As someone who frequently interacts with working dogs and working-dog people, it is easy to divide the world of dogs into working dogs and pet dogs. Working dogs have drive and are intense; more importantly, they have jobs. Pet dogs, in contrast, are supposed to be happy-go-lucky, willing to hang out with their humans and accept life as it is.
The truth, however, is that pet dogs do work, every day of their lives—which for some requires a certain drive and grit all its own. Even when our lives are not turned upside down by a pandemic, pet dogs have work to do. For example, pet dogs offer quiet companionship for hours while we watch T.V.—even when they would much prefer a game of fetch because their human skipped walking them that day.
Pet dogs are close observers of their humans. They notice when we want to interact with them and when we don’t—indications that are often inconsistent and unclear. Many dogs are expected to stay away from the table while people are eating, but still understand that their human wants them to curl up at their feet when reading a book. Failure to learn subtle indications about their human’s mood can lead to a dog being relegated outside, which is hard on these highly social creatures, or in extreme cases surrendered to a shelter.
Pet dogs must learn a foreign language, and tolerate our frequent failure to learn theirs. “Go lie down” is “down” is also “off.” At times they are expected to be mind readers capable of complying with unexpressed expectations. Despite ambiguity in our cues and general communication, many owners still expect dogs to obey them instantly, regardless of the dogs’ own needs—a belief that is perpetuated when cues are described as commands. If we had bosses as mercurial and dictatorial as some dog owners, we would probably look for a new job. So, I am not convinced that the current meme about dogs being happy to have humans at home all day is universally true—although I’m sure it is for many.
To make sure that all this together time is good for both ends of the leash, ask yourself what is your dog’s life like during our global stay-at-home? Are his or her working conditions still acceptable or are reasonable accommodations to the workplace required?
To help you decide whether your dog’s needs are being met during this crisis, consider the following.
Time off. Does your dog get any time off now that you no longer go to work or even out to dinner? Consider that your dog may still need some alone time (which will also make the transition back to work go more smoothly, assuming we do go back some day). Make sure that your pet dog can retreat and rest away from kids and any other loud or high-energy aspects of your home.
Routines. Dogs like routines. If your pet dog is underfoot more these days (or less), or is suddenly unusually destructive or is barking more than in the past, consider that your dog may be struggling to learn their new place in a household that never leaves.
Stress. Covid is stressful. Many people are worried about losing incomes, homes, and jobs. We may have lost people we loved and we fear for our own health. We may not mean to let our stress impact those around us, but it is easy to do so. Dogs, like children, are particularly vulnerable. Dogs live their days entirely at the mercy of their humans. Ask yourself, would you want to be a dependent in your home right now? We all have moments when we fail to be our best selves leaving our pets to pay the price, but what is your primary temperament at home during this period of stress and fear? Could your dog be living anxious and scared? Or is your dog simply ignored and bored?
My challenge to us all during this period of staying at home is to use this time to observe your dog. Create a stay-at-home routine and watch how it impacts them. Give your pet dog some space every day and see how this impacts their behavior. Notice what they like and what they don’t. Care enough to make sure your dog has access to at least some things they want and voluntarily choose to do every day. Think past dog treats. Treats are great and can certainly reinforce desirable behavior, but so can walks, playing ball or tug, or a long run outside. Joint activities build a stronger relationship and being active is good for both dogs and humans.
Dogs work hard to provide us with the companionship that we desire, but they don’t always know what to do to please their “boss.” You can help by making sure your expectations for them are clear. Instead of focusing on the things you don’t like, which does nothing to clarify what you want your dog to do, catch your dog in the act of doing something good—they will learn how to meet your expectations much more quickly. For example, when your dog walks up to the sandwich you forgot on the coffee table and simply lies down, tell him he’s wonderful and give him a belly rub (if he likes belly rubs) or grab the leash and take him for a walk. Your dog will appreciate that you noticed him doing the right thing and that his choice led to something fun.
See how many things you can catch your dog doing right each day and how many different ways you can reinforce those good behaviors. Your dog will appreciate your communicating to them what you expect and giving them a workplace that is once again (or maybe finally!) predictable and manageable. Your pet dogs will welcome finally getting the “paycheck” that they have long deserved for all the work they do at home! In turn, they’ll work harder than ever at being good.