Dogs, too, can find the pandemic disorienting

A dog sits on a bench at Washington Square Park in New York on Aug. 15, 2020.


By MAURA JUDKIS | The Washington Post | Published: August 24, 2020

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Alex Savas had dealt with her dog Miles's behavioral issues before — socializing him when he was adopted four years ago, helping him adjust to cross-continent moves — but the small mixed-breed dog's most recent challenge was, well, uniquely 2020. At the beginning of April, shortly after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began encouraging Americans to wear masks, Miles began barking at people who wore them.

"I think it was hard to not be able to observe facial expressions, for him, on people that we came across," says Savas, 29. "It was like, 'What is this new creature I'm looking at here?' "

Dogs understand a few things very well: walks, how to get treats and belly rubs, what time they get fed, and whether they are a good boy or girl (they are, all of them). They do not understand a global pandemic. Quite frankly, that's something even their owners have trouble comprehending.

But dogs are beholden to the systems of our human world, so when, suddenly, every person Miles encountered on his walks looked completely different than they did before? He was startled.

Savas came up with a plan to recondition him: She enlisted two friends to wear masks to her Ithaca, N.Y., home, where her dog could encounter them in a safe space, at a safe distance, with plenty of treats around.

"He was very physically anxious," Savas says, "making his anxious, whiny noises, very skeptical about going up close to get the treat." But eventually, it worked.

"Cold cuts will take you a long way in any situation," Savas says. Now, thanks to a bacchanal of deli turkey, when Miles sees masked people on his walks, he doesn't react at all.

There are countless ways that the pandemic has temporarily — and perhaps permanently — changed human behavior.

"The world just shut down in 24 hours," says Tracy Krulik, a dog trainer and behaviorist in suburban Washington, D.C. "It didn't just change for us, it changed for the dogs. And it's frustrating and stressful for them to have gotten used to a routine, and now everything's shifted."

Krulik has been helping her clients with one of the biggest problems that has emerged from the novel coronavirus pandemic: separation anxiety. When people shifted to working from home, dogs that were accustomed to spending time alone suddenly had constant companionship. But as they acclimated to that, they had a tougher time whenever their people left.

"Everybody I've talked to in the dog community has concerns about what is going to happen to these dogs when we suddenly go back to work all day, and they've been used to seven walks a day and never being left alone," Krulik says.

She's also working with Daniel Mills, a veterinary behaviorist and professor at the University of Lincoln in England to study the long-term effects of the pandemic on dog behavior — particularly whether it creates separation anxiety in dogs that didn't have it before.

The term separation anxiety is a bit of a misnomer, Mills says. People might code their dogs' behavior as anxious, but Mills says it's actually frustration.

"When we get stressed, we become inconsistent in our behavior. When we become inconsistent in our behavior, it becomes harder for our dogs to be able to predict us," Mills says. "That is stressful for the dog. And it's not about fear. That's about confusion and frustration."

Tara Clever's dog, Logan, was "a quirky little guy to begin with," says the 36-year-old vice president of marketing for a tech company in Washington. But, she says, "his attachment to us and behaviors have definitely gotten stranger" since she started working from home.

Logan used to love alone time in his crate; he'd happily hop in when she left for work. So Clever thought it would be no problem for the 17-pound mixed-breed dog to hang out there briefly while she took important calls. Logan had a different idea.

"Over the last four to six weeks, it's gotten to the point that he's like: 'No, I know you guys aren't leaving. You can't fool me. I don't want to go in there at all,'" Clever says.

It's as if Logan goes through the five stages of grief each time. There's denial: "He's just quiet because he thinks he's going to get back out," Clever says. Then anger, which is just barking. Then bargaining — "some expectant yips" — and then depression: "It devolves into really pitiful crying that's like, almost melodic." Finally, he reaches acceptance, "when he remembers that he freaking loves the crate, and he's always loved the crate," Clever says.

The entire process takes about 10 minutes, which she has built in to her prep time for meetings.

"If he's in the middle of the anger phase while you're on calls, you can definitely hear it," she says. "So we have to make sure he's in the crate with enough anticipation for him to be at the acceptance phase by the time the call starts."

Then there's BooBear, Mary Anne Heckbert's 3-year-old Rottweiler, who has taken to following her everywhere around her Toronto home.

"I can't actually close the bathroom door," Heckbert says, or else he will hit his head on the door to be let in. "It's so sad and funny at the same time."

Same for Bada and Hanul, Sunjay Lee's two Yorkshire terriers, who are rarely alone for more than an hour or two in her New York home. Bada "gets nervous when she doesn't see me, like, right in her line of sight," says Lee, 22. When she takes calls for her internship, she tends to pace around the house, and Bada "just walks around the whole apartment with me." Both Yorkies spend much of their day just staring at her. Sometimes, "it's a little creepy," Lee says.

Krulik says it's important to begin prepping your dog for an eventual return to work now. She leads webinars on dogs and coronavirus adjustment, and recommends gradually building up a tolerance to longer periods of solo time.

"If people can't go back to work, go sit under a tree, go in your car, just get out of your house," Krulik says.

It's essential to build up the independence of puppies and newly adopted dogs, who may have never known anything other than an owner working from home.

"It's really important for people to try as much as they can to get their puppy out there, running errands with them, experiencing things outside of the home, experiencing novelty," says Jessica Ring, a dog trainer in Ellicott City, Md., who has been leading online trainings for the big wave of puppies and dogs that were adopted during the pandemic.

She hopes people are thinking ahead. "We don't really know what our normal is going to be again," she says, but she encourages her clients to think, "If we were to go back to what our old normal was, what are all the things that I want my puppy to be able to be comfortable with?"

Sometimes, the humans are the ones with anxiety. In the early days of the pandemic, my two elderly Coton de Tulears were delighted to have me home all the time. But my stress was palpable, with all the constant hand-washing and avoidance of neighbors and friends. I'd refresh the coronavirus case count charts several times a day on my phone with one hand, and stroke their silky ears with the other.

It wasn't long before this nervous energy started to rub off on Milky and Milou. I was petting them all the time in an attempt to soothe myself, but that meant they weren't getting the long naps they were used to. This made them cranky. Milou would sit on the opposite end of the couch, and move away when I came near. Milky would make a beeline for the door whenever I came into the room. I was offended — their only job is to love me! — but I could hardly blame them. I channeled my nervous energy into tending houseplants instead.

Jenna Bluestein wonders whether her pandemic anxiety rubbed off on her dog, Dottie, a lowrider bully mix who loves to look out her first-floor window in Washington, D.C. But once Bluestein started working from home, Dottie began to growl at passersby.

"I don't know if it was a protective thing," Bluestein says. She sought out an online reactivity training course by Your Dog's Friend, which helped her break the habit by rewarding Dottie for neutral behavior at the window, which hadn't occurred to Bluestein — treats were for tricks.

"I'm like, you want me to give her treats for just laying here?" Bluestein says. (This was great news for Dottie.)

"We have a tendency to only pay attention when they're doing something we don't want them to do," she says. "So it's about making sure that if she was doing what I wanted her to do" — calmly looking at birds and people — "it was rewarded."

Some dogs just see the changes in their environment as yet another way to get snacks. Bagel, a 4-year-old Tibetan terrier in Denver, is perpetually bewildered — or maybe mischievously manipulative — about what time he eats dinner, now that his owner, Kelsea Pieters, is teleworking.

Around 3 p.m., he would "think that we weren't feeding him, and would go over to his bowl and start smacking it around," Pieters says. If she ignored him, Bagel escalated to splashing in his water bowl. One time, "He somehow opens up the cabinet where his food is," she says, "and I find him with his head in his food bag."

Pieters knows she's not supposed to give in. It's how problems get started, Mills says.

"People confuse the love they have for their dog with caring for their dog," he says. "If you're feeling in a particular mood and you let the dog out on the sofa, but you don't let the dog out on the sofa at other times, how's the dog supposed to know that? So, you know, try to be consistent and think, 'What's the consequences of what I'm saying to my dog?'"

"I have regrets," Pieters says. "I should be more stern. But sometimes, for the sake of the Zoom call, it's better to just give him his dinner at 2."

For every anxious dog in the pandemic, there's another who may be thriving — just like people. Bada and Hanul, the clingy Yorkies in New York, used to be fussy about food, but they've gotten better about eating without being coaxed. Krulik's own dog — a beagle named Emma, who used to be terribly afraid to be alone — seems content to have solo time now.

"She's calm. She's confident," Krulik says. "It really is the total opposite of what I would have predicted of her."

And in San Francisco, Andrea Sogaard's terrier chihuahua mix, Susie, is having the time of her life. Ever since her owner began working from home, Susie realized that playtime could be all the time.

"Every chance she got, she'd be bringing toys over me. She started throwing balls and chasing them next to me," Sogaard says. She's "a dog possessed." Which is not great for an attorney who spends much of her day on calls, but Sogaard hasn't done much to discourage the behavior.

"I didn't know her for the first two years of her life, so I'm getting to see her be super playful," she says. "A second chance at puppyhood, if you will."

Separation anxiety, it turns out, runs both ways. People who are working from home are getting used to having their dogs with them all day long — and, yes, that might mean the occasional Zoom background barking, but also, the fresh air break of an impromptu 1 p.m. walk. The companionship of a snoring fur ball at their feet. Dogs don't do social distancing.

When Heckbert, who has Rottweilers BooBear and Muffin, eventually goes back to work, "I would want to spend every waking minute with them that I'm not in the office, because it's been really nice."

"I don't want to go back to the previous normal," she says.

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