Written by Disha Ramanan
How to Mentally Stimulate Your Dog During Isolation
What a strange time this is for the world. Most of us are adjusting to working from home while juggling the work at home. Some of us have kids too – be it a human, a dog or both! No longer being able to enjoy their routine walks outdoors and having to deal with noisy humans in the house all the time, dogs have been having a rough time too.
We caught up with canine behaviour expert Sindhoor Pangal, Principal and Director of BHARCS, to understand how these new changes in the social dynamics of the world are affecting our pets, and what to do to help dogs lead better lives during quarantine and isolation.
Behavioural issues with pet dogs during the quarantine
Sindhoor starts by breaking down the situation for us. “The biggest issue, of course, is that with people not being able to go out, dogs are going to be lacking on mental stimulation, which they get primarily from outdoors. And then the second issue that we're going to see is sleep deprivation because dogs need 14 to 16 hours of sleep. With all of us at home walking about and talking aloud all the time, it’s bound to interfere with their sleep.”
There is a silent, third aspect to this problem too. Sindhu elaborates, “This is a very difficult time for the entire world, and many people are dealing with issues like heightened stress and anxiety levels. Now, dogs are like sponges. When we get stressed, they feel stressed too, and they can't really understand what this whole thing is about. We can't explain it to them. While we may be able to cope, they can only see the stress, and that's going to transfer over to them.”
Another issue during this lockdown for many parents is a lack of availability of their pets’ primary diet. “This is going to be a very sudden change in diet as they're not able to get their regular diet,” says Sindhoor. “They're making do with whatever's at home and that sudden change usually puts oxidative stress on the body.”
Basically, then, we have stress on the body and on the mind, sleep deprivation and no mental stimulation. “What we see is a compounded effect of all of this. So, we are likely to see behavioral changes and issues. These could be ranging from excessive destruction, chewing, excessive barking, unusual peeing maybe even hyperactivity. We could also see things like depression, anxiety, anger and so on.”
Ways dogs can be mentally stimulated indoors
How then do we help them? “We find creative ways of providing mental stimulation. We can do a little of indoors and a little of outdoors. The primary thing is that dogs’ brains need a lot of sniffing and sleep. This is really going to help them during this time.” She elaborates on how to cover the sniffing part of the problem.
“While obviously, we must limit outdoor time, we can do a lot of sniffing in places like parking lots. Car tires have a lot of smells. So just hold them on a loose leash and let them just sniff. Or one can use terraces to scatter some treats and get dogs to do a treat search. An intense 10 to 15 minutes of sniffing can knock them out for hours!”
Canine enrichment indoors
She also provides us with some unique ideas for sniffing indoors. “Indoors, one can do a lot of things like hiding treats all over the house on different surfaces – chairs, tables etc and cover them. Let them just sniff it out. One can also do an enriched environment for them inside the house. Find things that have interesting smells, put it out and let them just sniff. Don't say much and don't interfere while she’s sniffing. One can also prepare some simple puzzles, like putting some treats in a towel and rolling it up or putting some treats inside a box and then putting the box inside another box.”
Sindhoor, however, advises simple is best. “Go for simple ideas, puzzles and play. Nothing that can get them overly agitated or overly excited. It’s important to avoid that at this point of time. We must prefer things that will calm them down and get them to use their brain in a calm way. These are what will help with mental stimulation.”
She also cautions against too much physical play indoors, as modern flooring is not right for dogs to be running on. It is also an activity that would only increase adrenaline and cortisol, when the focus here is to get them calm and happy.
Scheduling the day with your pet in mind
For the issue of sleep, Sindhoor advises scheduling your day so that your dog can have some structure too. “Trying to structure your day so that you can spend a certain good chunk of time just working on your laptop in one corner and not moving about, will really help your dog. All the members in the house must do this for at least certain parts of the day. Discipline and structure are important in the entire family so that everybody can get into work mode from a certain time to certain time and there's not too much noise and movement.”
Dietary changes with lockdown
Coming to the issue of the change in diet, pet parents who had their pets on commercial dry dog food could maybe see this as an opportunity to switch over to home-cooked, which has been proven to be the healthy option. This article gives you a detailed low-down on what a balanced, nutritious home-made meal looks like for a dog.
But the challenge for some could also be the availability of ingredients. “The sudden change in diet is going to put oxidative stress on the body and unfortunately, there’s nothing much we can do. The best thing that we can do is take care of the other issues – mental stimulation, some exercises, creating an environment conducive to good sleep and finally, getting a handle on the stress we feel.
Overcoming stress and anxiety
Acknowledging it's easier said than done, Sindhoor brings out a very important point. “Honestly our dogs can really help us. We’re lucky because we have dogs – they’re our biggest asset in this. Not only do we have a reason for working through our stress, we also have a way to work through it. Every day take a little bit of time off to just be a little goofy with your dog. Be silly! Get laughing and get those oxytocin and endorphins going in the body – and your dog’s! This should be your time to just let loose – because it’s not just our animals that need life to be stress-free, right now the entire world could do with positivity and joy. See this as a mutually beneficial thing – something to lighten your mind and your day instead of a chore to do with your dog.”
Sindhoor offers a great perspective too – which is as inspiring as it is refreshing. “Spending time together is a wonderful thing. Discover the depth of your relationship during this time rather than let it break you down.” Indeed, it’s a lesson we all know deep in our hearts. We can get through the darkest days by sticking together, relying on one another and helping each other through.
We at Lana Paws thank all the frontline workers around the world from the bottom of our hearts. Our thoughts and empathy are with the families and people affected by this pandemic. A tragically overlooked consequence of this situation is the community (stray) animals who were dependent on humans for food, love and survival. We beseech everyone to stay safe but also continue to support your community (stray) animals by providing them whatever you can (water, food, grains, medicines etc) – IF your age and health status permit you to do so.
Please maintain basic hygiene habits while dealing with animals (do not touch surfaces outside unless necessary, always sanitize your hands thoroughly, wear a mask and limit time spent outdoors), but do not let go of them. They’ve provided us a helping paw when we’ve needed it, let’s give them a helping hand today.
Sindhoor Pangal is a canine behaviour consultant, a canine myotherapist and an engineer by qualification. Her passion is ethological studies of free ranging dogs in India. She currently is the principal and director of BHARCS and her focus is on educating pet parents and professionals on canine behaviour and ethology. BHARCS offers a one of its kind, UK accredited level 4 diploma on canine behaviour and ethology. The course is offered on a custom built software for BHARCS, to enable distance learning, attracting students from all over the globe. Sindhoor is also the India country representative for Pet Dog Trainers of Europe. BHARCS is an organisation member of International Companion Animal network and an affiliate of International Canine school of psychology and Galen Therapy Center, UK. While she wears many hats, being mommy to two amazing dogs - Nishi and Cheeru, who she considers her inspiration and her greatest teachers, is her favourite role.