I want you to visualise something for me. Imagine you’ve been in a state of lockdown for 3-4 months with no contact with another human, except those you live with (difficult I know). No phone calls, no video calls, no television or internet. Absolutely no exposure to humans outside of those who are in your household. Now imagine leaving your house after 4 months of complete isolation and going for a walk in your favourite park – super exciting, but also you might be a little anxious because you haven’t been out in the big, wide world in months. You may have forgotten the different sounds of nature – chirping birds, the loud rustle of leaves from a nice breeze, the snap of a twig under your feet as you walk, or a sudden loud flap of wings as a bird takes off. Again, it’s nice to be outside, but these sudden noises might be giving you a little fright as they occur unexpectedly, and you haven’t heard them for so long. Now imagine on this walk, which is already exciting and anxiety-inducing at the same time, you come across another human – someone you’ve never seen before. This human is full of energy and they are so excited to see another human that they forget their manners and they run up to you at full speed, moving erratically, jumping up and down, getting in your face, and yelling lots of things all at once. How would you react? Would you stop and freeze? Would you maybe try to run away and get them out of your personal space that they are so rudely forcing themselves into? Would you yell at them to get away because they are making you uncomfortable? Or are you the type of person that might try to defend yourself physically because this person is really intimidating, and you feel you need to protect yourself? All of these are completely normal responses and the choice would depend on the individual and the circumstance.
Now stop for a minute and think, how would your reaction change if you were tied by a length of rope to a tree and you were confronted with the same experience? Can you see where I am going with this?
Dogs, the world over, have all been experiencing different levels of lockdown just like humans, but we expect them to bounce back and be the same dogs, with the same level of confidence and optimism that they had prior to 3-4 months of social isolation. Why? They have experienced the same level of social isolation as we have, well actually even more because they can’t video call their dog friends. Add to that, they don’t have the mental capacity to understand and process the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’. Generally speaking, their mental capacity reaches about that of a 5-year-old child so of course they can’t work their way through this thing reasonably and come out the other end unchanged.
This has been our life for the last 4-5 months - blissfully unaware of the world, no interaction with humans or dogs, no traffic, no outings to pubs etc.
Social skills – and by social skills I don’t just mean how they interact with humans and dogs, I mean how they interact with their environment as well, are like a muscle. If you don’t use it, you lose it. This is in effect what has happened to our dogs during this period. They have gotten used to a new routine that involved less humans and dogs, quieter roads and less distractions. They haven’t had to work those muscles in their brains that are involved with optimism, confidence and flexibility. So, take a step back, stop putting such high expectations on your dogs, and stop setting them up to fail by immersing them back out into normal life and wondering why they aren’t handling it well.
The key to success is training your dog FOR the situation, not IN the situation. So, what do I mean by this? Taking your dog to a busy dog park, letting them off lead to be bombarded with lots of dogs is not the way to go – especially if they have been showing any signs of nervous behaviour around dogs or people. This will just send them backwards. Focus on games and training at home that help them with optimism – one of my favourites is cardboard chaos. You’ll find a few photos and videos of this on my Instagram account, but I’ll put one below as well. When choosing where to walk, make an effort to go somewhere you know will have less human and dog traffic. When out walking and come across another dog, simply keep your distance, get your dog’s focus on you with lots of treats, ask them for easy behaviours or even get them to play chase with you. Give them something else to focus on other than the approaching dog that might be making them feel a bit nervous. They don’t have to say hello - it’s that simple. Ease them back into interacting with dogs and humans, ease them back into the busier roads and noisier places.
Games like Cardboard Chaos and Novelty Party are great ways to build your dog's optimism and confidence at home. It's so simple and cheap - just collect your clean rubbish or grab a few random items from around the house.
If your dog is having trouble integrating back into the ‘real world’ you can either get in touch and we can have a chat about it, or, contact your local behaviourist. These issues are much easier to tackle as soon as they arise, rather than letting them get worse and worse. I can’t stress this enough. Your dog isn’t suddenly dog aggressive, or aggressive to humans. They are trying to tell you they are uncomfortable, that they don’t feel safe, and they only have so many behaviours at their disposal to get this message through to you and the approaching human or dog.
The flip side of this story is being the owner of a super confident and optimistic dog who loves everyone and everything and wants to run up and say hello to every dog they come across - lockdown has not affected their optimistic outlook on the world. Lucky them! I owner the ultimate optimist dog about 12 years ago. She was the happiest and friendliest dog you'd ever meet, totally insatiable for attention. But I was also the owner constantly yelling at people down the beach or at the park - ‘don’t worry she’s friendly!’ as she ran at and bounced around yet another dog with absolutely no idea of what this type of interaction was doing to the poor dog on the receiving end of her boundless confidence and optimism.
As dog owners, we have a responsibility to keep our dogs, no matter how friendly, under control at all times – post lockdown or not. If your dog does not have 100% recall at all times, you have no business having your dog of lead. Period. Controversial? Yes. But I have lost count of the times I have had to physically pick my dogs up to avoid them being trampled by, stomped on, jumped all over by a ‘friendly’ dog. I’ve had boisterous dogs run over my dogs and them scream in pain from the impact. I’ve been jumped all over by dogs of all sizes trying to get to my dog even after I’ve picked them up. My most optimistic of dogs, Pickle, has even lashed out and bitten a dog on one occasion as it had backed her into the end of her lead and she had nowhere to go to get away, and the dog simply would not stop trying to play with her. It does not matter how friendly your dog is, they need manners. If your dog gets too excited around other dogs that it won’t come back to you – don’t let it off lead. Simple. Watch your surroundings and put them back on lead at the first sight of another dog and let them back off once the dog is gone. Even the most optimistic and friendly dog will react with ‘aggression’ if an unknown dog is running full speed at them. And have a thought for the poor dog your friendly dog is harassing. This attack of overzealous friendliness can cause huge behaviour problems for this dog. It only takes one bad experience to cancel out 100 positive ones, and why should someone else's dog suffer because your dog has poor recall or can't think when highly aroused? How would you feel if it was your dog being run at? Jumped up at? Barked at? If it was you being jumped all over, fearing for your safety and unable to get away from the ‘attacker’. We all have a right to walk our dogs, but your dog does not have the right to force itself onto other dogs, as inevitably it isn’t your dog who suffers as a result of these interactions. It can take months of intensive behaviour work to help a dog to build up its confidence with dogs again once it’s had an overly friendly dog force an interaction.
Is this dog super happy and friendly? Absolutely! But does that mean every dog wants to be his friend? No, and that's ok.
I am well and truly on my soap box right now, I know, but I have no intention of getting off it any time soon. I will however take a break for now and let you ruminate over all the information I’ve just spewed at you.
Until next time, enjoy the journey of becoming a mindful pet owner.