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Canine Expert Explains To Prepare Our Pandemic Pets For The Day We Return To Work

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Pandemic puppies - there's been an increase in people adopting them, seeking companionship during this era of social distance. So what's the best way to welcome these animals into our homes? And how do we prepare them for the day when we finally head back to the workplace and leave them home alone? For some answers, we turn to the canine expert Alexandra Horowitz. She is the author of many bestsellers, "Inside Of A Dog," "Being A Dog" and "Our Dogs, Ourselves." And she joins us now from the Hudson Valley in New York. Welcome to the program.

ALEXANDRA HOROWITZ: Hi, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I just adopted two dogs at the same time. I think I did that because it was the pandemic. It's the only reason I can actually say that I did something so crazy because it has been completely insane. What are some quick hints for training our new household members? Because a lot of the things that often turn people off to dogs or make them feel overwhelmed is that they are like children. They require a lot of attention.

HOROWITZ: I think the trickiest bit for new dog people to remember is that, gee, dogs are not born knowing what life is like in your home. So you have to create an environment so that they will succeed. Dogs don't actually come sort of pre-trained and pre-prepared to live with you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the things that reminds me a lot of dogs and children is boundaries. And how do you sort of incorporate boundaries into your relationship with your dog? Because there's a lot of discussion about crate training, giving them a space where they can sort of feel protected, but they're also contained. I mean, is that good for the dog?

HOROWITZ: You have to decide, what do you want your life with this dog to be like? Do you want them to be constant companions of yourself so that they're always by your side, always at your feet? And therefore, the flip side of that is sort of always needing to be by your side and at your feet. Do you want them to feel comfortable independently, staying calm when people come over, not being anxious when you leave the house? Well, if so, then you have to start preparing them for that, just as you wouldn't just drop off your kids suddenly with a stranger after a year of living just with you. It would take baby steps. And similarly, I guess puppy steps are needed to create a life that is the one you want to have with your dog. So I think that's the usefulness of the crate for some people. They want to be able to have their dogs stay still and calm and be comfortable by themselves.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But you're someone who studies dogs. And so I know what is needed for the human. I am curious, though, what the dog needs, what the dog wants to be happy and to feel safe in a new environment.

HOROWITZ: Well, that is the big question for me as a researcher - is, you know, what is it like to be a dog? Dogs are predisposed to want to be with other people. They're social animals. That's probably one of the reasons they were so successful to domesticate - is that they already lived in social families. So they want - most of dogs want to be with others. Similarly, they want to interact with others - right? - of their own species. And so especially in this time, we have to make an extra effort to enable them to, like, learn to deal with other dogs, right? And it's important physically for them to get out there and be able to use their mouth with someone the way they can't use their mouth with us, for instance.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. My dog bites my butt a lot lately. And it's a lot. I don't quite know what it's about. Do you?

HOROWITZ: Well, is it a herding dog?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, he's a herding dog. Yeah.

HOROWITZ: So that's what it's about. I mean, lots of dogs have a genetic predisposition to kind of go after that little - something moving near them, right? And if you are the moving thing and they don't have any other outlet for that energy, yeah, they will continue to sort of herd you through little nips until you kind of correct them, tell them they can't do that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this is interesting because what I've heard you talk about before, when we welcome a new pet into the family, is that you are welcoming a family member. Some people have discussed it as sort of, like, more a hierarchy, right? - that you are the pack leader, and they are in your pack. But you like to think of it more as just a member of the family, a sort of coequal part of your group.

HOROWITZ: Absolutely. I mean, I think it's a misguided notion to think of our relationship with dogs as being in a hierarchy where we're dominant, or they're going to try to be dominant. That's just not the way it works. That said, in our society, they're also objects we own. For me, I want it to be a kind of equal relationship where I have more responsibility. But it's not one of control. It's one of mutual enjoyment of companionship.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Alexandra Horowitz runs the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College. And she is the author of many best-selling books on dogs. And her next book is going to be about puppies. Thank you very much.

HOROWITZ: It's been a complete pleasure. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.