Being home-bound is a good time to address issues your dog may have, discover more about his/her personality and indulge in sniffing walks.
• If your dog has separation anxiety, this is a good time to work on it. Separation anxiety, which is similar to a human panic attack, physically affects many dogs. While work is ongoing, to date, there is no conclusive evidence on the best treatment. However, scientists and veterinary behaviorists—including Dr. Nicholas Dodman, professor emeritus, Tufts University and co-founder of the Center for Canine Behavior Studies, Inc. 501(c)(3)—suggest that for more severe cases, medicine combined with behavior modification training helps support changes in behaviors. According to Dr. Dodman, this has been shown to markedly improve behaviors by 85 percent in some dogs.
That said, there are things we can do to help our dogs with this condition. For some, we can reduce their distress when left alone by appealing to their unique sensory perceptions. For others, providing simple olfactory games, soothing music and extra dog walks help.
Each dog’s experience is different, as is the solution that will work best for him/her. A large body of evidence shows that using reward-based methods is best. Speak with a qualified veterinarian, veterinary behaviorist or certified applied animal behaviorist for guidance.
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There are also a few good options to read about and consider working on at home. One of these is Mission: Possible, An Online Course for Guardians, a highly informative online training protocol packed with clinical medical-professional interviews and tools you can download.
Another is to chill out. Set up a daily “Zen zone” for yourself and your dog by practicing mediation. For our dogs, this looks like a behavior relaxation protocol provided by Dr. Karen Overall, a systematic desensitization routine in which we reward our dogs for remaining calm and increase the time they remain calm while introducing movement, noise, and other stimuli.
Sometimes, what we think is separation anxiety or isolation distress is simply boredom from being left alone for too long with nothing to do. This is when strategic enrichment games help. Improve your dog’s welfare by enriching their environment while you’re away can make the difference.
• Discover your dog’s unique personality. Want to learn more about your dog’s personality and what motivates them? Dognition.com, an online game designed by Dr. Brian Hare, director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, is a fun, low-cost way to engage the whole family. Consider including it in your daily activity plan. After you sign up, you will receive suggestions and demos for future games to play that are specific to your dog. Through very simple games, you will learn more about your dog’s personality and what works for him/her.
• Give them something to do. So often, we misinterpret our dog’s body language and activity. We may think our dogs are fine when in fact, they are not. Take, for example, the amount of time they sleep. A healthy adult dog sleeps about 12 to 14 hours in a 24-hour period; puppies and seniors sleep more, but so do dogs who are bored or depressed. There are things you can do to relieve their boredom.
Dog-focused television programming is one option. An even better one is indulging their most important sense: olfaction, or the sense of smell, one of the first sensory systems to develop in dogs. Dogs communicate through the exchange of chemicals, including pheromones. They rely on this sense to understand how others (including dogs, cats and you) are feeling in a given situation; to understand if their environment is safe or unsafe; and to reduce anxiety when we leave them alone.
According to studies by Alexandra Horowitz, being able to use their noses improves dogs’ mental well-being. Taking a “smelling walk” is enriching for them, as is providing them with nose-work games indoors. There also are tons of engagement and treat-dispensing toys that will keep your dog busy for hours. While you can spend a lot of money on these, you can also DIY it at home for very little.
Dogs’ specialized sensory perceptions are unique to their species, as ours are to us. No matter how much time, interest and inclination we may have, there are many ways to enliven our dogs’ days and build the bond.