Strange times we’re living through today. Even for our pets — although I daresay they are finding the stay at home orders much more congenial than the rest of us.
There’s no question that dogs — and other pets, too — are reveling in all the contact and attention suddenly coming their way as kids and adults stay home. Aside from school and work, even leisure activities like organized sports, clubs, eating out, travel are suddenly forbidden, and we are thrown on our much closer to home resources: each other, and such entertainment as we can find electronically — or in such retro pastimes as card and board games, and daily walks with our dogs.
Last Saturday, after listening to Governor Polis’s sensible speech, I decided to put on my homemade mask and take my two dogs out for a leash walk around the neighborhood. I usually prefer to drive a few miles to places where I can enjoy solitude and they can explore safely off leash. But persuaded by the case Polis made for not taking our germs far afield, I leashed up Rascal and Skipper and off we went.
It was a revelation to me how obviously they considered this very ordinary walk to be a great new adventure. Scents and sights and sounds of our own neighborhood were so novel and exciting, and I, too, found interesting new things along the sidewalks that normally go by unnoticed at car speed: all the little signs of spring’s welcome renewal. Imagine how different the new reality would feel if it were November now instead of April.
Meanwhile, in the spirit of Polis’ reminder that “this is not a vacation” but it can spark all manner of creative adaptations, I have some suggestions for households with pets!
First, how about kids out of school taking on a teaching role with the pets in the family? Some resources include excellent dog training videos you can access at http://www.youtube.com/user/thefamilydogtv. Many of them explicitly guide youngsters in applying basic and universal aspects of learning theory to teaching their pets everything from manners to games to useful behaviors. In the process (and how delightful for kids to turn the tables and be the teachers for a change) they will learn to observe and discover insights about motivation and practical skill development they can apply to everything they do, the rest of their lives.
For all ages, a wonderful local resource is https://courses.summitdogtraining.com through which whole training courses can be purchased and taken at your own pace at home. For those interested in both dog behavior and citizen science projects, this is a great time to explore an expanding universe of opportunities. Just Google “dog (or cat, or bird) citizen science projects” and see which ones call to you. If we allow it to happen, this enforced period of limited distractions can open us to the delights of participating in studies that require focus and discipline, patient observation, thoughtful assessment and shared discovery.
Now, a word about masks. Our pets are constantly observing our faces for important clues to our moods and intentions that affect them. Many dogs are afraid of men with hats or beards — not because of a bad history but because these make it more difficult to read faces. If your dog is suspicious of you in your mask, trick is to convince him it means good things are about to occur. Put it on when you feed him or pick up the leash for a walk. He’ll get it fast.
Remember, this period of hyper-togetherness, even if every moment is not all fun and games, is how your dog would organize the world if she could. When you go back to work and the kids are in school again, the pup is going to feel bereft and lonely. It’s a setup for separation anxiety. Prevent that by building in some alone time for the dog every day, starting now. Make those times special with some treasured toy or bone he only gets when you leave.
I hope some of the adaptations we are making now to this viral curse will prove to be desirable things we can insist on taking with us into the new normal, when it comes. More time with our animal companions is at the top of my list.