working from home, taking classes online and not going out as often. While your dog may enjoy the extra time and attention, they may also want their space and miss their normal routines. Social distancing may also have impacted their regular social outlets such as trips to doggy day care or the dog park.

So, what can you do to help?

Maintain your pet’s typical routine as much as possible, such as feeding them the same time each day and taking long walks before and after work, as you do when you head to the office each day. Keep an eye on how your own emotional state might be affecting them. Do your best to stay calm during these trying times.

Give your pet some dedicated alone time, at least an hour a day. This will help alleviate separation anxiety when it’s time to return to the office or school. Use puzzle toys and get outside for some mental stimulation. You can hike local trails or set up agility obstacles in your back yard.

If your dog is exhibiting symptoms of extreme stress, like aggressive behavior, talk with your vet or obedience trainer about how best to address this.

While I am sure you can’t wait until the quarantine comes to an end so that things can return to normal, that may present its own challenges. Canine experts say that lifting shelter-in-place restrictions could conversely cause “extreme separation anxiety” in the millions of dogs who’ve grown accustomed to their owners’ constant companionship during lockdown.

Some dogs will have built up an over-dependency on their human companions during all this together time. Let’s face it, dogs just do not do well with change. Be prepared to work with your dog through any separation anxiety, which may be exhibited by accidents inside, incessant barking, chewing or escape behavior.

Separation anxiety isn’t just psychologically damaging, it can result in self-injury if left unchecked, so it needs to be addressed. Dog experts advise acclimating your dog to separation prior to the end of lockdown. Allow them to have time and space separate from you.

Think of it as a gradual process, using small absences to teach the dog that absences are safe. Engaging in enrichment activities now, such as crate training, interactive toys, scent games and more, will also help, so your dog can rely on these for mental distraction during your absence. Dog-appeasing pheromones, white noise machines and anxiety medications may also help.

Just remember to be patient. This time of uncertainty and being in flux is hard on pets, too.

The writer co-owns Frolick Dogs, an indoor dog gym in Alexandria, with her husband, Kevin Gilliam.

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