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Making Pandemic Pets Part of the Family

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Pandemic Pets Crop
Brie Bourcier and her dog Rocky. Brie Bourcier

Pet adoptions increased during the pandemic because a lot of people were home more than usual. Many people felt the time was right to adopt or foster for the first time.

But first-time pet owners may in some cases have gotten more than they bargained for, especially as the pandemic risk lessened and it came time to go back to work.

So how are all those pandemic pets doing? After the honeymoon phase—if you can call it that—pet owners are learning a lot about the ups and downs of taking care of their new charges.

Pet Benefits

Holly Maynard from Niverville got a puppy during the pandemic because the timing felt very practical.

“Getting a dog during COVID seemed like the right time to do it,” Maynard says. “I was always at home and not working at the time, so I could be at home for the potty training stage, etc.”

While pet ownership has definitely brought a lot of fun to her life, it’s also come with a few unexpected challenges.

“Having my dog, Gus, has been fun and challenging all at the same time,” she says. “But trying to do university classes at home with a puppy is hard and is a huge distraction.”

Meghan Funk from RuffMutts in Niverville also got a new dog back in February 2021. She says pet ownership has been an amazing experience and there are a lot of reasons why people opted to add pets to their homes during the pandemic.

“Pet ownership benefits us in many ways,” says Funk. “Owning a pet is great for children, as it can help teach them compassion and responsibility. As for us adults, it can be a great way to make us more in tune with what’s happening around us. Pets are a good reminder for us who live busy lives to live in the moment, and enjoy what’s happening right now instead of worrying about tomorrow.”

The pandemic brought a lot of insecurity, and having a pet is a great way to put a little structure back into our day-to-day lives.

“Having to clean up, feed, and exercise our pets helps break up the day, especially when you have been working from home,” Funk points out. “Pets help keep us active as well as allow us to be social. Working from home, it has given us companionship and will continue to do so even if we head back into the office.”

Problems and Solutions

The benefits of having a pet are considerable, but when the new-and-cute factor wears off, reality sinks in.

“I think it overall helped me because it was a companion at all times, no matter what day it was or what the restrictions were,” says Maynard. “But a COVID puppy has challenges because people were never coming over. Now when people do, my dog is just so excited to see new people!”

Brie Bourcier from Positive Canine, a dog trainer from Niverville who focuses on taking a positive approach to behavioural problems in dogs, worked with Maynard and her dog. She also saw a huge increase in the number of people adopting new pets during the pandemic.

“I personally think that it was with the uncertainty with what’s going on around the world that made everybody want to try something new,” says Bourcier. “Everyone’s routines became different. A lot of the time, if you get a puppy, you need to put life on hold in order to potty train and make the effort to be home. People can’t always find that time because life is so hectic. It’s hard to be, like, ‘I’m going to be home all the time and not go out on the weekends.’ And COVID made us do that. So COVID hit and it was, ‘Why don’t we get that puppy the family has always wanted?’ And we know, mentally, that it has really helped people.”

Along with Maynard, Bourcier says she is seeing the flipside of that decision, and many people are asking for help with dog training issues now that people’s lives are going back to normal.

“The issue is, now your dog is used to being with you 24/7,” Bourcier continues. “That is the routine you set up for them day one when they were little. That can cause problems because they think they go everywhere with you. With going back to work, there is separation anxiety. The puppy hasn’t had time to adjust.”

It’s not just puppies. Pet problem behaviours can arise during any change in routine. Separation anxiety takes on many forms, like digestive issues, obsessive behaviour, chewing, and destructive behaviours. Bourcier says this is because pets don’t know what to do with themselves.

“You feel like you’re doing the right thing and it’s the right timing when COVID hit and you’re home all the time,” she says. “But now you have this dog that’s, like, ‘What the heck is going on in my world?’ It’s a lot going on. We need to be patient with them.”

Demonstrating empathy for a pet tends to create a more positive view of the animal. It’s a healthier situation overall when people reach out to try to help their dog.

“One thing people tend to forget,” says Bourcier, “is that dogs aren’t one-size-fits-all. They are individuals just like us. They have their own personality and particularities. We expect all dogs to be family dogs. We expect dogs to be nice and friendly and say hi to absolutely every person. And even for well-behaved dogs, we can’t expect them to not have a bad day.”

One problem Bourcier has seen a lot has to do with socialization. Because of the pandemic, many dogs haven’t had the opportunity to learn how to behave properly around other dogs and humans.

“Being at home has set us up for this unique problem,” she says. “It set dogs up for improper socialization… so a lot of my clients right now are dealing with the dog growling and snapping at guests when they come to the house. This is simply because they didn’t get the opportunity to go to the parks, meet other people, or have lots of people come to the door or come into the home. They weren’t able to do it in the ‘I’m a puppy, I love everybody’ phase. So now there are signs of anxiety or aggression when meeting people. So that’s a big issue.”

When a dog’s behavioural problems become a problem, it’s not just stressful for the dog; it’s stressful for the whole family.

Bourcier also says that there are situations where the home and the dog may not be compatible.

“Rehoming has a bad rap, but sometimes it is in the best interest of both the family and the dog, if you can’t give it the life it needs,” says Bourcier. “One situation I was aware of, the dog was so stressed. Dog medication does exist and is an option to deal with the stress, but the truth is it just wasn’t a good fit. Now she’s at home with a couple who is retired and can be home to love her in the way she needs. And she’s living her best life.”

Despite wanting to remove any negativity or social stigma surrounding rehoming a pet, Bourcier also wants dog owners to know that there are many proven techniques to improve pet behaviour and quality of life for both the dog and the entire family.

“A very, very easy resource to turn to is YouTube!” Bourcier says. “It’s free. It’s at our fingertips. Why not use it? There are really lots of good videos on how to mentally stimulate a dog. Just be careful with the type of training you do watch. Science-based or positive training is best.”

Making sure your resources are positive and not based on punishment is important, she advises—and so is remembering that basic exercise is one of the best training tools out there.

“Now that it’s colder and it’s harder to exercise the dog, we can all tend to get a little lazy,” she adds. “But there are lots of inside exercises you can do too. And don’t forget that, for your dog, mental exercise is physical exercise.”

Utilizing a trainer is another way to increase both the mental and physical exercise you give your dog, and Bourcier says that sometimes just a small amount of training can make a big amount of difference. Increasing their stimulation can help owners get ahead of unwanted behaviours.

Tips for First-Time Pet Owners

Did you just get a new pet or are you considering getting one for Christmas? The old saying is true: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It’s especially true when it comes to preparing for a new pet to enter your home.

RuffMutts’ number one tip includes important information about potty training.

“The most common item that new puppy owners reach for are pee pads,” says Funk. “When potty training a new puppy, we want to encourage them to eliminate outside as much as possible. Having pee pads in the house do just the opposite. Instead, purchase an enzymatic cleaner to help remove the smell of accidents in the house. If they can’t smell it in the house, the more likely they will continue to go outside.”

Bourcier adds that Positive Canine has four key tips to help you through the transition of getting a new puppy.

1. Play or train outside. Not all dogs do well in a closed environment. As to indoor obedience classes, group classes aren’t for everyone, since some dogs are already overwhelmed, under-stimulated, and aggressive.

“I like being outside,” says Bourcier. “So we can build distance if a dog is having a hard time or having a lack of confidence.”

2. Be intentional. Spending one-on-one time with your dog is important. Dedicating some time every day to exercise and positive mental training should be a priority.

3. Talk to a trainer. Bringing in a trainer at the beginning gets you a lot of return on your investment, which sets people up for success.

“Talk about how and where to feed, which eliminates food aggression issues,” she says. “When integrating the puppy into a family with children, it’s so important that it goes well. I’ve had clients where, within a week of getting their puppy, the puppy is so well-behaved. The people know how to read the puppy. The bond between them is flourishing because they understand each other, what’s expected, and how to communicate.”

4. Be aware of puppy blues. Many times, people get the blues—and so do puppies.

“That’s a real thing,” Bourcier says. “It’s like a newborn baby stage. It’s a constant thing that needs your attention and responsibility.”

Both RuffMutts and Positive Canine recommend that anyone giving a pet for Christmas might also consider giving a gift certificate along with the animal.

“Don’t be afraid to give a new pet owner a gift card as well,” says Funk. “It can help new pet owners purchase basics, or they can put it towards a big ticket item, like a new cat tree or kennel for that rapidly growing kitten or puppy.”

And Bourcier has one final piece of advice: “Yes, you’ve spent money on the dog, but also, maybe give a gift certificate for a first training session. Any lessons on how to incorporate puppy into their environment, how to treat the food delivery, and how to help younger family members adjust to the dog will help everyone to transition smoothly from having a new pet to having a forever pet.”

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