There is no denying it any longer, the Coronavirus epidemic is gathering pace, and yesterday morning Italy declared a national emergency. Severe travel restrictions have been implemented, and basically, the whole country is in lockdown to try and stop the spread of the virus.
Over here in the UK, we have see panic set in. People have started to buy up toilet rolls, hand sanitizer and staple goods like pasta and rice in recent days.
Whether or not you believe Covid-19 is heralding the end of the world as we know it, it is probably a good idea to think about how it is going to affect us as dog owners.
Let me start by sharing a little secret; your dog does not need to go out on a walk every day!
That is right, you don’t need to walk your dog every single day.
This is one of those pieces of advice that get drilled into us as soon as we start talking about venturing into the world of dog ownership. Everyone will tell you that you need to take dogs for two walks a day and you will be asked to make sure that you are willing to take on this commitment before you get your dog.
We are told that this is one of the responsibilities that come with owning a dog.
I am not refuting the fact that your dog needs physical, and let me add the bit that most people forget about, mental exercise every day.
But what does that actually mean you have to take your dog out for two long walks every single day?
Well, it doesn’t. You see when I get approached by someone asking for help with a reactive dog, one of the first pieces of advice I give them is to stop walking the dog for a few weeks.
Before you think this is cruel, let me explain why I give this advice and why this advice can help you and your dog survive any isolation requirements imposed by the rapid spread of the coronavirus.
For reactive dogs, the daily walks are just too much for them to cope with. Most reactive dogs have fear issues and having to confront their fears over and over regularly is hugely stressful for them. Every time they are faced with their fears, they will react, either by barking or lunging. They are trying to get the scary thing to go away, which it inevitably does. From the dogs’ point of view, the behaviour was successful. So next time your dog will behave in precisely the same way. This is not what we want.
Let me put it another way, imagine that you are suffering from severe agoraphobia. You are deadly afraid of spiders, but still, you are forced to confront your fears every single day of your life. Every day someone comes to take you to a place where there potentially are hordes of spiders hiding around corners or behind bushes. You never know precisely when these spiders are going to appear. All you know is that at some point in your walk you are going to be confronted by at least one spider, probably, more. You shout and scream when you see them, you are kicking your heels and do everything in your power to either getaway or if that doesn’t work, scare the spiders away.
Can you imagine the anxiety you feel every time you go out?
Can you feel the fear when hearing a rustling in the bushes or scraping behind that shed?
Do you feel the relief when those huge scary spiders retreat, and you have survived yet another encounter with the thing you fear the most?
This is what a reactive dog has to deal with every single time you take him out for a walk. This stress builds up, and over time your dog will become more and more reactive, the behaviour becomes more and more extreme.
Now I want you to imagine a bucket, a stress bucket. This bucket fills up every time you go out walking with your reactive dog. Every time your dog starts to feel worried, frustrated or anxious, this stress begins to fill up the bucket until it starts to overflow. This is the point where your dog starts to bark and lunge. What we need to do in this situation is empty out that stress bucket, and we do this by giving reactive dogs time out, a chance to recover, to empty out that stress bucket, without having to go out and face their fears on the daily walk.
The big problem with the stress bucket is that it only has a very tiny hole at the bottom, it takes at least 72 hours for that bucket to completely empty out. This is one of the reasons why we advise to give reactive dogs a break from the daily walk. It allows them to start recovering and learn to relax.
But that doesn’t mean that we don’t do anything with reactive dogs that are not going out for walks. No, we still need to provide appropriate physical and mental exercise. We don’t do it by taking them for a walk.
The difference is that instead of concentration on the physical element of exercising our dogs, we focus on providing mental exercise. Did you know that 10 to 15 minutes of mental exercise tires your dog out just as much as an hours walk?
The first thing you can do is to ditch the food bowl and feed your dog from interactive toys or a kong. Alternatively, you can scatter your dog’s dinner in the garden, so he has to sniff around to find it all. If it rains, you can hide small piles of food all-around your house and then send your dog to go find them
If you are not too ill, play a game of tug with your dog. You can even use this activity to teach a give or drop it on cue.
Play a game of fetch in the garden and finish by hiding it and sending them to find and retrieve it. This action will calm your dog down after the excitement of the fetch game.
Spend 5 minutes training your dog a few times each day. Try concentrating on those behaviours that need some more work. Or teach your dog a fun trick.
Teach your dog some self-control. Patience is a virtue, and it is one exercise I spend lots of time teaching my dogs. Simple things like teaching them not to take a pile of treats placed on the floor in front of them until you tell them they can have it.
Teach your dogs to settle and teach them to stay in their bed until you tell them they can come off.
It all sounds straightforward but doing these things take more mental and physical energy from your dog than you think.
Obviously, your dog will have to attend to their natural needs too, so at some point, you might need to go outside to allow your dog to go potty. Still, you will have to keep these trips short, so you respect the self-isolating recommendations when they come into play.
Self-isolation is not a problem when you are adequately prepared, and know-how by merely adjusting your daily routine you and your dog can survive with minimal fuss.
If you need some inspiration on games to play or exercises to do with your dog while self-isolating check out my new online course on www.funfocusplay.co.uk “The Habit Continues” This course takes you through the Fun | Focus | Play® 2020 Challenge In which I challenged dog owners to build a healthy and fun habit of doing 20 minutes of training with their dog every day and The Habit Continues Course. Find out all about this course here.