Walking your dog during COVID is no longer the same as before…

Since coming back home to London from uni, I’ve begun walking the dog again when I run, and I noticed that the whole experience was strangely different… it had warped into this delicate dance and balance of having to tiptoe around each other (2 meters apart) while also grappling to keep tight control over your dogs straining to sniff each other.

The worst of it? Probably that now both dogs and owners are severely lacking the social interaction, the petting, the friendly looks that previously made the walks so fulfilling.

After all, it’s no fun to have to almost yank your happy dog away from greeting their friends…

The social aspect is important!

Hiro Takashima / Unsplash

Of course it totally depends on the individual personality of your dog, but in general dogs are what psychologists call a “social lubricant”; basically a fancy word to say an “ice breaker”. Just by asking “can I pet your dog” or “how old are they”, it allows us humans to interact, get to know our neighbours via a postive experience, and ultimately feel more connected to the place where we live.

Caleb Woods / Unsplash

According the experimental results of a study published in the journal PLOS One, researchers reported that ‘pet owners were significantly more likely to get to know people in their neighbourhood whom they didn’t know previously, compared with non-pet owners.’ In fact, ‘dog owners were five times more likely to get to know people in their community than other pet owners.’ This is obviously because if you walk in the same park, you will most likely begin to cultivate amicable friendships with certain owners and dogs.

Another qualitative study published in 2017 by the International Journal of Envirnomental Research and Public Health analysing dog-walking behaviour admitted that although dog owners tended to focus on the dog a lot – often describing walking the dog as ‘principally done “for the dog”‘ – they often gained happiness themselves from the act. They even suggested that the owners would ‘project their needs onto the dog’ somewhat.

Model of dog walking negotiation. Source: ‘I Walk My Dog Because It Makes Me Happy

Although the researchers do concede that the owner’s own ‘physical activity and social interaction were secondary bonuses’ and not necessarily the main motivation, it is still a factor. In fact, another study in 2016 suggests that ‘intrinsic motivators (e.g. finding an activity pleasurable) seem to be more important’ than ‘extrinsic motivators (for the purpose of a reward outside the activity itself, such as reducing feelings of guilt)’.

With this logic, the seemingly mundane connections we make while walking our dogs – the petting and the socialising – are a form of positive reinforcement, which make the act of dog-walking “pleasurable”.

We perceive or believe that our pup is happy with these interactions and we (the dog walkers) are happy in return. Granted this is rather simplified, but you get the picture.

The effects of social distancing…

Nathalie SPEHNER / Unsplash

Despite the great benefits some might be experiencing from the social distancing, there are still a significant amount of us that are feeling isolated and lonely – none more so than the older dog walkers among us who rely somewhat on these excursions for their socialisation. Interaction for both pooches and humans is sorely missed and many of us are feeling the strain.

Recent research from eharmony and Relate stated that even though the isolation has been helpful for some, ‘two in five (40%) single people are battling loneliness’. Another ongoing study covered by UCL also supports this trend in unhappiness.

Sergey Zolkin / Unsplash

Many people, youngsters especially, are flocking to the Internet to search for human connection to fill the void. Personally, I have found many of my friend gossiping about how more people seem to be messaging them about getting into romantic relationships.

Not having the socialisation factor when walking your dog can contributes to this disconnect we feel.

Instead of the warming camaraderie or the friendly wave or nod between dog walkers, there is this subtle sentiment of keep calm (avoid eye contact) and carry on. Out of necessity, dog owners are altering their routes and keeping their furry friends on shorter leashes. The Washington Post, one of the few papers to report on this, mentioned that ‘passersby are offering fewer caresses’ for fear of ‘unfamiliar hands depositing the virus on fur’.

In fact, rather than eluding a sentiment of community and togetherness, it is probably more common to get an angry stare thrown your way should the person in question feel you are not following social distancing etiquette enough.

First, let’s look to the experts…

Hello I’m Nik / Unsplash

In times of uncertainty, our first port of call should always be the facts.

So far there have been only a few documented cases of dogs having contracted the Coronavirus; however, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) sustains that there is no evidence of dog-to-human transmission of the virus.

Scientists do suspect that such infection might be possible, but Douglas Kratt, President of the American Veterinary Medical Association, explains that from the results of the laboratory experiments carried out so far, there is an ‘extremely low likelihood of that happening’.

Nevertheless, a study done by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Laboratory of Virology in the Division of Intramural Research published in March 2020 stated that ‘infectious viruses could remain in the air for up to three hours’ and could live for up to ‘two to three days on plastic and stainless steel’. It is interesting to note that there have been no studies (as of yet) that have tested this on fur.

For now, however, experts highlight that it is best to be vigilant and err on the side of caution, which is why many have discouraged socialisation of dogs and any petting.

The current guidelines set by gov.uk for dog walkers are as follows:

  1. ‘Stay 2 metres apart from anyone outside’ if you are not wearing a mask. If you are wearing a mask, then try to stay at least 1 metre apart. (This doesn’t apply to those in your household or support bubble.)
  2. ‘Consider putting your dog on a lead’.
  3. ‘Wash your hands before and after handling your dog’.
  4. Ensure that you follow guidlines should you have to ask someone to walk your dog.

So, what can dog-walkers do… ?

Visuals / Unsplash

Even though these might be strange times, there is no need to despair. It is often the case that when restrictions or boundaries are put in place, humans find creative ways to overcome them. There was even a man in Cyprus who actually used a drone to walk his dog!

Vakis Demetriou / Facebook

Given that our poor little furballs can’t sniff butts or socialise, many dog owners have used the extra time while socially isolating to bond with them. Maybe teach them a new trick!

Another potentially interesting option is to consider having a dog-walking buddy. This is what one dog walker of an Airedale ended up doing. Having enduring it alone for several weeks, he ended up discussing ‘quarantine protocols with a friend’. And after checking that they were both ‘comfortable with the other’s standards’, they set out on joint puppy walks together 6 feet apart!

Another dog walker, Nick Hutson, even created a website called ‘Romsey Exercise walks‘ where Internet users can log their “safe” routes since ‘many paths were too narrow’, he explained. Admittedly, this is not really an example of dog walkers finding opportunities to keep connected, it is nevertheless a sign of ingenuity and hope for more creativity to come.

‘Wuhan footshake’. Source: DailyStar

Lastly, another possibility is perhaps inventing some innovative greeting like the elbow-bump or the footshake. Of course, it would most likely have to be something done from afar…

Well, if this doesn’t happen, just remember that next time you go out on a walk, it is totally fine to glance up and throw a cheery smile or wave at another passing dog walker you see. It really doesn’t matter if you can’t stroke their dog.

We honestly don’t yet know exactly how long these social distancing measures will last, so why not start to make a change starting with your own outlook and attitude! You never know – it might make another person’s day!

In the very apt words of Tesco, ‘every little helps’.

Further recommended reading :

Featured image: Stefan Heesch / Unsplash

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