Dr Roger Mugford, renowned animal psychologist, first opened the gates to his farm in Surrey over 40 years ago and began what is now the UK’s leading dog training and pet behaviour reform. Like the rest of the world, the expert trainers and behaviourists at the Company of Animals Pet Centre have experienced a year like no other, noting interesting and concerning new trends arising from the unprecedented rise in the number of pets in the UK. This paper is designed to share their first-hand accounts as well as academic studies to further explain the impact the pandemic has had on the nation’s pets.
Pre-Covid-19 puppy socialisation practices
It comes as no surprise that puppy training courses and classes acknowledge the importance of socialisation and habituation during the early months. However, the #dogkind research project undertaken by the RSPCA in 2018 reported that while 93% of dog owners agree that dogs should be trained how to behave from an early age, only 39% of dog owners actively attended puppy training classes. This begs the question that while all puppy training programmes have modules dedicated to socialisation, is the average dog owner able to ensure their pup gets enough time to socialise without professional advice and support?
Dr. Ángela González-Martínez (Santiago de Compostela University) et al., conducted a study in Spain in 2019 that analysed dogs who had completed puppy class one year earlier to those of the same age who had not taken a puppy class. The study concluded that the professional advice and increased quality of the social skills acquired in regular puppy classes resulted in dogs that were more “trainable”.
Furthermore, a 2017 study by Guide Dogs National Breeding Programme went so far as to prove that additional socialisation can be relatively cheap and easy to implement, thus solidifying what science tells us about the development of puppies. It also provided evidence that the extra time dedicated to socialisation resulted in decreased separation-related behaviour, distraction, body sensitivity and general anxiety.
Today, the Company of Animals Pet Centre trains thousands of dogs (and their owners!) and regularly hosts classes specifically dedicated to the socialisation of puppies. By mirroring the key principles that forms these classes in their day-to-day activities, dog owners are able to get the best out of their much-loved pets in the long run. Dr Roger’s farm also hosts “farm walks” whereby puppies can experience new sights, sounds and smells including meeting the llamas!
Out and about
A dog’s behaviour is dependent on breeding, nurturing and individual experiences. A dog’s ability to reach adulthood well-adjusted and without fear, anxiety or worry is largely dependent on their opportunities for socialisation and habituation. Socialisation teaches puppies how to bond with other dogs, people and other animals and occurs between 3-14 weeks of age. Habituation teaches dogs that noises, objects, and activities in their lives are safe. If dogs are not appropriately or adequately socialised and habituated, they are at risk of developing behavioural disorders later in life including fear, anxiety and aggression towards unfamiliar people, dogs and/or other animals.
“Many behaviour problems can be avoided by early training and appropriate socialisation; separation anxiety & noise phobia issues are prime examples. Whilst puppies can have an inherent predisposition towards both of these problems, with early training and exposure the onset can be dramatically reduced.
Even dogs that don’t have this predisposition can still be affected if they are not taught to cope with isolation and/or novel stimuli and noises in their critical socialisation and habituation period of 16 weeks of age!
Aggression towards other dogs is and always has been the singularly most common behaviour problem presented at the Pet Centre and whilst in some cases this may have been caused by a negative/traumatic experience such as being attacked by another dog; it is frequently caused by inappropriate early socialisation. Many puppies simply do not learn the social skills and communication needed to navigate them through interaction with unfamiliar dogs which may result in negative responses towards them. Conversely, ‘friendly’ dogs are just as likely to experience negative reactions as shy or fearful pups, if they simply don’t understand when another dog doesn’t want to play/interact or has had enough of the game.”
Fiona Whelan, Animal Behaviourist, Company of Animals Pet Centre
A rising trend over the past few years has been to attend open air “puppy parties” whereby puppies from the local area can meet up and play. Despite many new puppy owners feeling nervous about reaching out to fellow puppy owners online, the Covid 19 restrictions meant these “puppy parties” could no longer take place, resulting in many going without such important interactions. The Company of Animals Pet Centre reported a 108% rise in online consultations (versus usual puppy class numbers) in this time to help advise and address issues that occurred during this isolating period.
Since the easing of lockdown restrictions, puppy classes have, thankfully resumed and puppies can meet outside safely again. However, the average age of puppies attending the classes at the Company of Animals Pet Centre has, understandably increased by approximately 4 months – a direct correlation to the recent lockdown. This increase in average age has resulted in the same behavioural challenges as discussed by Fiona.
The impact of COVID-19
There have been well-publicised concerns about the negative impacts on pet welfare as a result of COVID-19 restrictions. Working from home, for many, was a welcome change as the extra time with pets and family was a happy bonus for all involved. However, after a little time had passed, dog owners soon started to think about how their pets will cope when life returns to “normal”.
While many training schools including Dr Roger’s Pet Centre has been running online consultations, the lockdown restrictions meant that, during the biggest pet boom for decades, millions of new puppies went without the benefits of structured and sociable puppy classes. With this, has come a new wave of dogs with behavioural issues that would have otherwise been avoided. The consequences mean that trainers and behaviourists nationwide have their work cut out trying to remedy countless cases of separation anxiety, reactivity, and depression.
Separation anxiety is one of the primary concerns post-lockdown with half a million pet owners saying their dog has started to show signs of distress when left alone since the start of lockdown (PDSA Paw Report 2020). Even prior to the pandemic, smart pet monitoring device market grew 11% (forbes.com 2018) and now, remote pet play devices such as PupPod are also taking the market by storm with a projected growth of 24% by 2025 (gminsights.com)
Our experts at the Company of Animals Pet Centre have experienced a significant increase in vet referrals coming in over the last year as well as new dog owners getting in touch independently. This supports the recent findings showing 20% of dog owners who had owned their pet prior to lockdown, reported their pets had started showing at least one new behaviour since restrictions began in March 2020. These include separation anxiety (12%), annoying or excessive vocalisation (24%), attention-seeking behaviour (42%), nervous behaviour (25%), and excitable behaviour (21%) as well as scratching, destructive behaviour, barking or howling for more than five minutes or toileting in the house. (MDPI 2020)
Another concerning by-product of the increase in pet ownership is the ratio of abandonment. While lockdown provided thousands of people the perfect opportunity to get a dog, many have had to give up their new pet due to not being able to cope with costs, commitment or due to returning to a “normal” work capacity. Dogs Trust warns up to 40,000 dogs could be at risk of abandonment in the fallout of the coronavirus crisis
Behavioural issues pending
It’s safe to say that all new puppy owners have had to deal with decreased socialisation opportunities during the Covid-19 pandemic. The halt on face-to-face puppy classes combined with the extended hours of human contact from working from home has led to an entire generation of dogs developing complex behavioural issues and separation anxiety.
The experts at the Pet Centre have seen some intriguing trends over the last year through their new online consultation service. It has become clear that the daily exercise encouraged by global governments has thankfully resulted in many puppies getting the exercise they need and, in some instances, too much!
“Exercise, as we know, is highly important for puppies, and research has shown that overweight puppies are around 5 times more likely to be overweight adult dogs and develop injuries such as cranial cruciate ligament rupture (equivalent to the ACL in humans) and hip dysplasia, both of which often require surgery. I always ensure my clients are mindful not to exercise puppies to the point of fatigue (as with any age of dog) and avoid high impact exercise as this can increase the risk of injury.
Regular exercise is essential in helping to prevent and manage conditions such as osteoarthritis. REGULAR being the optimal word. Unfortunately, many owners are guilty of a few short walks during the week but then expect the dog to go hiking for hours at the weekend. Sadly, I have seen more and more of this throughout COVID-19. Regular exercise means your dog is going for daily walks, ideally, 2-3 walks split across the day.
Interestingly, a study by Greene et al., (2013) found that dogs with hip arthritis that exercised for >60 minutes per day had lower lameness scores than dogs that exercised <20 minutes per day. This isn’t to say that every dog should be exercised for 60 minutes per day. Dogs and puppies need to build up to this based on their breed and needs, but it does highlight the importance of an active lifestyle for puppies and dogs. More importantly, is the type of exercise the dog is getting. Chasing after a ball time after time can be extremely damaging to joints and muscles and can also lead to additive and frantic behaviours, therefore it really is not the best form of exercise for any dog, young or old!
Most dog owners believe their dog to be coping well with all this extra exercise that COVID-19 has allowed us (and chances are, they are!) but it’s important to remember that dogs are programmed very differently to us and most will keep going and going. Dogs can be lame or in pain, but the adrenalin of exercise and the feel good factor associated with exercise can temporarily override pain. As such, many owners only realise there is a problem once the damage is done. I always recommend that, as responsible owners, we ensure we are constantly monitoring the dog and looking out for signs of fatigue, pain, and lameness.
Are they slowing down on the walk? Are they lagging behind? Look out for intermittent limping, stiffness before, during or after exercise. Are they suddenly struggling to jump in or out of the car and licking themselves a lot after exercise (especially joints)? Pain can also manifest itself through behavioural changes. Is your puppy or dog becoming grumpy, aggressive, or anti-social on walks (towards humans or other dogs), when previously they haven’t? Have they become more frantic and less obedient? All of these scenarios are possible signs that your dog is not coping with the level of exercise and may be in pain, therefore veterinary intervention should be sought. Your vet may also refer you to a veterinary physiotherapist who will work with you to design a suitable exercise plan for your dog.”
Danielle Everett, Veterinary Physio and Hydrotherapist, Company of Animals Pet Centre
However, one of the most common issues found by Dr Roger Mugford and the team has been dogs taking a dislike to other dogs due to lack of social interaction in their early months and subsequent nervousness. A recent study supported by the Company of Animals saw 54% of participant’s dogs had either been attacked or challenged by other dogs with 27% of victims stating that the encounter(s) had a long-term effect on their daily dog walks. (CBFA UK 2020) The study explored the possibility that these attacks were, in part, down to there being more dogs being out in the parks. With more dogs and limited socialisation and training (thanks to lockdown) it is of little surprise to the Pet Centre experts that incidents of aggression occur.
While new dog owners (particularly young adults aged 24-35) have taken the time to ensure their dog meets plenty of different people, a pup mingling with other dogs and experiencing the usual loud, bustling situations of “normal life” has been restricted due to the pandemic.
As such, many new dog and puppy owners are faced with the prospect of enjoying new-found freedoms with a potentially troublesome pet. While separation anxiety is by far the biggest issue the behaviourists are facing at the Pet Centre, concerning breeding trends have brought some issues light.
“All over the world people’s lives have changed dramatically. Many experienced prolonged and lonely periods so it is not surprising that thousands have sought the comfort and distraction of a dog.
In this time of desperation, backyard breeders have taken advantage of the nation, they have created some of the strangest, unhealthy crosses ever and hiked prices up to an extortionate level. The crossing of any dog breeds needs to be done meticulously; genetic behaviours must be matched appropriately to reach the desired outcome. Sadly, the Pet Centre is seeing more crosses where there is clear genetic conflict concerning the behaviours of these crosses which, ultimately, makes training more difficult and can exacerbate behavioural issues.
Equipment fitting is becoming increasingly more difficult as these crosses have no set standard. The diets of the breeds used to make such crosses may differ drastically which many of these breeders do not consider and this can also have a huge impact on behaviour. Lastly, the environmental conditioning of a breed. It is saddening to us at the Pet Centre to see examples of how incompatible breeds are often mated with little or no thought of the genetic implications for the offspring’s physique and even their ability to learn, grow and ultimately, enjoy life.”
Rebecca Booth, Trainer, Company of Animals Pet Centre
The pursuit of perfection is no bad thing when it comes to crafting a rewarding relationship with a new puppy or adopted oldie. Indeed, Dr Mugford’s most recent book is titled “The Perfect Dog” (Octopus, 2013) and he identifies the following rules for best practice:
Know the puppies’ or dogs’ history, be it from a breeder or a rescue agency. Never buy online or from an unknown source.
Invest time and emotion in early learning, just as you should with a child. Puppies acquire both good and bad habits with ease and speed that later in life we refer to as his or her “character”. Trouble is that the bad habits can be difficult to relearn or to overcome.
Social habits like enjoying the company of other dogs, cats or people are formed very early in life, so join puppy classes, meet, and greet with treats offered by strangers in the park and learn about cars, bikes even horses and farm animals. Expose to everyday sounds such bangs and motors: available free online.
Invest in balanced training using both payoffs (e.g., praise and titbits) and well-timed penalties to interrupt early stage unwanted behaviour, such as chasing bikes or sheep, excessive barking or jumping up at people. Avoid trainers that claim to use only reward-based methods, which can be as disastrous for dogs as they are for children,
Social play is a vital learning tool, so spend time with games like hide and seek, tracking, chase, tug and more! It is good therapy for you and for him… Later on and as you have to spend more time on work and less with puppy, invest in a canine cognition tech game such as PupPod.
Seek early advice from a canine professional, be it your vet, trainer, or behaviourist if your puppy, junior of adult dog develops unwanted behaviours. Most can be easily resolved using well established techniques of behaviour modification.
#dogkind research project
Guide Dogs National Breeding Programme