COVID-19’s Impacts on the Human-Dog Relationship

All the time we are spending at home due to COVID-19 impacts the nature of the human-dog relationship. Both humans and dogs have the potential to benefit from this arrangement.

By Christy Hoffman, PhD.

COVID-19's impacts on the human-dog relationship, working from home
Photo: Baramyou0708/Shutterstock

The nature of the human-dog relationship has changed in recent weeks due to COVID-19 and all the restrictions placed on human movement. Most dogs in the United States have years of experience spending their days alone while the adults in the household work and the children attend school. Now, in many cases, the entire family is under the same roof 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Below, Dr. Christy Hoffman, animal behaviorist and director of the Anthrozoology Master’s program at Canisius College (Buffalo, NY), describes ways in which this new arrangement may be beneficial to human-dog relationships. In addition, she identifies reasons why this new situation requires thoughtful consideration.

Generations of dog enthusiasts have bred dogs who show great affinity toward humans, and dogs have grown more and more dependent upon their owners as a result. Therefore, many dogs probably enjoy this newfound opportunity to accompany their owners to the home office and go on extra walks. It is probably safe to say that dogs have waited their entire lives for the chance to spend so much time with their humans!

Just as dogs are accruing some benefits from nearly constant human presence, I am certain that humans are benefiting from this as well. As opportunities to spend time with people are currently limited, dogs are filling in as a form of social support, making us feel less isolated. Even better, I have found that my dogs listen well and agree with everything I say! I feel relaxed when I am around my dogs, which is not surprising given prior research showing that petting dogs, and even merely maintaining eye contact with them, can help buffer our stress levels. As some of my prior research has demonstrated, dogs may even help us sleep better, which may be particularly helpful during these uncertain times.

In addition, numerous studies have demonstrated that humans derive a variety of benefits from walking their dogs. For one, dog walking encourages physical activity, which is especially crucial now that gyms are closed. Getting outside with the dog also increases opportunities to visit with neighbors from afar, providing yet another way to reduce feelings of social isolation. In my present situation, benefits of the human-dog relationship also may extend to my neighbors, who are no doubt entertained watching my dogs and me run up and down the street cheering on my 5-year-old daughter as she practices riding her bicycle without training wheels.

Having worked exclusively from home now for over two weeks, I have found that my dogs’ daytime sleep marathons set the stage for a relaxed working environment. Nevertheless, I keep reminding myself that our current situation is temporary. Most dog owners who recently have taken up telecommuting due to the pandemic will return to their regular work routine once doing so is safe.

Resuming our old work and social routines will be great for our mental health, yet when life returns to normal, some dogs may have difficulty coping with the change. Such dogs may show behavioral signs of separation-related distress, which include shaking or shivering, drooling, whining, barking, or howling when left alone. Distressed dogs may also engage in destructive behaviors, such as scratching at the door or chewing around windows.

As dog owners, we can increase the chance that our dogs will have a smooth transition back to old routines by giving them some alone time each day. This may mean going for a walk, doing yardwork, or exploring a nature preserve while the dog stays in the house. It may seem silly, but it is not a bad idea to continue doing the things one typically would on a workday morning, including putting on shoes, picking up keys, and leaving the house for a bit. This way, the owner’s departure routine remains familiar to the dog. To increase the likelihood that these temporary separations go smoothly, owners can pair their exit with a treat their dog can enjoy alone. For example, my dogs seem quite happy with my departures because they have learned to associate my absence with the appearance of delicious frozen Kongs stuffed with peanut butter.

By spending so much time at home, owners may discover that their dog engages in some undesirable behaviors. I’ve learned that my dogs believe it is extremely important to bark at every person, dog, squirrel, and leaf that passes by the window. Other dog owners may find it hard to type on their computer as their dog persistently paws at their arm for attention. Even during this period of social distancing, owners can seek professional assistance from certified dog trainers to help with such issues. Many fantastic trainers, including graduates of Canisius College’s Anthrozoology and Animal Behavior programs such as Jessica Fritschi (BS, 2017), Amanda Gagnon (MS, 2020), and Emily Tronetti (MS, 2018), offer behavioral consultations via video conferencing. Other highly qualified dog training experts can be located via the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants directory. Since dog trainers are offering lessons remotely, owners can even select a trainer from another part of the country!

We should keep in mind that with schools closed and families encouraged to stay home, many dogs are spending long days with children as well as adults. This can be a positive experience for dogs and children alike, but the adults in the household should provide oversight and set boundaries to keep dogs and children safe. Dogs need to have a quiet space where they can retreat when they need a break. This can be a certain room in the house or a crate with an open door, and children should never enter this space when the dog is present. Furthermore, children must learn to keep their distance whenever the dog is sleeping or eating.

In my own household, my daughter tries to bedazzle my dogs with necklaces at least once per day, but I only allow her to do this if I am right there with them. This way, I can ensure the dogs are comfortable and highly rewarded for playing dress-up. If the dogs walk away from us  during our jewelry party, we end the session with them. It then becomes my turn to pretend my daughter is preparing me for a Glamour Shots photo session.

While no one likes to think that their dog would ever bite, the reality is that any dog may bite when scared, stressed, or in pain. Alarmingly, most dog bites incurred by children involve familiar dogs and occur in the home environment. As children do not always make safe choices when interacting with their dog, parents should separate children and dogs when they are unable to supervise their interactions closely. Additionally, parents and children can increase everyone’s safety and well-being by learning how to interpret and respond to their dog’s body language.

No doubt, all the time we are spending at home due to COVID-19 impacts the nature of the human-dog relationship, and both humans and dogs can benefit from having more time together. Nevertheless, dogs need opportunities to escape from the increased activity, particularly if children are in the home. As our current situation is temporary, we also need to prepare our dogs to adjust successfully when life returns to normal. As we work our way through this pandemic, may we enjoy the extra time we have with our dogs by our side. After all, pandemic or not, our time with them is fleeting.

If you regularly telework for your employer or are teleworking now because of COVID-19, please consider participating in Dr. Hoffman’s survey on the teleworking experience: It takes about 15 minutes to complete.

For more on the pandemic and your pet, check out Spending more time with your pet due to COVID-19? Strategies to cope and how will the economic fallout of COVID-19 affect pets?

About Dr. Christy Hoffman: Christy Hoffman is an associate professor in the department of Animal Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation and directs the Anthrozoology Master’s program at Canisius College in Buffalo, NY (USA). In addition, she runs the Canisius Canine Research Team, which can be followed on Facebook.

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