Covid19: What are Dogs Telling us by Saying Nothing at all?

Here at the Animals in Society blog we’ve been thinking a lot lately about how the current pandemic affects other animals, and how we might want to include their needs in a post-pandemic world. The pandemic and our response to it has affected many different species, such as those blamed for its spread (with conflicting evidence), those caught up in the fallout from potential cures, those used in labs to test potential cures, and those abandoned or handed over to shelters due to fear they are a potential contaminant. For a great resource on the impacts on other animals see here.

We discussed a different aspect of our relations with other animals in this pandemic life today after one of us on our daily dog walk noticed the almost complete lack of dog barking in her neighbourhood. This is highly unusual as she lives in a suburban area where seemingly every other house has a resident dog. Aotearoa statistics bear this out more or less with 58% of homes having at least one resident companion animal, and around 35% of people in our area of Canterbury living with a dog.

This got us thinking – and therefore researching – dog barking and loneliness. Our initial searches demonstrated just how anthropocentric we really are. The results from dogs + loneliness search in google scholar brought up articles solely focussed on how dogs can help assuage loneliness in humans. We had to dig much deeper to find research on the impacts of loneliness on dogs. Part of this involved a search using the term ‘separation anxiety’ but again, our anthropocentrism was in evidence: most of the papers discussed how we might measure and identify separation anxiety along with a focus on how we might manage it. But while many had a focus on helping the dogs, in among the ‘cures’ that included the use of drugs such as oxytocin and tricyclic antidepressants, and the use of gadgets designed to prevent destructive behaviour, hardly any considered whether dogs simply just needed their humans at home with them more. Similarly, many of the articles considered separation anxiety/loneliness to be troublesome due to the problems it generated for humans: dogs being destructive, barking too much, soiling indoors and so on.

Emphasis has always been heavily placed on fixing “problematic” behaviour without considering the social contingencies required for our dogs’ emotional wellness. In her dog behaviour practice Erin frequently addresses queries asking if letting a dog “cry it out” when they’re upset and left alone for the first time is the best option. Or, whether there is a better kennel to prevent destructive behaviour. Such ideas turn on simply containing and controlling the manifestation of loneliness/ separation or isolation distress (and even boredom) rather than addressing coping strategies, or much better yet, adjusting how we live and interact with our dogs. This includes the amount of time we are spending with them. This “fix-the-bark” frame of thinking is problematic and curtails the most important issue: Dogs are social animals and we consistently leave them alone for long periods of time. Even more specifically, dogs have been selected for their social prowess with humans in a way unlike any other species. Perhaps our current imposed isolation (in Aotearoa at least) will allow us to better empathise with the emotional toll isolation has on our dogs. Even those humans who have contact with family during this time of physical isolation are still feeling how desperate social isolation can make us feel. Even if we learn to cope with it, it’s still emotionally trying. This is no different for dogs.

All of this got us wondering just how fair our pre-pandemic arrangements were/are to the dogs we purport to love and whom we consider to be cherished family members. We know that dogs can often bark or whine due to loneliness (or separation anxiety if you want to use a term that seems to deliberately elide their capacity for emotion) and while we can’t tell whether dogs are aware of the length of time they are left alone, they do seem to be affected by the duration, with longer alone periods eliciting potential stress responses on owners return, as well as more tail wagging and general interaction with their owners. It would seem, then, that our enforced period at home is a generally positive one for the dogs we live with (although it is worth noting that (1) some dogs – perhaps the older and more frail – will not necessarily welcome increased attention, and that (2) as domestic violence rates spike throughout the pandemic, animals will be at much higher risk of violence too).

If this lockdown period is to remain a generally positive one for the dogs we live with then it’s good to keep in mind that changes in routine can be challenging for dogs to cope with as well. This includes having a different schedule, no dog-dog social time, and/or maybe a change in pace from some of the usual walking locations, training classes or other adventures. To make this transition less concerning for your pup, and to keep them healthy during increased sedentation, try to maintain a routine as much as possible. This might include:

  • Scheduling walks at approximately the same times each day.
  • Spending time teaching your dog some new skills that could benefit them now and after lockdown ends. This might be to come when called or to walk on a loose leash. Training is excellent mental stimulation and having polished skills may mean more freedoms and flexibility on outings down the road.
  • Ditching the food bowl. Keep your dog busy by using a slow feeder, a puzzle toy, a snuffle mat, or hiding her kibble around the house.
  • Increasing your dog’s environmental enrichment. Enrichment is something that provides species-appropriate stimulation, such as providing dynamic environments, cognitive challenges and social opportunities. An enriched environment should promote a range of normal behaviours that your dog finds rewarding. Some examples might be food-stuffed interactive toys, training, scent detection games, digging, foraging, etc.
  • Exploring new places in your own neighbourhood. I have been taking the opportunity to venture out and try a new route every afternoon. This provides my dog with new sights and smells even though she isn’t able to have her regular off-leash walks.
  • Playing with your dog. Play is fun for your dog, physical, it helps with communication and strengthening the bond with your dog.

There is also a need to seriously consider what happens ‘afterwards’ for the dogs when the world suddenly returns to “normal.” In the case of ‘owned’ dogs people return to jobs and dogs return to solitude and in the case of those dogs adopted for the pandemic they will be returned to kennels and foster care, breaking the bonds they have forged with humans during the period.

While it is heartening to see consideration of (some) animals’ needs in this time of pandemic they too tend to be anthropocentric, focussing on the benefits to humans of animals and thus the need to help them.  We’d do well to take the time we have on our hands right now to think about their needs post-pandemic. In other words, when it comes to our relationships with other animals, what kind of ‘normal’ do we want to return to?

Authors: Nik Taylor and Erin Jones

Artwork: Heather Fraser

Erin Jones is completing her PhD at the University of Canterbury as a part of the New Zealand Centre for Human Animal Studies. Her research focuses on the human-dog relationship, humane training and the concepts surrounding canine consent. Her research agenda examines dog biographies and individualism while employing a mixed methods approach combining canine cognitive behavioural research and a sociological approach. For more information about Erin and on building a better bond and increasing your dog’s emotional wellness, follow her on Facebook, Twitter: @MeritDog or her website.

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