null Q&A - the effect of coronavirus on our pets' behaviour

Q&A - the effect of coronavirus on our pets' behaviour

Many of us are worried about the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on our pets and now that many of us are once again staying at home we may be seeing new or changing behaviours from our pets. Our Clinical Animal Behaviour team has pulled together some information and advice for you to help your family cope with the latest changes.

My dog sometimes growls at my child, is this a problem now that they spend the whole day together?

Dogs growl when experiencing negative emotions and to warn us that they don't like what's happening. When a dog growls, this should be always taken seriously, it means that their behaviour is driven by negative emotions, e.g. fear or anger. If ignored, it may escalate toward an actual bite if the dog is distressed and the exposure to stressful events increases. In these times, when we have more time at home and the possibility of outdoor exercise for dogs is reduced or changed, it's likely that any previous problems related to social interactions within the family may exacerbate.

The exposure to more intense and frequent human contact is increased and the more these contacts are unpredictable, the more the risk of unexpected reactions. This is particularly likely with fearful or nervous dogs. Children are often unpredictable and if your dog shows signs of worry e.g. lip licking, yawning, avoiding eye contact in their presence and growled, it's vital that you ask for professional behavioural advice.

Your vet will be able to organise a referral after having excluded any health problem. You'll need to contact your vet practice remotely and it will be the decision of your vet if they need to do a remote or in-person consultation to refer your case to a qualified clinical animal behaviourist. In the meantime, you should follow our six golden rules which include never leaving your child and your dog alone and you should also try to minimise the interactions between them. 

How do I prevent my dog from developing issues while I am at home and my routine has changed?

Being at home all the time can be positive for dogs if we're able to maintain a regular routine, as similar as possible, to our previous daily routine. In the same way, your interactions and activities with your dog should be predictable. It's very important not to overwhelm your dog with attention and play. Dogs need time to rest and relax and should not be surprised with unexpected approaches and excessive attention.

You may not be able to walk your dog as frequently, or in the same way, as he or she is probably used to, so it's a good idea to compensate with more play and fun training activities at home, such as searching games, dog puzzles etc. However, it's important not to create in your dog the expectation of having fun with you all the time. This may then create frustration when you're back to work!

My dog barks for anything he wants and we need to spend a lot of time entertaining him. Now the family is home all the time it's much worse!

Your dog's likely to have learned that barking brings positive outcomes and now that more people are at home for a longer amount of time, they're increasing their request frequency and intensity. Dogs that display intense and frequent attention-seeking behaviours are often unhappy, frustrated and in constant need of testing their owners' reactions.

Being more consistent when you interact with your dog will make you more predictable so that they don't need to insist on their requests for attention, food or play. Making it clear when it's time for relaxing together, food and playtime may not be easy when the dog's barking strategy is ingrained.

It's likely you'll know what the main triggers and situations are, for example, if your dog barks when you're working at your computer or when you're sitting on your sofa to watch TV. You may plan a play session before these situations and then make it clear when it's finished. The signal might be a word 'finished' and then you can give your dog something nice to chew on or perhaps a stuffed kong. You can increase the frequency of these positive play interactions before your dog starts barking, and reward their calm behaviour with attention, play or treats (and ask all your family members to do the same - consistency is key!).

Unfortunately, in some cases, barking is a sign of anxiety and this may be related to physical or behavioural problems. If there are other signs of physical and mental discomfort,e.g. decreased appetite, any sign of gastroenteric or urinary problems, changes in their sleep and rest habits, excessive grooming, and the excessive barking cannot be managed, you should immediately contact your vet practice for advice (via email or with a phone call). Your vet will then decide what kind of consult is more appropriate and, if necessary, refer you to a certified clinical animal behaviourist. In these difficult times, most qualified behaviourists can do remote consults.

Are training classes and support still available from qualified professionals even though we cannot see each other in person?

Yes, there are a huge variety of services being offered at a distance. Online group classes, one-to-one training, and behaviour consultations.  Some services are available via telephone calls, particularly if it is following up on advice already given.

Training your dog is part of responsible dog ownership. It provides important mental stimulation and is a great way for you to get to know each other. We recommend reward-based training to motivate and teach your dog, from an early age. Training classes help you understand how your dog learns and provides opportunities for your dog to develop important social skills. This is something a dog trainer can help you with.

Pets can develop a range of behaviour problems, such as aggression, destructiveness, inappropriate toileting, self-mutilation, inappropriate vocal behaviour, nervousness, and phobias. Such behaviour can be inconvenient for you, the owner, but more importantly, it's often a sign that your pet is unhappy. The good news is that issues may be easier to identify during this period of staying at home more. This is something that is best explored further by a suitably qualified behaviourist. Anyone can call themselves a pet behaviour expert, even if they don't have the appropriate knowledge and skills and so it's important to do your research.

How can I best find the right dog trainer?

It's important to find a good trainer as some training methods can be harmful or lead to behaviour problems. The Association of Pet Dog Trainers, UK (APDT) accredits dog trainers with the right knowledge and skills to train your dog.

How can I find the right behaviourist?

The Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC) oversees and monitors standards of professional competence in the practice of behaviour therapy and training of animals. The ABTC maintains a register of professionals who have achieved the highest standards in animal behaviour modification. Behaviour experts will work to identify the cause of the behaviour problem and then develop structured treatment plans that are suitable for you, your pet and your circumstances.

Find out more about caring for your pets during the coronavirus pandemic.

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