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The Covid dogs: lonely and socially inept!

Have you welcome home a puppy or adopted a rescue dog in the last twelve months?

Covid-19 and its associated lockdowns are difficult for all of us and even more so for young dogs who were puppies during the last lockdown or rescue dogs, who never really had the chance to get used to normal life. 

While we see these funny cartoons showing us how dogs enjoy having their humans home, there is a flip side to it. Most dogs need to spend some time home alone, at least occasionally. 

Another drawback is that while their humans are home most of the time, there are very limited visitors coming to homes and people are (hopefully) keeping their distances when out and about. 

We also cannot go to coffee shops, playgrounds or on holidays; activities that are considered normal during other times. But the Covid dogs are missing out on all these important experiences

Photo Credit: Barbara Hodel

In addition, there is a lack of social interaction with their own species because puppy classes that provide supervised puppy to puppy socialisation were and are not able to operate. These dogs are now socially inept but also cannot stay home alone because they are displaying separation distress related behaviours. They also have become teenagers!

Ongoing socialisation during Covid-19

The lack of early and ongoing socialisation can cause dogs to be afraid or wary of new things, people or animals. Some trainers call them pessimistic, that is probably, true. 

But being pessimistic is evolutionary - more an adaptive trait - and the better way to survive than being too outgoing and curious. 

Imagine a dog who is very curious and he hears something in a bush, he goes to investigate and in that bush is a venomous snake. If he gets bitten by that snake, his genes will not reproduce! If he had avoided that bush, his gene would still be in the gene pool. This means, we probably have more dogs who have a genetic predisposition to be wary of new things! 

But we want our pet dogs to be curious, to like new things or be at least neutral towards new stuff

"What the heck are you? You smell funny!"

Unless we can counter this genetic predisposition with early socialisation, they might remain or become pessimistic, scared, or cautious. For these under-socialised dogs, we need ways to change their attitude and how they feel about new things. This is easier said than done with another lockdown for large parts of Australia.

But necessity is the mother of invention! And creativity goes a long way when trying to create new and positive experiences with limited access to classes, the outside world and new people coming to our houses. 

Depending on where your dog is, you can start at any one of these suggestions. But keep in mind, remedial socialisation needs to happen at your dog’s pace and they get to decide when to approach and tackle the different tasks. Using high value and a lot of treats will help too!

Provide novel experiences with a good outcome

Photo Credit: Barbara Hodel
1) Provide new surfaces and objects in your house or backyard, for example take the wheelie bin into the backyard and leave treats around the wheelie bin. Bring your dog out and they might go what is this? But by finding the treats you can create a positive association. You can use any object that is unknow to the dog in this environment.

2) Create an obstacle course with some planks, tarps, boxes and more boxes, fabric etc, use treats to lure your dogs and make it a fun experience.

3) Play dress up, carry different objects, wear a mask (not only the Covid ones) but maybe don’t start with a full Dracula dress up! Start with a hat and sunglasses, then a big coat and then something really fancy. Provide treats when they come up to you. They will soon figure out approaching the scary person results in treats.

4) McDonald drive-throughs (only if your dog likes the car) and then share the beef patty.

5) Empty or full skate park and netball courts and other outdoor sporting equipment. Go easy, start at a good distance, and provide treats for a calm approach.

6) Some garden centres and hardware stores allow dogs. Again, take treat and make it fun and reinforcing.

7) Industrial areas with trucks, high vis vests, forklifts... Give them treats when they see the trucks, don’t ask for a sit, just create good associations.

8) If you have a puppy, and if your puppy class cannot run in person because of restrictions find safe ways to socialise your puppy with other dogs. 

Photo Credit: Barbara Hodel

I recommend organising (within Covid rules) puppy play dates and dog play dates
Talk to your qualified dog professional how good play should look and can be facilitated.

The aim is to ‘train the brain’ to experience these new things, stay calm and make the correct assumption that these experiences are not scary but are predicting a good outcome. We are changing how their brain works.

Engagement with us

In addition to these novelty events, we need to work on engagement with us! If they feel scared or are unsure, they need to know that we are there for them. That they can feel safe in our presence and if necessary, we will help them dealing with the challenging situation.

If they feel safe with us, then they will engage and ask for information on how to deal with the situation. This can be a simple behaviour such as making eye contact with us and at the same time disengage from the scary ‘thing’. We can also teach a ‘hand target’, so we can ask for a hand touch and calmly ask them to move away. 

Another option is ‘middle’ when they go between our legs as a safe place. In my book "How to Love and Survive your Teenage Dog", these skills are described in more detail.

Being home alone is ‘just’ another skill

Anecdotal evidence suggests a rise in dogs with separation distress related behaviours, regardless of Covid. Let me just clarify one thing first.
Just because a dog cannot stay home alone, does not mean they have separation anxiety
Being home alone is a skill! And in most cases, it can be taught. Part of the problem is caused by our obsession with leaving puppies home too early, often in crates. This has nothing to do with the wellbeing of our puppies but with convenience for us humans. Yes, puppies and dogs need to learn to be home alone but this process needs to be very gradual and cannot be done within a few days! It needs to be done over several weeks.

If we suspect that our dog has a real anxiety, then we need to talk to a veterinarian behaviourist and develop a treatment plan. An anxiety is not a training problem but a medical problem and it needs to be addressed as such.

But as said, in a lot of cases staying home alone is just another behaviour that can be taught. It is part of the bigger picture of being calm. Which seems to be the new mantra for our dogs. If you have tried Yoga, you know how hard it is to calm the mind. The same is true for dogs.

To start this process with puppies and older dogs I recommend ‘mat (bed) training’. I do not recommend tie downs. This does not teach anything but just forces the dog to remain in one place. Creating positive association with their bed is much more appropriate and in the long run more successful. Teaching a reliable mat/bed behaviour needs a holistic approach.
We firstly need to cater to their physical and mental needs. 

This means outings, walks, running, play, enrichment toys and company.

✔️ Then we create positive association with their bed by letting them chew a kangaroo tail, a pig’s ear or a food dispensing toy on their bed. Chewing facilitates calm and makes them feel good! Don’t underestimate the value of chewing. Dry food does not address their need for chewing.

✔️ To start with, the bed/mat is right next to us, but once they are calm, we gradually move the bed away, until they can spend some time in an adjacent room or protected backyard.

✔️ Then we start moving around the house and they remain calmly on their bed. This is not an exercise in ‘stay’, it should be a relaxed snooze or enjoyable chew on their bed.

✔️ Then we leave the house for a few seconds and come back in, gradually extending time until they can stay home without feeling stressed for time we require. They don’t need to stay on their bed when we are out and about, they should have (if safe) free range of at least part of the house and if possible, a dog door that provides access to the outside.

✔️ If your dog needs to stay home for entire days, please investigate good doggy day care services or dog walkers. Dogs are not made to spend their time alone in a backyard.

Avoid punishment!

None of these ‘problem’ behaviours need punishment. Punishment will only make it worse. Yes, you can suppress barking with citronella or shock collars, and yes you can suppress lunging with a prong collar but this does nothing to change your dog’s perception of the ‘scary’ thing or how they feel about being home alone. 
These methods will only make your dog feel more scared, nervous and anxious. 
Address their needs, work with gradual exposure, reinforce the correct response, teach a lot of fun new behaviours and most of all make them feel safe.

If you need help, check the trainer directory of the Pet Professional Guild Australia for a qualified and force free trainer Visual Directory ( Most trainers offer Zoom consults to help you even during lockdown.

For more tricks and information on teenage dogs and how to understand and teach them check out my book, How to love and survive your teenage dog.

written by Barbara Hodel (July 2021) for Australian Dog Lover (all rights reserved).

About the Writer

In 2015 Barbara Hodel, the author of How to love and survive your teenage dog, completed her Diploma in Canine Behaviour Science and Technology at the Companion Animal Sciences Institute in Canada (

She has been running her dog training business Goodog ( on the Northern Beaches Sydney for over 15 years specialising in teenage dogs, offering classes and in home consultations for young dogs as well as workshops for typical teenage challenges such as recall and loose leash walking.
She has been involved in dog training for the last 20 years and has completed her Certificate IV in Companion Animal Services with the Delta Society in 2007 and is a professional member of the Delta Institute.
She competes in the dog sport of Agility and Rally O with Shellbe (a German short-haired pointer) on Master level. Chillax, one of Shellbe’s puppies, competes in Rally O and got his Rally Novice title in October 2019. He is just starting out in Agility.
Barbara is the President of the Pet Professional Guild Australia ( The Guild promotes force free and humane training for all pets. 
She is also a registered breeder with Dogs NSW.
Barbara holds a Master’s Degree in Modern European History and Economics from the University of Berne (Switzerland) and a MBA (Master of Business Administration) from Southern Cross University Australia. In addition, Barbara has in-depth experience in adult education and training, having taught high school and university students in Berne, college students in Sydney, as well as middle and top management employees of a large public corporation in Switzerland.

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