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Dogs Trust warns of impending dog behaviour crisis as new research shows the impact of lockdown on the nation’s dogs

Over a quarter of owners (26%) say their dog has developed at least one new problem behaviour during lockdown, according to new research released today by Dogs Trust. (1) 

We are issuing advice to owners to help them manage their dog’s behaviour and is asking them to act now, to help their dogs adjust to when they return to work.

The UK’s largest dog welfare charity has issued the first results from research investigating the impact of COVID-19 lockdown measures on dogs and their owners. The charity surveyed over 6,000 dog owners in May this year about the impact of the coronavirus crisis on their dog. Those who took part were asked about their dog’s routines, walks, enrichment and time spent alone during and before lockdown.

Findings from the Research:

The majority of owners (55%) reported that their dog’s routine had changed a lot, including having less walks – as owners stuck to government guidance - and being less likely to be allowed to run off-lead. Worryingly over a quarter of dog owners (26%) reported that their dog showed at least one new problem behaviour during lockdown.

Owners were also asked about the occurrence of behaviours in different situations before and during the lockdown period. The findings showed there was an: 

  • 82% increase in reports of dogs whining or barking when a household member was busy
  • 20% increase in reports of dogs frequently seeking attention from their owner
  • 54% rise in the number of people saying their dog has hidden or moved away when approached
  • 41% increase in reports of dogs being clingy or following people around the house during lockdown

In addition to these findings, after lockdown started, Google searches for ‘dog bark’ increased by around 48% and searches for ‘dog bite’ increased by around 40% suggesting that people were actively seeking help online about their dog’s behaviour.

Rise in abandonments and euthanasia

The single biggest reason why dogs are handed into Dogs Trust is because of behaviour-related issues. While Dogs Trust never puts a healthy dog down, around a third of dogs under three years old are put to sleep by vets because of behavioural problems (2).

We are concerned that if these behavioural problems aren’t identified and treated early on that the country could see an increase in dog abandonment, and even euthanasia, in the future.

We predict that up to 40,000 dogs could be at risk of abandonment as a result of the coronavirus pandemic (3). A rise in problematic behaviours, due to lockdown measures, could compound this issue still further if families find these behaviours difficult to manage, and have no other option but to give up their dog.

Advice for Dog Owners

Behaviour problems are easier to prevent than treat, so we are encouraging owners to take steps now to change the tale and ensure problems don’t develop when things return towards normal.

The risk of dogs developing separation anxiety is an urgent concern raised by Dogs Trust. This is particularly the case for puppies, who may never have had experience of being left home alone during the lockdown. Suddenly leaving these pups alone once we go back to our ‘new normal’ lives is very likely to lead to separation anxiety.

For information on how to prevent and mange problem behaviours, visit www.dogstrust.org.uk/changethetale. Owners can also find lots of advice and training videos through Dogs Trust Youtube Channel.

Preventing separation anxiety is much easier than treating it.

  • If you have a dog who is used to being left alone, make sure you maintain their ability to cope with this by introducing periods of separation during the day when you are in the house (e.g. behind a baby gate whilst you are working from home) and try and sometimes leave your dog at home when you go out for essential trips.
  • The early month of a dog’s life are critical in learning about all aspects of normal family life. This includes being left alone: if pups are not taught this is a normal and positive part of life, they will become anxious about it. Teaching pups to be relaxed when left takes a bit of time and patience at the start but prevents serious problems later in life that are much more difficult to treat.
  • Build up the amount of time a pup is separated from family members very gradually and associate it with something positive, such as a long-lasting treat.
  • Monitor how the pup responds, and shorten the time left if they show any signs of anxiety.

Where dogs are already showing signs of separation anxiety (such as barking, howling, toileting or being destructive when left):

  • Owners should seek help from their vet in the first instance
  • Avoid looking for ‘quick fix’ solutions like anti-bark collars or punishing a dog on return. These approaches will exacerbate the problem and result in more serious and more difficult to treat problems in the long run.

Rachel Casey, Director of Canine Behaviour and Research at Dogs Trust, said:

"These are challenging times as millions of us across the country have had our daily lives turned upside down. Whilst some dogs have been happy to have their human family at home more, others have been stressed by reduced exercise, inability to find a quiet place to rest or no contact with other dogs. Our research shows some early warning signs that lockdown is having a negative impact on some dogs’ behaviour.

"A big worry for us is what the long-term impact of lockdown will have on dogs’ ability to cope when left home alone. Dogs that had separation anxiety before the lockdown are likely to get worse when left again as owners head back to work – but we also expect to see new cases developing, because other dogs, and particularly puppies, have learnt to expect company all day. We could well see a rise in the number of dogs needing our help or being abandoned because of this.

"Together, with the support of the public, we can change the tale. It is much easier to prevent problems that treat them, and we would urge people to visit our website or Dog School videos on YouTube for advice and support to help prevent these problem behaviours from developing.

"We understand that some may not be able to cope with dogs that have developed problem behaviours and will offer support to those who need to hand over a dog, for whatever reason. Please get in touch with us and our rehoming teams will do whatever they can to help."

Teddy's Story

Owners who adopt from Dogs Trust receive free post adoption support, which includes behavioural advice. Dog owners, Tyrone and Gavin, adopted a stray Pomeranian, Teddy, from the charity last September. Teddy showed signs of suffering from separation anxiety, and he struggled with being left alone, separated from his owners for even short periods of time. Through behavioural support from Dogs Trust, he improved significantly. However, when COVID-19 hit, his owners were worried these issues would return.

Gavin, Teddy’s owner said:

"Just as Teddy was showing signs of a massive improvement, little did we know that things would change again when we were not allowed to leave the house to go to work!

"We were told to maintain Teddy’s usual routine. This meant leaving him alone in the kitchen each day during the times I was usually at work. My husband and I would creep off upstairs - one working in one bedroom and the other in the loft! We tried to gradually get him used to being left alone. Doing that for two months was a massive challenge, but worth it. It’s a challenge that we couldn’t have tackled alone and we’re so grateful that Dogs Trust was there to support us during this desperate period.

"The results have been amazing. The fact that it was also all free to us as we had adopted Teddy from Dogs Trust was fantastic – it shows how dedicated they are to ensuring that when a dog goes to their new home, it’s for life."

If you’re struggling to cope with looking after your dog, for whatever reason, contact Dogs Trust on 0300 303 2188 and we’ll do everything we possibly can to help you.

For information and advice on your dog’s behaviour, or how to donate to Dogs Trust’s coronavirus appeal, visit www.dogstrust.org.uk/changethetale

1. Research carried out by the Dogs Trust research team from [04 May 2020] to [12 May 2020] of 6,004 respondents.
2. Diesel, G., Brodbelt, D. and Pfeiffer, D.U. (2010). Characteristics of relinquished dogs and their owners at 14 rehoming centers in the United Kingdom. J Appl Anim Welf Sci. 2010;13(1):15-30. doi: 10.1080/10888700903369255.
Boyd, C; Jarvis, S; McGreevy, P; Heath, S; Church, D; Brodbelt, D; O’Neill, D (2018) Mortality resulting from undesirable behaviours in dogs aged under three years attending primary-care veterinary practices in England. Animal Welfare 27(3): 251-262
3. Calculations based on our 2019 Stray Dog Survey that found 46% of the 69,621 stray dogs in Local Authority kennels were not reunited with their owners or left unclaimed. In 2010, after the last recession, there were 121,693 instances of stray dogs reported by Local Authorities in the UK. Based on 46% of that figure [40,223] we have estimated up to 40,000 dogs could be at risk of being abandoned and would need support from animal welfare organisations such as Dogs Trust.