Enrichment (Productivity, Sanity) in a Time of Social Distancing

woman seated in chair head wrapped in silicone and plaster, with black Labrador puppy leaning into her lap and soliciting petting
No worries! This was during a bodycasting session and she’s fine. Penny was unfazed by the weird faceless human. #socialization

As many of you know, Clicker Expo was cancelled at the last minute last weekend. While we were all, attendees and faculty, disappointed (to put it mildly), I absolutely support the decision. I’m not going to talk about the math and what should have been done here before now, because that’s readily available. Today I want to talk about best behavioral practices in a time of increased isolation and even quarantine.

Let’s talk about behavior and enrichment in both people and pets.

Pet Safety

First, a quick reminder: Pets are not at risk from this novel coronavirus, not directly. There is no evidence of a COVID-19-sickened animal. At the time of this writing, there has been a single documented case of a dog which carried virus material in its nose and mouth, “weakly positive” but without any clinical symptoms. There is no evidence at this time that your dog or cat is at risk of contracting COVID-19 as a disease.

It is theoretically possible (but unknown in real life) that an exposed dog might serve as a reservoir to re-infect a human. But that is hypothetical and probably not our primary concern at this time. Dogs, cats, and other animals frequently contract other strains of coronavirus without passing them to humans, and again there is no evidence of this kind of transmission with COVID-19.

The far bigger risk to pets is human misunderstanding or lack of preparation. Many pets were abandoned in affected countries due to an unfounded fear of contamination or left behind in evacuations.

To be most careful, pets should not be allowed to visit between infected humans and the uninfected, to avoid carrying virus material between them. Quarantine counts for all species. But don’t worry about playing with your dog at home.

If you are concerned, make sure you have an ample supply of pet food and any necessary medications. But you’re more likely to face a different issue with your pets.

Enrichment for your pets

Whether you’re personally worried about biological effects or economic effects, or whether you’re pretty comfortable but being a good team player for the sake of those in a higher risk bracket, your pet has probably noticed something has changed. Your comings and goings have probably altered, and your routines at home may be different, and it’s possible some pets may be stressed by the change. Remember how dramatic even skipping an hour can be for pets who don’t understand Daylight Saving Time! This is bigger. Be prepared to see some stress behaviors such as whining or barking, toilet accidents, etc. These can be mitigated with some additional attention and enrichment — anything that returns a measure of control to the animal’s choice.

My dogs are delighted to have both humans home all day. This is living their best life — no one has to share a spot next to the human, because there are two humans, one for each dog! And dinner is never late because someone was delayed! Social distancing is the best!

But even dogs delighted to have more access to their people may begin to get a little cabin fever. I’m fortunate enough to have acreage full of natural enrichment options, but dogs who are accustomed to neighborhood walks and park visits may begin to miss that exercise, both physical and mental.

Laura and young dog in service dog training cape
Avoid populated areas and walk in relatively empty streets or parks.

First, remember that walks may still be okay! You can take the dog out to walk and sniff without closing within six feet of other humans or engaging in risky behavior. Unless your particular region has limited going out in outdoor spaces (or you’re in actual quarantine, not social distancing), you can still go out with precautions.

Those with reactive dogs are well-practiced at this, and they may even be grateful that now at last other people are respecting their space needs!

If you are stuck at home, with limited excursions but for toilet runs, you will have to get creative about enrichment.

Puzzle toys & chews

Remember that there is no need to feed out of a bowl. Why use so much reinforcement all at once, and for no physical or mental engagement? Save your food for training sessions or put it in a puzzle toy, so that your pet can work it out one bit at a time, exercising both mind and body.

A quick recap of some of my favorites:

The Kong Wobbler is great for dispensing kibble and small treats
The Planet Dog Snoop is one of my dogs’ favorites. They each have their own style of extracting kibble from it.

Bully sticks and Himalayan cheese chews are also top choices at my house. I also use real bones for my dogs — but I’ve had long experience with bones and feel comfortable with this. If you or your dog is new to real bones, trying them for the first time when contact and medical supplies are limited may not be your best choice.

And now, brain games!

Enrichment games

You can start quite simply here: Hide their food.

This is a classic technique from the zoo world, simulating searching and hunting technique. You can do this very simply (I regularly scatter my dogs’ kibble across a swath of yard for them to search out kibble by kibble in the grass) or turn it into a real game, releasing them to find where your hidden their stuffed Kong or Wobbler before they even start to work on getting the food out. In the beginning, you may want to hide it in plain sight as they watch and/or help them look until they get the idea.

Make sure you’re not teaching them to let you find it for them! The idea here is to get them eager to search out their food-filled toy.

If your dog is particularly mad about his favorite ball or squeaky hippo or whatever, you can do this with other toys, too! Or hide a toy in a cardboard box to be opened up. Or tie it loosely inside an old towel. (Don’t allow for ingestion of foreign objects, obviously.)

Doberman Undómiel chews on pumpkin
“Nom nom pumpkin nom.”

Think also about creating new experiences for dogs. My dogs love pumpkins but get them just once a year — what seasonal veggie can you introduce as a snack or toy? Can’t get to the park? I’ve entertained fractious puppies by filling a tub with an inch or two of water and floating a cup of kibble in it, creating a tasty splash zone (and incidentally loading good associations with both water and the tub). I’ve done the same with ice cubes on a shower floor. Build climbing apparatus out of the basement couch cushions. Give him something new to smell. Teach your dog to crawl under the bed and fetch that sock you had abandoned.

Want bigger aspirations? The International Dog Parkour Association has released a special Quarantine Title which must be done at home with ordinary household items. (Bonus: it also benefits charity!) And if you need a prerequisite title, note that baby Undómiel earned hers on her ninth-week birthday in our living room, so you can do that too. Here’s her Youtube playlist:

Especially for Puppies

Last week I began to wonder if we might see a generation of “coronavirus puppies,” just as we have “winter puppy syndrome” in four-season areas. These are puppies who do not get adequate socialization because it’s cold or their owners don’t want to go out, and by the time they are introduced to the world at large, they are already learning to distrust what should be ordinary.

Social, Civil, and Savvy: Training & Socializing Puppies to Become the Best Possible Dogs

Good news! Socialization is not about exposure (load all the awful virus puns in there you want) but about learning adaptability and concepts. While many people talk about socialization as exposing puppies to people, dogs, children, cars, crowds, etc. this is actually an inefficient and even harmful approach. I’m not going to cover all that here in a post on enrichment at home (and I wrote a whole book on it anyway), but keep in mind that there’s a lot to do for puppies which is still safe for them and us. And we really must do it for their long-term behavior and mental health.

(Self-promotion: Social, Civil, and Savvy is now also available in audiobook! Check your favorite retailer or ask for it at your library. Note that Audible is experiencing some distribution delays, but it is already available at dozens of sites and stores.)

Productivity for Us

Many of us are working from home now. That’s the norm for me, but now my husband (who usually works out of state on weekdays) is at home, too. It’s good to see him more often — I like him, after all! — but we have very different work styles and it’s a significant environmental change which does affect my behavior.

I prefer to work in silence, so a day full of conference calls is a massive disruption. Our marriage is saved by establishing different workspaces and respect as if they are offices. I can’t go and bug Jon just because he’s in the house and therefore available — and this is a conscious shift for me, because typically his being at home is a cue that he is available! A change in context means I need to be aware of my cues.

During social distancing and more shared time and space at home, relationships and lives will be saved with headphones. 🙂

Likewise, many people have trouble getting into a workflow in an environment which has traditionally cued other behavior, from snacking to Netflixing. Create a specific routine which will both enable and help to cue the behavior you want. Maybe taking your laptop to the couch where you usually binge The Great British Baking Show is not the best choice to set up for success. Make a workspace to cue productive behavior — and it doesn’t have to be a whole home office! You can change the environment by moving a chair to face a different direction, or using a particular mug, all kinds of things. Then, when your work is done, move the chair back or trade to a different glass, and that will keep your cue clean for the next day’s productivity.

This is where trainers really have an advantage, because we’re already used to thinking about unintentional environmental cues and sometimes making them intentional. Use that knowledge!

Enrichment for Us

While some of my more introverted friends are delighted that their homebody ways are now socially desirable, this shift can be quite hard on others. Make sure that you are providing for enrichment for yourself as well — and it should be both physical and mental, just as for your pet! Sorry, Netflix alone is not a way to stay healthy and sane while you’re home.

Because I normally work from home, I am fortunate enough to have already over time assembled a treadmill desk. This does nothing for mental enrichment, of course, but it helps to mitigate sedentary inertia. But you don’t have to have fancy equipment to take care of yourself. An exercise ball can be a cheap addition to your office, providing both a healthy seat and stretching options. EyeLeo is free and a good idea no matter where you’re staring at a screen. There are loads of apps and online videos on stretching, simple calisthenics, etc. Just don’t let your change in routine promote new unhealthy habits. (Don’t think I didn’t see you glancing at the snack drawer. I’ve already hit it myself.)

For mental enrichment: Guys, we’re in luck. We live in the information age. We can talk with friends over thousands of miles, we can get books from the library without ever leaving our chair. It’s fabulous. Not everything should be done on a screen, of course, but this is the time to get started on that project you’ve been putting off or check out that interest you’ve never indulged.

Here are just a few of the links I’ve collected:

  • Self-promotion of my own Quarantine Sale of books, shirts, and stickers. This includes my bestselling training books like Fired Up, Frantic, and Freaked Out, my new kids’ training book Dragons, Unicorns, Chimeras, & Clickers, and fiction. (Yep, I’m washing my hands each time before I sign and ship!)
  • Want to take a course on coding, ancient Egyptian art, or negotiation? Here’s a list of 450 free Ivy League online courses you can sign up for right now.
  • The New York Metropolitan Opera is streaming HD performances.
  • You can watch cool taiko Drum Tao perform here.
  • Get moving yourself with all-day dance classes at Dancing Alone Together.
  • Got stir-crazy kids at home? My friend Kristie at Karmada Arts is offering free art classes for kids online.
  • Zombies, Run! has a new free at-home season.

I’ve also cleaned out the mud room I’ve been meaning to get to forever, just as I’ve seen a number of friends report massive cleaning binges. This makes sense; as we’re working from home, it’s easier to work without clutter. And several of my author friends have already reported fresh drafts.

Speaking of fresh drafts, this is the time to try that new thing you’ve been considering in the back of your mind, or even to go whole hog and experiment with a completely new or different idea. Sir Isaac Newton experienced his annus mirabilis (“year of wonders”) including groundbreaking work on optics, gravity, and calculus (well, two out of three ain’t bad) while sitting out an outbreak of plague. It’s speculated that Shakespeare may have written Macbeth, King Lear, and Anthony & Cleopatra while under quarantine. This is your chance to focus on learning a new language or picking up a new hobby or whatever you like.

As we do the right thing, let’s stay safe and stay sane with good behavioral approaches for our pets and ourselves. And wash your hands. 🙂

About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.
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