How Routine Changes Can Impact Dog Behavior: Lessons From COVID-19
Recent events related to the global COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in many dog guardians changing their normal routines. For some, this has meant spending more time at home and dogs spending less time alone. At first glance, this may appear advantageous to dogs. However, it inevitably means that dogs will be left alone again when health restrictions are lifted.
Dogs can develop separation-related behaviors (SRBs) such as howling, soiling, and destroying household items, when access to human company is limited. These behaviors are both disturbing to dog guardians and detrimental to the emotional wellbeing of dogs. Several studies have reported a negative impact of social restrictions on companion dog behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This study examined how changes in the amount of time dogs spent alone during the pandemic impacted SRB. Specifically, once restrictions were lifted and many dogs were left alone again, the authors wanted to know whether SRBs were higher among dogs who spent less time alone, compared to those who spent more time alone. To answer this question, they gathered survey data from 2,425 U.K. dog owners, representing 1,807 dogs. They asked guardians to explain their dogs’ behavior, living environment, and their management practices (e.g., how often they left their dog alone) during the pre-lockdown period in February 2020, the lockdown in May/June 2020, and the more lenient period in October 2020.
Results showed that overall, the amount of time that dogs were left alone decreased from February to October 2020. Coinciding with this, the presence of SRBs among dogs in the study fell from 22.1% before the lockdown to 17.2% during the more lenient period in October. However, nearly 10% of dogs developed new signs of SRB by October. This may be a modest estimate because it’s not always possible for guardians to observe their dogs’ SRBs when they’re not home and don’t have access to, say, a home monitoring system to check on their animals. Regardless, the authors note that dogs who spent the least amount of time alone during the pandemic lockdowns were at greater risk of developing new SRBs by the end of the study period. Furthermore, dogs who were older were more at risk for developing new SRBs.
SRB occurrence also changed for dogs who were already showing signs of SRBs before the COVID-19 lockdowns. Specifically, of the dogs who showed at least one SRB prior to February 2020, 55.7% stopped displaying SRBs by October 2020. However, the authors did not account for whether these changes could be attributed to something other than the lockdowns. For example, it’s possible that some guardians with SRB dogs engaged in behavior modification training during the study period.
In summary, SRB in dogs isn’t a fixed phenomenon. It can change depending on the circumstances, including changes in a guardian’s routine. In this study, dogs without pre-existing SRBs, whose time alone changed the most, were at greater risk of developing new SRBs when pandemic restrictions were lifted. These results provide valuable insight into the causes of SRB, and the impact of sudden routine changes on dog behavior. Animal advocates can use the results of this study to emphasize why it’s so important to acclimate our dogs to time left alone, even when routine changes mean a guardian will remain home for longer periods of time. Jobs, medical appointments, and other out-of-home necessities may seem harmless to guardians, but for dogs, they can be extremely distressing. Taking steps to ensure dogs are comfortable with these changes can protect their wellbeing and strengthen the human-animal bond.