The news is at times overwhelming and sometimes terrifying, especially with the updates of how COVID19 is showing up in cats. That might lead to a knee-jerk reaction about not taking pets outside, but take a deep breath, look at your dog’s sad puppy dog eyes, and exhale. Then click over to the AVMA COVID19 response FAQs. No, dog walks aren’t cancelled. Dog walks, school, work, (or not working), teaching, all of it looks different, and we’ll have to adjust to a new normal, but so far there is no indication that domestic animals can transmit the disease to humans (zoonosis.)
So while we can take our dogs out, what does that look like for dog owners? Oddly, the two most common reports from students, friends, coworkers and clients are completely opposite, and are both correct.
The first observation is that dog walks are much easier. People in some communities are socially distancing, or people working at home are able to walk Fido at off-peak times during the day. This helps people get dogs out for exercise, sniffing and doing their business with less reactivity in dogs, less anxiety in those owners looking for more distance, and finding a moment’s of peace with their dogs. It’s also giving a population of people who are motivated by running with their dogs, or going for strolls to get away from the computer for a bit (or for me, motivation to get pants on).
The other thing, the more surprising thing, is that there is also reporting of much more reactivity in some dogs. Dog owners who aren’t able to send their dog to doggy daycare are suddenly finding out that their dog isn’t getting enough exercise which leads to an increase in leash frustration, or with so many people outside on nicer days the stimulation might be overwhelming. There is also a smaller population to consider: I’ve had some clients who never walk their dogs as they work so much that the majority of their dogs’ care is outsourced. For those folks, while the dog is theirs, the owners might not know the triggers of this particular animal whom they share a residence. It’s like owning a Kentucky Derby racehorse but never riding it - that’s the jockey’s job.
And then there is you. The human who is reading this piece. You have your own emotional roller coaster and journey. Perhaps you are struggling to cope with stir-craziness, or feeling the burden of being socially isolated. There might be a bliss from not commuting and having more time to bake cookies (and play with your dog). And whatever you are feeling, burdened with, all of it is valid and understandable. All of it, your dog can read like a book.
Here is what I recommend for most people, but I’m fully aware that if getting out of bed today is impossibly hard and the only thing you can do for your pet is get him or her out to pee, you are doing enough. You are doing a fantastic job in this grief, this terrifying time, this uncertainty.
Go for walks at off-peak times: For the first few weeks, my daughter and I would take our dog, Captain, out at our normal times. 7:00am, 12:30pm, 6:00pm. We noticed there were way more people on a similar schedule. We decided to mix up our outings to miss the runners, other dogs, or kids on scooters.
If you feel comfortable and your city/locale allows, try a socially distant walk. I did this a few weeks ago before the rules changed, and it was so good to see a friend. However, Captain struggled. He didn’t know why he couldn't run over and see his friend who was walking just out of leash-reach. For socially needy dogs, this might not work so well, but for dogs who need a little space, this is YOUR TIME!
Let them sniff: There might be a knee-jerk reaction to give your dog more walks, more aerobic activity, more play time, more everything. Keep in mind that everything aerobically you do with your dog after a certain point is just going to build endurance, the opposite of what you want right now. Mental stimulation is always critically important for urban dogs, but now more dogs are feeling like cooped up city hounds. They might be socially isolated from normal activities (play dates, hikes, dog parks), so giving them an outlet is so important. They can smell 40’ underground. That’s 4 basketball hoops stacked under the surface of your feet. They can smell critters moving, chemicals moving, worms pooping, all of it. I have a free scent work class on Youtube, and other challenge videos using your dog’s most powerful sensory organ: Their nose. These things can be done rather easily, with minimal time, expense (their breakfast!), and space. I promise, sniffing and giving dogs a chance to use what their mama gave ‘em will only help you be able to do your Zoom calls without any input from your four-legged coworker.
Have dogs work for their breakfast: If you don’t have a seven-acre private forest behind your property, then there is a simple thing you can do. Have your pup work for their breakfast. Here is a 5-minute video on how to use your dog’s kibble to work on skills as hard or as easy as you want, get your dog tired, and the walks going forward for the rest of the day will be much easier as your dog is physically and mentally fatigued.
Take a breather for YOU. This one is hard. I woke up, read a note from a veterinarian friend of mine and just sobbed before going on my dog walk. I canceled my dog training daily challenge video, and instead sent out a video reminding people that this is hard. It felt like the right thing to do. Some students say their dogs are thrilled they are home, but others have dogs who are really suffering with not knowing what’s going on, with their owner talking to a magic computer box with disembodied voices coming out of it. Some dogs are suffering with more traffic in their apartment buildings (toddlers upstairs are MURDER on a dog’s ability to cope). Whatever you are doing today is enough. Whatever you do tomorrow is enough.
And if you need anything at all, reach out as we are all in this boat together. I don’t know many of you, but my job is to fix things and if I don’t have that, I’m lost. Christian and Mike are doers - if they don’t have a thing to do, they are lost. And you are a something, too. We can help each other in miraculous ways, and we (me, Mike and Christian) see you. We want to help you and your dogs in whatever your new abnormal normal you are experiencing. Just tell us what we can do.
Support small and local businesses you love, if you have the ability to right now. As a small business owner and someone who rents spaces from other small businesses, this is really hard to put out there and be honest but I feel it’s important. If you can continue to support the little guys, that’s food on our table and love in our hearts. That’s value and direct acknowledgment that we are doing a good job and are valued in the communities we serve and gives us the fuel to try harder. But we also know that this is crippling to so many of you. We aren’t mad, we don’t hold a grudge, we don’t feel anything but sympathy and want to support you, too. We love your dogs. We want you and your pets, your family, to feel supported, loved, and valued. Whatever you can do, we will give back as much as we can.
We might not have the same experience, but we are all pivoting with this pandemic and are feeling stress of some kind. Our dogs feel it, too. Make sure that your new schedule change and routine change hasn’t left your dog high and dry. Don’t be hard on yourself. Your animals are here for you, love you, and are with you. We will make mistakes as we all pivot. We are doing the best we can with the tools we have.
Dog walks are far from cancelled. For some of us, myself included, they are the motivation to get out of bed. That’s the thing I know I can do. I can breathe fresh air for a while and take in a podcast without my family, whom I love dearly but need to take a few minutes for myself, with my right-hand hound. For me, those walks are the thing I have to do and I always feel better after I do them, even though everything else is a crap shoot.
Walks with your dog might have to look differently than expected, and that’s ok. This might only be for a while, maybe for longer, but you got this. Start now by saying to yourself that this is ok, and then give your dog (if he or she is cool with it) a belly rub. Then go for a walk and see if you can see what they see by letting them sniff.
Written by guest author, Melissa McCue-McGrath, CPDT-KA. Melissa is the author of Considerations for the City Dog, and co-training director of the New England Dog Training Club - the oldest AKC obedience club in the country. She is offering daily-ish dog training challenges and free classes on her YouTube channel as we all navigate this new normal. More information about Melissa can be found at MelissaMcCueMcGrath.com.
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