Happy Spring, everyone.
The subject for my May blog presented itself after meeting some new friends in the last couple of months who required several family visits before we started our one-on-ones. These particular cases were pandemic-related, so that is what we will dig into.
Let’s recap the last 2+ years, from a four-legged standpoint. Shelters and rescues saw a huge increase in adoptions, and those dogs joined families where their people were home with them 24/7, from day one. That was their normal. Enter vaccinations, restrictions lifting, and life slowly returning to our pre-dog version of a normal they’ve never experienced. So, while everyone is forging their new paths [or making their way back to the old ones], all those dogs are experiencing upheaval and increasing levels of anxiety. Their younger family members [and primary playmates] are leaving the house early in the morning and not coming back until late afternoon, and their adult pack leaders are shifting their schedules as well. Sometimes one of them is gone all day, and the other spends most of the day at a home office desk.
Since they are always right by our sides, it is easy for us to forget that our dogs don’t understand what is going on in our human life bubbles. So, when we are ready to go back to full-time work out of the house and hire a pet sitter, it may very well be easier said than done. Remember, the pandemic has not only kept you home with your buddy, but has also eliminated your at-home interactions with other people – no dinner parties, book club meetings, BBQs or poker nights - so strangers were not included in his reality picture.
Fast forward to Diane’s first visit to your home, and there is a good possibility I will not be greeted warmly. This year, many people ventured out for Spring Break, so I received calls from quite a few new clients who had adopted their dogs since March 2020. Each of these dogs reacted to me similarly when I came in the door. Since there is no way to read their minds (how great would that be?), it helps to focus on empathizing with their fears rather than just trying to divert attention from them.
Is this person here to take me away?
Is this person going to hurt my master?
Or on an even more basic level, is this person going to take my food or my favorite toy?
Each one of these mental scenarios can easily provoke a bite if the dog decides any of them are a possibility, because instinct dictates that even the most passive dog will bite, if he feels that it is warranted.
It is very important to know that a dog who bites is not synonymous with him being a “bad” dog. It does not even mean he will definitely bite again. If you are going to bring a new person into your dog’s life - whether it is me, a new life partner, a child, etc. - it is an important fact that needs to be addressed, and all parties involved need to be on board with investing the appropriate amount of time and patience to create a safe relationship for everyone.
In this next section, I will offer some tips that will be helpful when your dog is interacting with new people, and also discuss the adjustments I’ve had to make to my meet & greet process to accommodate the special needs of dogs during post-lockdown times.
There are subtle signs to watch out for when your dog has a potential bite on his mind – overall body language is easiest to recognize. He will appear rigid and tight, in body and tail. I feel this in my own little 8 lb. Franky. When he becomes upset at seeing someone in the street and I pick him up, his body is hard as a rock. In contrast, a dog who is accepting of a new visitor will have a relaxed stance and his body will appear soft. His tail wag will also be relaxed and move in a springy motion, vs. a dog on guard or issuing a warning will stiffen his tail and wag it in a more pointed motion.
The one that is not so easy to pick up on is eye contact. When I am talking to your dog, I will not look directly at his eyes for any length of time until we are in a well-established relationship, and even at that point I will only do so once I’ve measured his trust level. I can instead look at his ears or his chest, so he can assess my face and my body language while still avoiding his gaze, which he would interpret as a challenge. If I were to meet his gaze, it would then be up to him whether or not he accepts that challenge or flees from it. Since we are on his territory, most likely he will accept it.
If you are planning on inviting friends over, have someone your dog is already comfortable with (spouse/someone who lives with you & the dog, or friend who visits frequently) help you look for these signs and alert you in a subtle way if they notice any of them. Keep the dog close to you and leashed, and do not pressure him to interact with anyone until he shows signs of being ready. Likewise, ask your guests not to approach him, and explain prior to the gathering that you are in the process of socializing him.
There is unfortunately no way to tell how many supervised visits your dog will need before he accepts me without his family around, but I have identified several milestones that I feel need to be met before an owner can go back to work confidently knowing that the dog will have his needs met in their absence. My general guideline looks something like this:
There may also come a time when a client wishes to open up their options by having multiple sitters visit the dog at different times. This will not only benefit the dog by providing socialization, but the client can see if the dog gravitates more toward one person than another and choose the best fit as his caregiver.
At the end of the day, my goal is for every dog I meet to be happy and well-adjusted, whether they become my client or not, and I will invest as much time as it takes for him to be comfortable in his owners’ absence.
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