Life is topsy-turvy with coronavirus restrictions, even for our dogs. Hamilton the beagle and I are missing our old life together: road trips, volunteer visits, activities with friends. But our slow, scent-filled strolls in local parks have become a welcome stand-in.
Under stay-at-home orders, walking our dogs is, for many, a refreshing distraction. When it comes with a change of scenery, it’s an indulgence for those on either end of the leash.
Here are 10 tips for keeping your dog and you safe and healthy during the pandemic and beyond. (It goes without saying: Always pick up after your pup. If you can’t safely toss it in a public trash can, discard it at home.)
Stay close to home. Avoid unnecessary travel by finding a park or trail near your home. Check park websites and social media for updates, and respect closures: gates, cones, barricades or signs. Although on some days you may need to take a short drive to the park with your dog, keep in mind Fairfax County, Va.’s pithy covid-19 messaging: If you need a car, the trail is too far.
Adjust your routine. Some of Hammy’s favorite spots are either closed or completely blocked to cars. Other popular spots are open but often too congested for social distancing. If a park looks too crowded, or there’s no legal parking, plan to visit another time.
Treat Fido like a family member. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “There is no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading the virus that causes COVID-19.” While a small number of pets have been reported to be infected with the virus, mostly after contact with people, the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is considered low. Until more is known about the virus, however, the CDC recommends treating pets as you would any other family member: Don’t let them interact with people or animals outside the household or family members who are sick.
Keep your distance. On paths and trails, stay at least 6 feet from other people and dogs. Even better, find a field where you and your dog won’t have to pass anyone. Jackie Moyano, a trainer and founding member of Behavior United in Silver Spring, Maryland, discourages on-leash meetings — now or ever. “It’s an unnatural way for dogs to greet each other, and the tension on the leash can contribute to bad manners.” In her training, Moyano has dogs look to their humans for a treat when they see a dog they don’t know. If a stranger asks about saying hello to your dog, this is an easy time to practice saying, “Not right now, thanks for asking,” without the stigma of being unfriendly. “Not all dogs love other people or other dogs,” Moyano says, “Even after we go back to not social distancing, we should be in the mind-set of giving dog space if they want it.”
Read your dog. Pay attention to cues to know how your dog is feeling, especially when encountering another dog. Yawning, lip-licking, paw-raising and tail-tucking can all be signs of anxiety. People tend to assume that a wagging tail means a happy pup, but it simply means arousal. A fast, upright wag means canine concern, Moyano says. The friendly tail wag is lower, sometimes a full-body wag starting at the shoulder. Check out the iSpeakDog website for more tips on interpreting “Doggish” to English.
Leash up. It’s always important to follow leash laws — for the protection of your dog, other dogs and humans — but it’s particularly important now. The use of retractable leashes is controversial. Alexandra Dilley, director of behavior and training at the Humane Rescue Alliance (HRA), advises against the leashes because many people mishandle them. It takes coordination and practice to shorten the leash if you need to quickly control your dog. Dilley warns that retractable leashes can get entangled with other dog leashes, and if you grab the leash as a dog’s running it out, you may cut or burn your hand.
Train while you walk. Take this quieter time to work with your dog on behavior. Amy Pike, a behaviorist and owner of Animal Behavior Wellness Center in Northern Virginia, said if your dog gets triggered (by a person, dog, skateboard, loud truck, etc.), shorten the leash, try to put yourself between the dog and the trigger, and pass as quickly as possible. “I don’t like seeing a person make the dog sit and forcing them to remain in an uncomfortable situation,” she says. “If you have to pick up the pace while distracting the dog with treats, I think that’s the better option.”
Don’t leave home without treats. In an environment with lots of distractions, it’s important to keep your dog’s attention. The best way to do that, at least for Hammy, is with treats. When we step aside on a trail to let a dog pass, I reward him for sitting and waiting. I also use treats (I like Charlee Bear brand because they’re low-calorie and low-mess) to reinforce good behavior. To engage dogs who aren’t as food-driven as Hammy, bust out the higher-value treats.
Go for a short sniff. You may be counting your steps, but your dog doesn’t need to follow suit. Sniffing and other mentally enriching exercises are at least as important as physical exercise, Moyano says. Replace that 4-mile walk with a leisurely, 1-mile sniff. Introducing your dog to new places — where different critters live and varied smells await — is like picking up a new book, Moyano says. “Eighty percent of the walks should be sniffing. You’ll be surprised how tired that makes them.”
Leave your dog home daily. Human companions can do something now to prevent separation anxiety in the future. Pike recommends leaving your dog home alone several times a day. “Go out and have your own experience to remind them we do have lives away from them, and we’ll be going back to work and school,” she says. If you normally take your dog for two or three walks a day, don’t start doing it more often. Get in your own power walk. Also: Keep your routine. If your dog typically walks and eats before sunrise stick to the schedule so the post-pandemic change won’t be traumatic. HRA recently offered a webinar with tips on how to teach your dog to “live well when alone.”