Primarily in everyone’s mind right now is safety. Dog walking is a fantastic way to exercise, help the local community, we have a great advantage in that St Andrews has an abundance of room to walk and still observe safe social distancing measures. Dog walking reduces stress, is fun and can help clear you mind for even just a little while during these uncertain times.
While it might at first seem like it’s a perfectly simple thing to do, but there are some considerations that may have not come to mind.
Dogs are a different species but they have excellent communication systems, senses and emotional needs similar to our own. That is why dogs are much love family members Uk wide and so valued in our society. In order to get the best from our beloved pets, it is important to have good communication and an understanding of what makes them tick. Miscommunication is the most common reason for dog bites in the Uk. In my experience of dogs, they only bite as a last resort. People may cite that a bite came ‘out the blue’ but often the dog HAS been communicating for some time that they cannot handle a situation, people just do not recognise the signs.
When I operate as a dog walker, normally I would do a risk assessment scoring depending on the answers given & visually by watching for body language stress indicators in the presence of the owner, and the first time I collect the dog on my own. This is because you may find a dog behaves completely differently or reacts far more strongly with someone they do not know. Normality, for now, has gone out the window and so the normal risk assessment process will not apply. It is likely you may be walking the dog of someone who is social distancing because they have an underlying health condition, so you cannot gather as much information in person or assess the dog in the owner’s presence. Skills in reading canine body language are more valuable in this situation.
Calming signals in dogs.
Calming signals are how dogs communicate they are feeling uncomfortable in any given situation. Even you have experience of dogs, it would be useful to learn how dogs tell us that they are unsure, apprehensive nervous, all of which equals stress.
Canine body language stress indicators
I will at some point publish a more comprehensive body language document, but in the meantime, it’s worth watching this video to familiarise yourself with some indicators of stress, even if you are an experienced dog owner.
The Scottish Outdoor Access Code has an excellent, free, training course on responsible dog walking. It doesn’t take long to do and I can guarantee that even the most experienced pet dog owner will learn something valuable from it. It covers the relevant laws as well as giving everyone great advice.
Covid-19 specific risks.
This may not be a popular opinion, as everyone wants to help where they can, but I’m afraid I do not recommend walking dogs from families who are in quarantine because they have someone at home showing signs of Covid-19. There is some evidence dogs can contract covid-19, though so far, nothing to show it can cross the species barrier the other way and transmit it back to people, but this virus is so new that there are is multitude of information we do not yet know. What we do know, is the virus can live on surfaces for several hours, I would think it’s reasonable to consider there would be a risk of surface contamination from fur, collars and leashes if nothing else.
The current official advice from the Global Veterinary community:
“What are the concerns regarding pets that have been in contact with people infected with this virus?
While COVID-19seems to have emerged from an animal source, it is now spreading from person-to-person. Person-to-person spread is thought to occur mainly via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. At this time, it’s unclear how easily or sustainably this virus is spreading between people. Learn what is known about the spread of newly emerged coronaviruses. Importantly, there is limited evidence that companion animals including pets such as dogs and cats, can become infected with SARS-Cov-2. Although there is no evidence that pets play a role in the epidemiology of COVID-19, strict hand hygiene should be maintained by the entire clinical team throughout the veterinary interaction, especially if dealing with an animal that has been in contact with an infected person.”
Keeping everyone safe, this is my own current precautions, as a dog walker, in addition to frequent thorough hand washing –
Temperature- taken daily. At any sign of a raised temperature, of yourself or immediate family at home, you should self-quarantine everyone at home. You cannot visit people to walk their dogs.
Door handles, pet equipment – use pet safe disinfectant on any surfaces you may touch when collecting and dropping off dogs.
Dogs- There is evidence that dogs can contract the covid-19 virus, but so far, no evidence they can pass it on to humans. Still advisable not to let any your dog lick your face.
Car- extra cleaning between dog pick up and collection. Again with pet safe disinfectant.
Are you still considering volunteering?
Here is my volunteer guide to safe and sensible dog walking.
We need to gather as much information about the dog as possible, especially temperament, that covers any anxieties, and their general demeanour with other canines, people young and old. You should do this by telephone to reduce any face-to-face contact.
I will give you a list of relevant questions, and the reason behind those considerations.
Q1. Why are you needing help?
I feel it’s important to find out why they cannot walk the dog themselves. They may be socially distancing simply to keep safe, have an underlying health condition or they could be in quarantine because they have symptoms of Covid-19. I will explain the risk facts involved further in this article, but it may be the questions stop here. Draw up a clear plan of the days and times you are available, and the expectation for each party to withdraw from the service should symptoms of Covid-19 develop.
Q2. How many dogs and what breed does the household have?
While all dogs are individuals, finding out the breed beforehand gives you some relevant information. The main consideration here for you is size and strength. If you are four stone dripping wet, you don’t want to be volunteering to take on four malamutes from the same household. Four Chihuahuas on the other hand may be far more manageable (though don’t count on them being easier, but at least they shouldn’t be able to pull you over).
Q3. How are they with other dogs?
Vitally important, especially as you may be considering taking them out for walks with your own dogs. Key words to watch out for ‘they can be a bit funny’, this does not mean they have a part time job as a stand-up comic, it means they sometimes have adverse reactions to other dogs. You can dig a bit deeper with the other questions to come. If there is any doubt about their suitability with other dogs then please just walk them solo.
Q4. How are they with men/women/children?
I could have just written people, the reason for asking about these specific groups is that some dogs may have at some point, had an unfortunate incident during a fear period, and it has had a lasting effect. They may be very sociable with men but dislike women, or vice versa, they may be nervous around children. If you plan on taking your own children with you on the walks, then obviously do not take on a dog that is nervous around them. You also need to be aware that dogs can be like child magnets, so keeping them away from children would be a priority.
Q5. What is your normal walking routine?
If possible try to stick to the normal routine of the dog, if dogs are fed at the same time, they usually need to ‘deposit’ at the same time. This is not so important if the person can give their dog access to the garden. While walking in other areas than their usual place is absolutely a great enrichment for dogs, and I’m not saying you have to go with where the dog is normally walked, for the first few walks it’s a good idea to stick to the familiar place. Some dogs have never been on walks with anyone but their owner, sticking initially to a familiar route can provide them with some reassurance. This question can also give an indication of their temperament; a dog that normally walks free on the beach and plays with several friends is likely much more sociable than a dog that walks on leash round the block at 3am. I strongly recommend you do not let someone else’s dog off the leash, unless it’s someone you know and you already have a good knowledge of and relationship with that dog. By law all dogs have to be kept under control, when you walk someone else’s dog, any problems would leave you directly responsible.
Q6. How well do they travel?
You may not need to ask this if you plan to only walk near the home. If you do plan to take dogs in your car then it is an important question. Some dogs are anxious travellers, those worst affected can vomit/urinate/defecate with anxiety in vehicles. Stressed dogs are more prone to biting, so keep safe and walk locally instead. Another consideration is keeping within the law. Dogs must be properly restrained in vehicles. This can be in a crate, with a harness and seatbelt attachment, or in the boot with a dog guard. It’s always good practice to make sure the leash is secured. Some dogs are so enthusiastic about their walk, that they automatically leap right out the car. You don’t want to end up with a loose dog, who doesn’t know you.
Q7. Any allergies?
If you plan to take dog treats, it is important to first check if there are any allergies or food intolerances.
Q8. Is there anything else you think I should know about?
Sometimes this can reveal something of vital importance i.e I told you he loves all dogs, which is true, but he is prone to having a spat with the neighbour’s dog if they meet on the stairs.
I thinks that’s it, I know it’s a lot to take in, but I feel it would be the best way forward to keep everyone healthy, happy and keep those tails wagging.
Tracy Buchan is a dog training geek, apart from spending time with dogs, loves nothing more than studying the most up to date ethology courses, from Animal communication and Welfare at the University of Edinburgh to learning about canine emotion & cognition. Currently a positive reinforcement dog trainer and Fife council approved dog walker, her mission in life is to promote good communication and understanding between man and beast. Her free to use puppy training site is www.puppers.co.uk or for services within St Andrews area www.gowalk.dog