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How much should we blame the pandemic for the behavior of naughty pups?

2020-6-25 iStock-1183537161 behavior problems - blog.jpg

One veterinarian at an AAHA-accredited hospital had a painful surprise during a recent exam.

“I got bit in the face by a five-month-old Labrador,” she said. “He should have been a happy-go-lucky, goofy puppy. He leaped up and bit me in the nose and [I ended up needing] five stitches.”

She attributes it—at least in part—to the pandemic.

Specifically, she thinks the incident is a direct result of social distancing measures taken by the dog’s new owners. Like many, they adopted a pet during the pandemic. And due to fears for their new pet’s health, they practiced social distancing measures per the US Centers for Disease Control and Infection to protect him from infection from people who might have COVID-19, diagnosed or not. One unintended outcome of that social distancing? “He’s never seen another human being other than his four family members.”

That veterinarian isn’t alone in her concerns.

There has been widespread speculation about how pets adopted during the pandemic are going to react when their people suddenly return to their normal routines as lockdown restrictions continue to relax. And the AVMA cautioned pet owners to prepare for problems when that finally happens.

NEWStat reached out to Leslie Sinn, DVM, DACVB, CPDT-KA, a certified veterinary behaviorist and owner of Behavior Solutions for Pets, a consulting firm in Hamilton, Virginia, to get her take.

“As puppies, dogs go through a very narrow socialization period of around 4 to 14 weeks of age [during which] they become familiar and comfortable with people, places, and things in their environment,” Sinn says. “After that, you’re no longer socializing dogs but rather habituating them to what they’ve already learned.” Or, if they’re fearful, “desensitizing and counterconditioning them to whatever causes them to be fearful.”

Sinn says that a puppy’s behavior is a combination of genetics, experiences, and environment, and compares that to what humans go through: “Some of us win the genetics jackpot and survive and thrive regardless of the environment we’re thrown into. Most of us, however, do best if we have support for our genetics with targeted learning and positive life experiences,” she adds.

“Being in lockdown due to COVID is not exactly an expansive, positive life experience,” Sinn notes. And while that doesn’t mean that all puppies who have limited socialization will do poorly, “many of them will likely have problems due to [their isolation during lockdown]. There are currently several research projects tracking behavior issues in pets associated with the COVID shutdown. Maybe we’ll have a more definitive answer before too long.”

One of those studies is being run by Karen L. Overall, VMD, PhD, MA, DACVB, chair of the 2015 AAHA Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines task force, editor-in-chief of Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, and associate professor of veterinary behavioral medicine at the University of Prince Edward Island’s Atlantic Veterinary College.

Overall told NEWStat that there are risks to having less exposure to the outside world but says it’s a mistake to attribute all bad behavior to it. She believes the concern might be overstated. Her fear is that “every young dog with a behavior problem will now be blamed on COVID-19 isolation.” She calls that kind of thinking “very risky.”

“I have a dog who will be six months old on June 30,” Overall says by way of example. The dog, named Annie, spent one week out in the world with Overall before the lockdown. “We took her on some car rides, but she did not go to the parks, markets, city streets, meet very many people (except our immediate neighbors) or [other] dogs, go to class, or anything.” But despite that relative lack of socialization, she describes Annie today as “social, sweet, kind, and smart. [She’s] great with other dogs, people, and new places.”

“When dogs are born, they have a set of genes that determines what can happen, not what will happen,” Overall says, echoing Sinn’s comments on genetics. That needs to be considered, too.

Perhaps Overall’s dog may be seeing some advantages simply as a result of being raised by a veterinary behaviorist. And, in fact, Overall concedes that Annie may have benefited more than some dogs due to a carefully supervised upbringing during those first prepandemic weeks. But she says that’s not the whole story; there are too many variables to blame bad behavior in young dogs solely on lockdown-related isolation.

With the pandemic likely to last at least several more months, we're hoping the studies can provide additional insight soon.

Find out more about Overall’s study on dog behavior during the pandemic here.

Photo  credit: © iStock/Photoboyko