It’s hard to believe that only a little over a month ago, life was “normal.”
Your dog waited for you to get home from work and couldn't wait to go out for a long walk, saying hello to all of his/her doggie friends and jumping on strangers. You might've gone for a loop around the block, or taken your dog shopping at the local pet store.
Those days are gone.
If you have a shy or reactive dog, the effects of social distancing due to Covid-19 is like a dream come true. Dogs and people walk further away and do not approach which is exactly what your introvert pup wants.
But if you have an extroverted dog, life got hard. And really confusing.
Your dog is probably thinking...
“Why can’t I go see my other dog friends?”
“Why can’t I run up to strangers to say hello?”
“Why can’t I go shopping at the pet store?”
This is a little heartbreaking. Your dog doesn’t understand why the rules have changed. How do you explain that there’s a health pandemic to your dog?
By being the most exciting thing EVER. If you are way cooler than the other dogs, strangers, and squirrels, you might have a fighting chance for a peaceful walk.
Here are 5 tips to steal your dog’s attention back to you and help him/her cope with social distancing.
1) Bring the most irresistible treats on the walk.
No, not the treats from the pet store.
I mean - cheese, steak, chicken. Something really fresh and delicious. That is, unless you have a dog that prefers pet food over human food (there are a select few that do)!
Now, when you see another dog, human, or squirrel on your walk, stop far enough away so your dog doesn’t get into a deep stare, and drop a bunch of treats on the ground. Tell your dog to “find it” and point out all the yumminess laying around.
Build up the connection between seeing something awesome in the distance to something even more awesome happening right here with you - treats falling from your pockets.
You are one step closer to being cooler than a baby squirrel.
2) Bring a toy.
When you have a picky eater or if food becomes boring, try a toy! Stick a ball or small squeaky toy in your bag, pocket or fanny pack. (By the way, dog parents are bringing back the fanny pack.)
When your dog looks at you, alternate between the food or the toy as the reward. Let your dog play with the toy for a little bit, then give a treat and take back the toy. Always make a trade. Put the toy away and continue on the walk. Or, let your dog carry the toy for a little bit and then ask for it back.
P.S. Toys with squeakers are fantastic as an emergency attention grabber!
3) Change directions and the pacing.
First of all, who’s leading the walk, you or your dog?
I believe it’s a partnership. Think about it. Is the walk for you or for your dog? Isn’t it only fair to let your dog lead the way, since the walk really is for him/her?
Does the patch of grass on the other side smell better than the blade of grass on this side right now? Okay sure, let’s cross the street. But, if a dog was left to its own devices, you’d never make it back home.
That’s why this is a partnership. You call the shots when it comes to safety and timing. But, your dog has a say on what happens in between.
The faster the walk, the more exciting the walk. Step up the pace out there.
Take your idea of walking the same route, in the same circle, and throw it out the window. It can be really tough, because you're letting go of predictability and control. But, try it, and throw in some curves along the way! It's actually really fun.
Change directions mid-walk and go back the way you came. Run backwards. Cross the street. Move fast, move slow. Talk to your dog. Or don’t talk at all, then randomly call your pup happily to you. Be completely unpredictable.
You’ll have your dog wondering what kind of game you are playing, and want to be a part of it. Your dog will start to anticipate new movements and be more attentive to what you are doing.
Try it with a long line (not a retractable leash) and you can even build in some recall work in there. Have a good time and be cheerful!
4) Take a break.
If your dog gets too wound up, it's time to take a break.
Remember, this is quality over quantity.
It doesn't matter how far you walk or how long you are out. It's the quality of the time you are outside. If your dog is out of his/her mind, you need to bring your pup back to reality.
Stop walking. Take a breath. Have your dog stand still, and give a treat. You're rewarding calm behavior. If needed, turn this into a sit, or a down. Bringing the heart rate down and just re-centering the body makes a world of a difference in the walk, and in the listening ears.
5) Be fully present.
Having a successful walk with an energetic dog takes hard work. You have to be fully present.
That means resisting the urge to check your email or return a text. That means being completely aware of your surroundings and spotting that squirrel before your dog does. That means talking to and being in tune with everything your dog is doing.
The consequence of being fully present?
A happier dog, and a happier you.
Put the phone away and give your pup 30 minutes of undivided attention. It'll be the most meaningful 30 minutes of the day.
Bottom line, you have to manage the environment to the best of your ability.
Know where the hot squirrel hang outs are, and avoid them. Is 123 Squirrel Lane just hopping at 7AM? Maybe wait until 8AM to walk there...or don’t go down Squirrel Lane at all. Does your dog’s best friend Otis go for his midday walk at noon, and your dog always tugs at you to go say hello? Stagger your walk time to avoid this scenario. Is the whole world going for a jog at 6PM? Take your walk at 7PM instead. You get the idea.
You know what your dog can and cannot handle. Play upon your dog’s strengths, and don’t be afraid to speak up if someone is getting too close and you need a little extra time to get your dog’s attention. Be an advocate and set your furbaby up for success.
Skeptical about if this will work? Trust me, you can do it.
Despite all of my training with my dog, she is 95% great on a leash and 5% just plain AWFUL. When she’s gone into tunnel vision, there’s no snapping her out of it, and I have to scoop her up before she lunges to keep her from choking herself, even in a harness. It’s just her basic nature, and I honestly don’t think it will ever be trained out of her.
That said, she has improved significantly from day one, with a lot of leash training, and implementation of the strategies above. It's been kicked up into high gear, specially since social distancing has begun. If River and I can do it, you and your dog can do it too.
The rules of society have changed, and since dogs can’t understand it, it’s up to you as the pet parent, to make it a happy place again.
Strengthen the bond between you and your dog, be prepared with everything you possibly need for your walk, and continue on. Some walks will be great and some will need improving. Take note of what works for your pup and what doesn’t.
Remember, some things might not work everyday, and you’ll need to mix it up. Have your bag of tricks ready. This is the new normal, and there is nothing we can do about it except embrace it, and make the most out of this situation.
One day, when the pandemic is over, your extroverted pup will go do all those social doggie things again, and the introverts will have to learn to cope. When that day comes, you are going to have such a well behaved dog who doesn't yank your arm off to go say hello to the dog across the street or jump on the stranger walking by, because you've developed good habits in this unique time period handed to you.
Tune into the walks, and you'll be the pet parent that's cooler than a baby squirrel. Once you achieve that status, you've officially won the battle of teaching your dog about social distancing and have embraced the new normal.