NEWS

Pet stress

Dog handlers finding increased anxiety because of the pandemic

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Cam hasn’t been himself since the governor shut down the state in March.

He used to love going on neighborhood walks, but now he gets a couple of blocks from home and can’t decide where to go. So, he returns home. He’s become irritable and even voiced his displeasure when he visited the doc for a routine checkup. Even stranger, he’s excavated a tunnel in the backyard where he’ll disappear.

Cam is a rescue lab with a characteristic friendly and welcoming disposition. His tail wags a lot. He likes playing, although he gets bored with the same game after a few minutes. He loves kids. And a visit to the vet is another adventure and a chance to pick up plenty of adoring hugs and pets.

Not this time, though.

Cam growled. They outfitted him with a muzzle, but he wouldn’t sit still and was clearly agitated. They finally had to sedate him.

“He’s changed, although he’s getting a bit better now,” says Tom Sanford of Warwick. “Do you think it has anything to do with COVID?”

Karen Kalunian, who has volunteered with the East Greenwich Animal Protection League that is now based in Cranston for years, was intrigued by Cam’s symptoms and the question.

In the last several weeks she has heard a lot about separation anxiety, as pet owners who were pretty much in a lockdown situation are now returning to work and getting out. Their dogs and cats are now being left for greater chunks of the day.

That hasn’t been Cam’s situation. A retired Warwick school teacher, Sanford and Cam spend a lot of time together.

Neighborhood walks are a favorite past time, but on a recent foray they got to an intersection and Cam couldn’t decide which road to take. He froze in his steps and started quaking and then drooling. Only when Sanford turned to go home did he respond.

And then there’s the digging. Cam likes digging a shallow pit to lie in, a spot to watch the squirrels and spring into action. Cam didn’t stop with a pit. He’s dug a tunnel that he’ll crawl into and virtually disappear. Fearful it could collapse, Sanford tried blocking it with a rock. Cam still manages to partially burrow underground.

“Dogs know. They know if you’ve had a good day,” Kalunian said.

Jamie Genereux, who lives in Cumberland and runs Packleader PetTrackers, agrees.

“They feed off our emotions, our energy,” he said in an interview Monday. Genereux couldn’t say he’s seen many more distressed dogs since the pandemic has turned things on their head. Yet he reported a dramatic increase in the calls to track down lost dogs. He uses a pair of black labs – tracking dogs that sniff the air rather than the ground for a scent – to find the quarry. He said finding a lost dog in a rural area is usually easier than in a city or the suburbs. He said his recovery rate in rural areas is about 90 percent.

He said lost dogs usually are found relatively close to home, lying in the woods and in “survival mode,” meaning they won’t respond to calls and generally won’t move in an effort to go undetected. As for the impact of the pandemic and how that has changed the environment for canines he thought the wearing of masks has an effect and that it could be a stress factor.

Primarily, he keys on how dogs can detect our moods and can sense anxiety, depression and for that matter happiness, relief and joy.

Laurie Ruttenberg, who has owned and operated Lucky Dog in Newport for the past six years, has noticed a dramatic change in the dogs she cares for since reopening in June.

She said dogs are “creatures of habit and they thrive off of that.” However, with the shutdown, routines changed. Entire families were home all day and suddenly they were receiving a lot more attention.

“They were not used to everyone being home at once,” said Ruttenberg. Once adjusting to that the reopening started and everything became new again.

“We’re trying to act normal, but this isn’t normal. It’s the same for dogs. They become really anxious to leave their comfort,” she said.

“Dogs thrive in a routine and they don’t understand why their world has been turned upside down in some cases, while households quarantine and owners never leave anymore. Additionally, the level of anxiety in the home has increased while people worry about their health, their loved ones, as well as their jobs and finances. It’s been a stressful time for everyone and our pets are sensitive to changes, both in our comings and goings as well as our emotional health,” said certified professional dog trainer Jacqueline Baffoni.

Baffoni specializes in working with dogs in shelters as well as recently adopted dogs that are displaying behavioral concerns.

Ruttenberg urges dog owners to teach their dogs to be alone again by leaving them, for example, in a room by themselves for only a few minutes after which they are rewarded with praise and then incrementally increasing the time. Constantly petting the dog and reassuring it doesn’t work.

“People have wonderful intentions with dogs but it’s backfiring,” she said.

“Be as patient as possible,” she said.

“Please love your dog but teach skills to get through life.”

Baffoni offers this observation: “As we suffer, so do our loyal friends. Working to bring a sense of normalcy back to their day can bring them comfort, even when it isn’t by matching their old schedule. A new normal for them allows our dogs to anticipate their day and can relieve the stress connected to a lack of understanding or expectation. Settling into a set schedule can bring relief, allowing them to return to their role as the comforting companion so many are in need of right now.”

Kalunian picks up on the acute smell dogs possess and sees them as an ally in fighting the virus.

“Dog noses are hyper sensitive,” she said. She noted that research is being done on the raining of dogs to detect COVID-19 and how these dogs could be used in airports.

According to a July 24 CBS story, eight dogs from Germany’s armed forces could identify the virus in humans after being trained for five days. The report said the dogs sniffed the saliva of 1,012 people, both healthy and infected, identifying the caronvirus with a 94 percent accuracy rate.

The report said researchers said coronavirus-sniffing dogs could be used in public areas such as airports, sporting events and borders to help prevent further outbreaks of the virus.

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