If you bought a dog during lockdown, they'll need help coming out of it

Despite the lows of the past year, for many lockdown has been the perfect opportunity to welcome a dog into their lives. The demand for dogs during the pandemic has been huge, with a 60% increase in calls from people seeking to adopt from the Dogs Trust charity, and with many other rescue organisations reporting similar findings. Google searches for “buy a puppy” increased by 115% after the UK first went into lockdown in March 2020, with prices for some of the most sought-after breeds reaching record levels.

Dog ownership is a wonderful thing, but it is also a huge responsibility and a commitment that spans way beyond lockdown: as the saying goes, “A dog is for life”. As restrictions ease and the resumption of normality begins, it’s important we consider the implications for our canine companions and give them a hand to help them adjust.

Having a dog around has helped many people cope with lockdown. Our dogs mostly love us being around too: going for longer walks, having more playtime, and resting by our side. Nevertheless, it’s safe to say life has not been normal for our dogs for most of the past year. Few have met other dogs, and if they have seen them, it would have been from afar or on a lead, meaning that they were unable to interact or play. There have also been fewer visitors coming into the home, but probably more deliveries, with people coming to the door carrying parcels and going away again. This is all particularly concerning for puppies acquired during the pandemic, as their expectation of “normal” is lockdown life, and they may never have seen visitors inside the house or have been left home alone.

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We are all longing for a great British summer in which we can go on dog-date walks with a friend and their dog, have family round for garden barbecues and take our pooches to the pub or cafe, and of course, we need our dogs to be able to cope calmly with all of that. A return to normal is something humans are able to process, understand and prepare for. But our dogs – especially young ones – won’t understand why everything has changed. As far as our dogs know, normality for them has been enjoying time with family only – so to be expected to cope with groups of people, children and other dogs, both in and out of the home, could be overwhelming for them.

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A big worry for dog owners is the long-term impact of lockdown on their ability to cope with being left at home on their own. Dogs who had separation anxiety before the lockdown are likely to get worse when left again as owners head back to work – but we also expect to see new cases developing, because other dogs, and particularly puppies, have learned to expect company all day.

One of the biggest reasons why dogs are rehomed is because of behaviour-related issues. A rise in problematic behaviours after lockdown could mean families have no other option but to give up their dog. And, really sadly, most of these problems can be prevented with the right early experiences.

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Our message to owners is to start preparing now, rather than waiting until things return more to normal. It’s easy to do: start building up experiences of all the things we will expect them to do once the lockdown eases. For instance, start building in minimal periods apart, initially just being briefly separated from you by a door or child gate. If they stay calm, build up the time separated really gradually, so they start to adjust to not being with you all the time. If your dog gets worried when separated – barking, whining, panting, or scratching at the door – you have progressed too fast. Go back to a shorter period to help them adjust. By gradually increasing your time apart, you can ensure they are able to settle on their own and help them prepare for the time when you need to return to work or study.

Our dogs will also need help when it comes to seeing friends and family, both outdoors and indoors. Teaching your dog how to greet new people calmly, how to settle when guests visit or when you’re in a cafe are key skills. Coming back when called, walking on a loose lead and not barking when the doorbell goes are also vital skills that will set them up for success.

It is much easier to prevent problems than treat them, and it’s not too late to help prepare your dogs for the changes coming. To support dog owners, there is online training, so dogs and their owners can equip themselves with the skills they can put into practice as normality resumes.

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When people take on the responsibilities of dog ownership, they do so with the best intentions to care for them in the long term. But the pandemic will have devastating effects on some people’s lives, including their ability to care for their dogs. While we provide lots of support to help keep dogs and owners together, we’re also here for when things aren’t going so well, and owners may be having trouble seeing a future with their dog. If anyone does find themselves struggling, and may be considering having to rehome their dog, please contact Dogs Trust and we will do everything we can to help.

  • Dr Rachel Casey is director of canine behaviour and research at Dogs Trust
  • For more information and advice, visit www.dogstrust.org.uk/changethetale/advice