Lately, Sharon Klinghammer’s three more than 70-pound dogs seem to think they’re Chihuahuas.
When she walks through the door coming off an eight-hour work day, they’re hot on her heels until she sits down. Then, they clamber over one another to try to sit in her lap. When she moves to the bathroom to shower off the day’s stress, they follow. At night, the two pit bulls and one golden retriever climb into her bed before she can even make it there, cuddling up like puppies next to their mother.
In the morning, they send her off for another day of work.
And it’s “better than it ever has” been.
“They give me that relief,” Klinghammer said, then added: “Everything else? Even though I have family around me, that (physical contact) has been taken away.”
For dog owners like Klinghammer, the effects of the global pandemic that took over this spring have, in a way, manifested through their pets. Many will say having a dog or a cat during the pandemic is a welcome source of comfort, whether people are staying at home or working essential jobs like Klinghammer.
But while the general public’s focus is often on how a dog can effectively decrease human stress levels, studies over time have shown stress levels between dogs and their owners are correlated. A 2019 study published in Scientific Reports suggested a synchronization of owner-to-dog stress levels.
So if you’re feeling overwhelmed, try taking a step back for a moment. You aren’t the only one feeling the tension in the room — your pet is, too.
Essential workers like Klinghammer, who is a transit driver in Columbia, often deal with a constant stream of heightened pressure to meet coronavirus guidelines and keep themselves safe. That added stress, radiated through our mood and actions, is practically tangible to a dog. Klinghammer said she’s positive her three dogs have noticed the changes: It’s visible in their own behaviors.
“They won’t leave me alone,” she said.
Dogs can’t truly know there’s a pandemic out there, said Howie Shucart, animal behaviorist and master trainer. What they do know, however, is what your pheromones are telling them.
“The dog can literally smell your mood … within moments of you being in the door — and for some dogs even before you walk in the door — they haven’t even seen you and they already know what to expect,” Shucart said.
Shucart, of Howie’s Happy Dog Training in Ashland, has seen his fair share of distressed dogs. He knows the red flags. He knows how to address them, too.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, anything from excessive barking and aggressive or destructive behavior can be a sign of distress.
Trisha Fowler, with Got Your Six Dog Training in Jefferson City, added protectiveness, conflicts between pets and kids, soiling problems and restlessness to the extensive, yet not exhaustive, list.
She attributed much of the rise in behavioral changes — and “thriving” training business at the moment — to the “huge lifestyle change” that came with the coronavirus pandemic. People are needing a lot of help.
Reading a dog’s signs is crucial to understanding how your pet may be dealing with a disrupted routine, newfound separation anxiety as people work from home and stress from their owners, Fowler said.
“I’ve trained a lot of service dogs. Dogs can sense your behavior. If you have a really good dog that’s focused on you, dogs can sense if you’re sad, if you’re mad, if you’re stressed, if you’re anxious. We teach a lot of times that a lot of anxious dogs, the reason why they’re anxious is because their owners are anxious,” she said. “If we learn to have a calmer mindset, our dogs will too.”
One easy way to do that is simply to find time to sit down with your dog. Petting a dog for 15-20 minutes continually will not only reduce the average person’s blood pressure by 15-20 points, but it will destress your dog as well, Shucart said. When they come to you, don’t send them away.
“Because that dog can sense that the owner is stressed, they’re trying to offer themselves to soothe that stress,” Shucart said. “If your dog keeps coming to you, don’t get angry at the dog and tell them to go away. … The more you send your dog away when he or she is trying to come and comfort you, the more stress you’re creating for that dog.
“The best thing we can do is do our best to stay calm for our dogs.”
Another issue that’s arisen during the pandemic is related to exercise. As people stayed locked in their homes through the state stay-at-home order, Shucart said, many dogs weren’t getting enough exercise, which can cause behavioral changes like new anxious or aggressive outbursts.
“People like to think that as long as they take their dog for a 10-15 minute walk a couple of times a day that the dog is getting enough exercise — and that’s really pretty far from the truth,” Shucart said. “You can walk a dog from now to next year, and for 90 percent of dogs, that doesn’t even begin to count as exercise.”
The secret, he said, isn’t in the distance or the pace — it’s in the dog’s tongue. A dog should be exercised twice a day to a point where their tongue is hanging 1-2 inches out of their mouth, he said.
If walks aren’t enough, Shucart recommended creating new activities for your dogs, such as food-dispensing toys or a simple game of catch that can relieve pent-up energy. One of the most common food-dispensing toys is the Kong, a rubber, snowman-shaped toy filled with peanut butter. Food-dispensing toys keep a dog busy and provide positive reinforcement.
For dogs dealing with high and visible levels of stress, natural supplements can help, Shucart added. Look for ingredients such as L-tryptophan.
But all in all, each dog should be treated in a way tailored to them. Some dogs might require an increase in physical activity; others might need designated “quiet spaces” they can hide away in for a couple of hours within homes overrun by children now at home.
Some dogs, like Klinghammer’s, might need a little bit more love and affection.
Since opening back up May 4, Shucart has been swamped with business. More than 50 percent of his new clients, he said, have reported behavioral issues noticed during the lockdown months of the pandemic, and he’s getting call after call.
He urged pet owners to not wait.
“If your pet is stressed to the point where you can really see it, and your pet is really having problems, please don’t wait,” Shucart said. “The longer these behavioral problems exist, the harder they are to resolve.”
As of early June, studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads mainly from person to person; there is no evidence animals play a significant role in spreading the coronavirus.
That information reassures Klinghammer daily. Without her three dogs, she’d be “over the board.”
“I’d be like a Howard Hughes now,” Klinghammer said, referencing the famed businessman and aviator who eventually became a bit of recluse, locking himself in one room for weeks or months. “But they bring me to be level.”
Though the three pooches can admittedly be a lot of work at times, they’re a welcome distraction from the world outside her door. When they’re cuddled up around her in bed like puppies, she views life in a new perspective. In that moment, everything is simple — perfect, she said.
“They take my affection that I can’t give to no one else,” she said.
Sometimes they think they’re human, she joked.
It just helps knowing she can hug somebody.
Treats for dogs
Studies have shown eating can help act as a motivator and reduce stress in your pets. You don’t just have to refill the dog bowl, however. There are creative ways to let your dog indulge in their meal. Food-dispensing toys, such as peanut butter-filled Kongs, provide a long-lasting meal, and toys like the Waggle, a shakerstyle toy, are good for smaller amounts of treats.
Howie Shucart, master trainer of Howie’s Happy Dog Training, suggested taking it slow when attempting to calm down a distressed dog. Give your dog a small treat every 20- 30 seconds. Doing so teaches patience and restraint while rewarding your dog.
If you’re looking for a do-it-yourself recipe, try tailoring it to fit your dog’s needs. Making DIY dog treats at home means you can avoid any potential allergens and include what your dog likes or needs most, while also packing in the nutritional benefits. Some common DIY ingredients include peanut butter, chicken, sweet potatoes and bananas.
Here’s an easy, DIY recipe courtesy of Premium Pets that’s packed with power greens, probiotics and antioxidants. The following ingredients can all be found at Premium Pets, 700 E. McCarty St. in Jefferson City.
Premium Pets also carries a variety of “calming” treats, which have been popular among customers, owner Brittany Schlup said.
IMMUNE SUPPORT SMOOTHIE
INGREDIENTS (from Premium Pets)