Dear Asking For a Friend,
My calm COVID puppy – who has not met any visitors at our house in months because of the pandemic — now barks and acts aggressively toward visitors. What should I do?
Signed, Puppy Love
Dear Puppy Love,
The pandemic has been tough on everyone, including our furry friends.
Just like their human families, dogs are highly social creatures who need social interaction, especially in the first three months after birth — that’s when they first learn to bond, socially communicate, explore and respond to their environment. Encounters with new people, places and things as well as new sights and sounds are critical for their wellbeing and development.
Introducing your puppy to the world makes them more confident, and the more they experience as pups, the less they’ll fear in their adult life. Experts suggest that pandemic puppies may face behavioural issues, since the long quarantine isolation may have interfered with that small window of opportunity for positive development. And if you’re a first-time pet parent who contributed to the surge of animal adoptions in the pandemic, you were more likely to make some mistakes along the way, too.
According to Dr. Enid Stiles, owner of Hôpital Vétérinaire Sherwood Park and immediate past president of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, most dogs that are under socialized show fearful behaviours and may shy away from new people and other dogs or new situations. In some instances, a dog may become reactive and defensive when fearful, which may lead them to bark and growl, Stiles says.
Extensive research proves that socialization shapes behaviour in dogs, and whether it’s real or perceived, fear can cause a dog to behave aggressively towards people, objects and animals they don’t encounter every day.
A study by University of Helsinki researchers that followed 9,000 dogs of various breeds also concluded that fearful dogs were more likely to show aggression. Barking, growling, snapping and biting in non-threatening situations such as playtime is considered a normal part of canine communication — but aggressive behaviour that becomes excessive or is a threat to other people and animals is obviously problematic and requires an intervention.
Luckily, with some professional help and lots of patience, you might be able to improve your puppy’s behaviour and help them feel more relaxed around other people. The key is to stay consistent with the process and reward your dog’s progress with their favourite treats.
“It is never too late to try,” says Stiles. “Some dogs with poor socialization can be socialized with careful and gentle positive reinforcement training. There are some dogs however, who need the care of a veterinary behaviourist as their fear becomes anxiety and they are unable to learn with simple training.”
You can try a few different expert-approved methods, such as putting your dog on a leash and greeting your visitors outside, before they enter your home. The neutral territory may resolve any dominance issues and may help your dog feel less threatened. You can also try giving your visitors a friendly hug or shaking their hand – these gestures can transfer your scent to the guest and may help make your dog feel more at ease. Asking your dog to “stay” as the guest enters the room and guiding your guest’s hand towards the dog’s nose so that they can sniff them may help to further reassure and calm your puppy.
But if the bad behaviour goes beyond barking, and your dog is biting people, it’s not something you can handle on your own: You should see a trainer. Fear-based issues in dogs “rarely resolve on their own,” the American Kennel Club’s chief vet Dr. Jerry Klein has said. The right trainer will help you figure out what’s causing the fear underlying your dog’s aggression, and will help you come up with specific methods that will work for your situation.
Dr. Cinnamon Dixon, the lead author of a paper in the Journal of Pediatrics about how dog bites in children have increased almost threefold during the pandemic, told the The New York Times that dog owners should get help from “a behavioural expert in canine aggression — ideally before something bad happens.”
Dealing with a dog’s bad behaviour “can be stressful and frustrating,” the AKC says. It can take a lot of time and repetition to teach a dog not to react with aggression when they feel their space is being invaded, or they’re otherwise under threat. But with some help, your dog can learn how to emerge from the temporary weirdness of pandemic life.