Pros and cons of owning a dog during the pandemic

By 
Miriam Campan
Reporter
Tuesday, May 12, 2020
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Raleigh, a West Highland terrier belonging to Patty Thompson, wears her own version of a face mask at her home in Lewistown earlier this month. Pets, especially dogs, can be a source of comfort for those staying mostly at home, or they can be a source of stress if not well trained.
Photo courtesy of Patricia Kenney Thompson

During the pandemic, when stay-at-home orders make close proximity with family members a tight space, a dog can either contribute to the harmony in the household or add to the melee. Closeness can be a particular frustration for parents and children whose weekday out-of-the-house routine is replaced with stay-at-home schoolwork. Likewise a dog can be a blessing for those who find the companionship of a dog a break from isolation.

Dogs and children under foot
Robin O’Neal is a wife and a mother, with three children and four dogs.
“Life is pretty much the same as it was before the pandemic, but the children are now at home,” she said.
What has changed, though, is the frustration level in managing a household that was previously empty and quiet, at least during school hours.
“The frustration level has been pretty high. The kids are under foot all the time and it’s just been like chaos except it’s like structured chaos,” O’Neal said.
The four dogs try to not be under foot. They range in size from 120 pounds to a smaller mixed breed, O’Neal wishes her children and dogs would spend more time together.
“We have Rider, a 6- year-old lab who is blind since last year. The kids don’t get to walk him, he’s a trip hazard. The kids give him love, but that is about the extent,” said O’Neal.
She added, “Holly is our cocker spaniel/basset hound mix who sleeps with our youngest. We have Sadie and she’s 10 or 11. She’s a little bitty thing, a terrier mix. She’s cute and adorable, but she is tiny. Then there is Daphne, and she’s fully my dog.”

“I’m home all day long and I’d like to encourage the kids and the dogs to spend more time together and give me my space,” said O’Neal.

Dogs as companions
Patricia Kenney Thompson cannot imagine her life without a dog, but understands the work involved with dog ownership. For the past 20 years Thompson has owned West Highland white terriers and finds her Westie, Raleigh, to be the perfect companion especially with social distancing in place.
“It’s kind of funny,” said Thompson. “We’ve gone from four dogs to one Westie in the last two years. I guess I would just say in my time of need I’ve always looked to my dog for comfort. They lower your heart rate and they give you a purpose.”
Thompson, who adores her Westie, said, “A bored Westie can be a bad Westie.”
As many pet owners are finding out, a bored dog also can be a destructive dog. To keep her canine companion mentally and physically stimulated, Thompson first turned to obedience training and then upped the training to keep things exciting for dog and owner both. Thompson created an obstacle course to challenge her dog. After winning an agility contest, she donated the equipment to Red Rover Pet Boarding to keep their furry guests highly entertained.
She added, “When they [pet dogs] aren’t around you realize just what a huge presence they have. Once they leave there is a void. I can’t imagine my life without a dog.”

A dog expert speaks
Sarah Kolar, recipient of the obstacle course and owner of Red Rover Pet Boarding explains how social distancing and staying home can also have deleterious effects on sequestered dogs.
“When you are in the house for a long time you might get some unwanted behaviors, like barking at the window or barking at strangers. Avoid punishing the bad behavior and always reward the behavior you want. I think short episodes of basic obedience training are really helpful. Dogs see it as a game and children find the training rewarding,” said Kolar.
Some behaviors in basic obedience training include the “sit” command along with “down,” “leave-it” and “come or here.”  She recommends when a dog is misbehaving to say, “Hey come over here.” Be ready with what Kolar refers to as a “high value treat,” and reward the good behavior of “come.”
Where some dogs are food motivated, others are people pleasers and training should reflect that.
“It all depends on the dogs’ personalities when it comes to training; however I’ve found clicker training to be effective and it really works on some of my day-care dogs. It takes practice but you can teach dogs beyond the basic training to roll over or to give a high-five. There are numerous instructional videos on YouTube, ” she said.
Some other suggestions for a bonding and pleasurable experience during obedience training include not feeding your dog prior to a short training session, and, if possible, exercising them with a good walk or fetch a game to assist with the dog’s focus.
“I recommend doing your sessions before they get fed so they are hungry and motivated to work for you,” said Kolar.
To add spice to the training, Kolar said, “It’s easy to create an obstacle course in the backyard and it’s something that kids can really get creative with and the dogs can have fun and exercise with.”
She recommends starting small by making a tunnel for the dog to go through or a ramp -- perfect for families like the O’Neals who wish to encourage a stronger pet/owner bond.

Welcoming a dog into your home
For people who are isolated and in need of companionship a dog may just be the answer.
Peggy Butler from SAFE [Save Animals From Euthanasia] recommends the following for potential dog owners.
“Do your research as far as breed. Really read up,” said Butler.
Thompson agrees, “Westies are adorable and are ambassadors of good will. They are hypoallergenic and don’t shed, but they need an active family. They are good companions. If you are a senior citizen thinking about adopting a Westie, consider an older dog.”
Other considerations according to Butler include, “if you rent to make sure your landlord is on board, evaluate any medical attention that the dog may require and find out how much feeding your dog a healthy diet is going to cost.”
She added, “Most dogs that go through SAFE are owner surrenders. Remember they need time and attention.”

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