Science

The Problem With Pandemic Puppies

Animal behavior doesn’t seamlessly adjust to changes in routine.

a man in a mask standing behind two puppies
A vendor selling puppies waits for customers. Photo by DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP via Getty Images) DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/Getty Images

The puppies are everywhere. I see them every day as I take my six-year-old German shepherd, Jet, out for his daily walk along the tree-lined sidewalks near downtown Salt Lake City. Little labs, shepherds, border collies, and more, all happily snuffling and wagging along the sidewalk as they trot along with their new families. Shelters and breeders alike have been understandably swamped this year, with people trying to bring meaning and joy to our time in quarantine. Each pandemic puppy we see is absolutely adorable—and also poised to become a huge problem for the people who adopted them to be little rays of sunshine during the interminable pandemic.

“I think that people anticipate a special kind of interspecies companionship with dogs,” says Julie Hecht, a PhD candidate in animal behavior at the City University of New York. They’re not wrong: our dogs are closely attuned to us, from how we feel to what we do, and having a furry friend who’s always happy to see you—or, maybe more accurately during the early days of COVID, stay glued to your side – can certainly make stressful situations easier. But now that some communities are experimenting with going back to school or work, veterinarians and behavioral specialists are starting to see emerging problems among our pups. And if you’ve had trouble navigating all the changes with recent life, imagine how hard that is for your dog.

The problem is that the pandemic puppies are too bonded with us. “Puppies are the focus of the family,” says veterinarian Laura McLain of Holladay Veterinary Hospital in Utah. That goes double during the pandemic. During life before, a growing puppy would have to get used to people coming and going during the day, or even having the house to themselves for a bit. And while we could rely on dog walkers, daycare, and training schools to entertain and socialize our dogs in the Before Times, suddenly we became our dogs’ whole world. “Early life socialization is about helping young animals join the world win which they’re going to live,” Hecht says. The pandemic puppies have been unknowingly conditioned for a world in which they’re always with us.

Constant companionship doesn’t necessarily make life less stressful for dogs, though. If all they know is us, much of the world may seem alarming–especially during trips to the vet. Pandemic puppies adopted in April and May are getting old enough to be spayed and neutered. But during the post-op care, McLain and her colleagues noticed something strange. Many of the puppies react with fear and aggression when the doctors go to put the infamous cone of shame on the dogs after surgery, the pups flailing, biting, and otherwise reacting violently with a frequency never seen before. It’s difficult to tell for sure without being able to talk to the dogs themselves, but, McLain says, it may be a symptom of that lack of socialization. The fear is probably made all the worse by the fact that we still need to social distance at the vet’s office, and the fact that everyone is wearing masks—a challenge for animals that are attuned to our faces and expressions.

Our dogs also aren’t used to being left alone. As we ease out of life in lockdown, they’re being left to hang out without us for stretches of time, perhaps for the first time in their lives. “Pandemic aside, changes to daily routines can affect dogs negatively,” Hecht says, especially when we don’t realize that our dogs need some help and patience navigating the changes. New absences can be a trigger for separation anxiety. That’s true for older pups, too, even if the dogs aren’t totally alone. I recently planned an overnight trip to Arches National Park, where there are no dogs allowed. On the morning I left, I didn’t even get to the highway before I started getting messages from my girlfriend. Jet, typically independent enough, had started acting strange, jumping on the bed and woofing right in my girlfriend’s face, trotting out to search the apartment for me as soon as she let him out of the bedroom. I hadn’t thought about the fact that I’d barely been out of his sight or nose since March. Morning family walks had become the daily routine. It didn’t matter that I said “I’ll be back soon” and pet his ears before I left. To me, I was just taking a little break–he’d obviously have lots of fun with his other mom. To him, I had abruptly changed a pattern I’d inadvertently set over the course of months.

Dogs can make such good, intuitive companions that it’s easy to forget that, in fact, they’re dogs. They don’t experience or understand the world the way we do. Certainly not all puppies will develop behavior problems or become aggressive, but the dramatic shifts in our lives mean we have to be sensitive to how our companions react, too. Like our own social skills, theirs might be weird and frayed right now. Dealing with separation anxiety, especially, requires patience, trying techniques like leaving and returning at two minute intervals, then five, then twenty, and so on until our dog understands that we will come back and the sky won’t fall. If only we could be taught such calm right now.