What do you do if your dog is chewing your computer lead or your moggy keeps deleting your emails? Animal behavioural experts give their advice for harmonious homeworking.
I am sitting at my computer, in my office at the end of the garden, typing. On the other side of the door, the cat is staring at me through the glass. It is a hard stare.
I know the cat wants to come in so that he can climb on to my desk and walk back and forth across my keyboard, deleting files and pressing Send prematurely.
He knows that, if he does this with sufficient persistence, I will eventually feed him, even though I have already fed him. Anything, just to get a little work done.
So the door remains shut, and I’m getting a stiff neck from trying not to make eye contact.
Pets were meant to be the great beneficiaries of the pandemic: with so many people furloughed or working from home, the dogs and cats of Britain would finally receive the attention they craved. And the food. Soon, however, people discovered that homeworking and pet-owning were not entirely compatible. Cats don’t care if you are in the middle of a Zoom meeting.
Dogs don’t understand deadlines. Some parrots make so much noise during the day that one charity recently reported a 70% annual increase in those needing rehoming.
In the spring, the whole awkward arrangement seemed charmingly temporary but, as England locks down for a second time, many pet owners still have not found the right balance between work and the animals they care for – between cat and keyboard.
“Many cat owners will find that their pet wants to get involved with what they’re doing, and won’t realise they’re not helping,” says Evy Mays, feline welfare adviser at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home.
(Note: I’m almost certain my cat knows he’s not helping.) “Giving cats extra enrichment during working hours can help keep them occupied,” she says.
She suggests “puzzle feeders, interactive toys and access to the outdoors to burn off energy and tap into their natural exploratory behaviour”.
Cats, however, as many of us have learned, are not always so easily dissuaded. “If the cat persists in trying to clamber over your keyboard, try training the cat to sit in a designated area on the desk during work hours,” says Mays.
She advises placing a small towel in an appropriate area on the desk. Every time the cat jumps up on to the desk, point to the towel using a word such as “here” or “towel” as a marker. If the cat goes to the towel, give the cat a treat, so it associates the positive action with reward.
“This may take time, but it’s a good way to encourage the cat to an appropriate place, while also engaging with them in a positive way to increase mental engagement and stimulation,” says Mays.
“Never punish the cat if they do jump on the keyboard or don’t use the towel.” Cats, apparently, have trouble grasping the idea of bad publicity.
It is the middle of the afternoon, and I have come inside to keep one eye on the television while I work through some emails. This is my idea of multitasking.
The dog, meanwhile, is doing this thing – bouncing between a low crouch and a sitting position, backing up a few steps and repeating – that roughly translates as: “You! Me! Right now! Let’s go!”
“I’m busy,” I say, which, as far as the dog knows, is true. But the dog’s priorities are not my priorities. “A dog who seeks attention even when you’re busy is communicating that, at that moment in time, they need something from you,” says Suzie Douglass, head coach at the Dogs Trust’s Dog school in Dartington.
“They could be seeking attention because they’re worried about something and need reassurance, they might be bored and seeking something to do, or they might simply not understand why you’re sitting there ignoring them when usually you respond.”
The secret to a happy, work-friendly dog is a predictable routine – they like structure, so feeding, walking and playing should ideally happen at the same time every day.
Work time should also be part of this routine. “Establishing consistent boundaries between work and free time is beneficial for us as well as our dogs,” says Douglass.
“For those working from home on a longer-term basis, it’s especially important for a dog to learn to relax, lie down and have time on their own when you’re busy on phone calls or video meetings.”
A toy that makes a dog work for a treat may buy you enough time for an emergency virtual meeting, but marking the boundary between work and play involves teaching your old dog a new trick: how to “settle”.
Set aside this training for a time when your dog is already feeling relaxed. Sit quietly on a chair with the dog lying on a blanket on the floor.
Drop bite-sized treats as a reward for settling, but do not say anything while you are doing it, and don’t give any attention to non-settling behaviour. Gradually increase the amount of time the dog must settle for before you reward them.
A noisy bird presents a knottier problem: you can’t silence a parrot, and you should not try to. Some species will naturally squawk or sing at regular intervals during the day, for up to 20 minutes at a stretch.
Excessive screaming can be curbed, but you would need to know the cause, and a bird might scream for any number of reasons: illness, loneliness, boredom, tiredness, fear or even jealousy.
Otherwise, the basic strategy is the same as it would be for cats and dogs: reward the behaviour you want, ignore the behaviour you don’t like.
Foraging toys or “puzzle feeding” – anything that makes the bird work to get food – can also keep your parrot busy, and possibly quiet.
If you think your parrot is lonely, you could try getting another one for company, but that sort of doubling down is prone to backfire. You might end up with two screaming birds.
Perhaps the most important to remember is that your constant presence represents a big disruption for your pets, too, especially if you are allowing the stress of work to invade the domestic sphere.
“Animals rely on reading body language, so can be very good judges of our own emotions, even if we are trying to hide them,” says Nathalie Ingham, a canine behaviourist at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. Cats, you may not be surprised to hear, are a little less sensitive to your career problems.
“For the most part, cats won’t take too much notice of longer working hours unless it impacts on them receiving a valued resource, for example meals,” says Mays.
They may, however, be upset by outward behaviour that they are not used to, such as loud exclamations or pacing, so it’s important they have somewhere to go to get away from you.
Dogs are more likely to pick up on your stress. “Our dogs can recognise when we’re agitated or worried and this can affect the way they feel, too,” says Douglass.
“It helps to learn to recognise the signs that your dog is beginning to feel uncomfortable about things, as then you can take steps to help them feel better.
Dogs can show subtle signs they are becoming worried, which humans often miss, such as licking their lips when they’re not hungry, and yawning when they’re not tired.”
Taking some time out to walk or play with your dog will not just reduce his stress levels, but yours.
For dogs, the real problems may begin when we finally return to the office. “All the extra attention could potentially create a ticking time bomb of separation anxiety for our dogs,” says Rachel Casey, the director of canine behaviour and research at Dogs Trust. “If they expect us to be about all the time, it will be more difficult for them to cope once we eventually go back to our normal lives.”
It may seem premature at this point, but we should be preparing our pets for the end of working from home. For cats, this may simply be a case of providing an environment in which they can busy themselves during the day in ways that do not involve human social contact.
With dogs, it is a matter of maintaining, as much as possible, the remnants of your pre-pandemic routine. “If you used a dog walker before lockdown, we would recommend that you still get them to sometimes walk with your dog if possible, as this is a big part of some dogs’ routines,” says Ingham.
Above all, you and your pet will both need some me-time, even when you are at home together. “Just make sure that you factor in time apart from your dog each day to help them to cope when alone,” says Casey. “They could be separated from you by a door or child-gate for an hour or two while you’re working.”
Unfortunately, there is no barrier to stop a cat’s eyes boring into the back of your head while you are trying to work. Maybe he will give up when it gets dark.
How pets are helping us at home through the coronavirus crisis
Animals are proving a lifesaver for many, providing companionship and consistency in uncertain times.
After years of nagging for a pet, Barney, the cavalier King Charles spaniel, could not have arrived at a better moment, says Marie Brown. “We picked him up the day before lockdown. The timing is a godsend.”
The puppy has helped her children, aged 12 and 15, adjust to life at home in Sevenoaks, Kent, without school, sport or much of a social life.
“They entertain each other,” says Brown. “My daughter would have been bored witless without him. He’s brought structure to the day, and is getting us all outside in the garden.”
The benefits of pet ownership for health and wellbeing are well-documented, reducing loneliness and anxiety, lending daily structure, and lifting mood.
And that’s in normal circumstances. In lockdown, pets are proving a lifesaver for many, providing companionship, consistency and even joy.
“Barney is definitely reducing the stress levels and upping the fun in our house,” says Brown.
Dogs in particular have helped to keep their owners active, demanding daily walks, pandemic or no.
Bethan Taylor-Swaine, who lives in Brixton, south-west London, has been lending her brussels griffon dog, Loki, to her neighbours – for their benefit, and his.
“He’s super social, and he just can’t fathom how he’s gone from essentially being treated like a boy band member to only really seeing me and my husband.”
Afsaneh Parvizi-Wayne, from Highgate in north London, says Honey, a two-year-old cockapoo, has helped keep her husband sane as he weathers the coronavirus crisis as a hospital consultant.
“He walks through the door and she’s waiting for him, and he’s on the floor playing with her. You can visibly see the day’s stress and anxieties diminishing,” Parvizi-Wayne says.
Rachel Conlisk, who lives in Birmingham, says her cats, Belle and Little Tyke, have been a great comfort to her and her 11-year-old son, Sam. “They’ve been happy having us home – they’re always on our laps,” says Conlisk.
“We’ve found that when everything’s so crazy out there, it’s been really nice having them around – they remind you that life goes on.” Sam says when he has felt worried or sad, cuddling Little Tyke has made him feel better. “She’s a tabby cat. She’s got a small head and a big body. She sleeps on my bed.”
Conlisk says Little Tyke is “really tolerant”.
But it is not only dogs and cats that bring benefits. Alexander Phasey, 18, from Newport in south Wales, says his reptiles have been key to managing his severe social anxiety and depression.
He has about 18 animals, including bearded dragons, leopard geckos, corn snakes, tortoises, and monitor lizards, the largest of which is about three-quarters-of-a-metre (2.5ft) long and growing.
His “baby” is Lily, a nine-month-old Argentinian black-and-white tegu – a large tropical lizard. “I’ve got a proper bond with her. I’ll tap my hand to the floor and she’ll come running out like a puppy, tasting everything with her tongue.”
Coronavirus has had minimal impact on his ability to care for them, says Phasey, though his pet food supplier is struggling to meet demand from reptile owners stockpiling for their pets: “There’s a shortage of locusts.”
Some people without pets have seen lockdown as an opportunity to bring one home. Many animal charities have reported an increase in fostering and adoptions, despite most centres being closed to the public.
Battersea Dogs and Cats Home rehomed 86 dogs and 69 cats in one week in mid-March, more than double the animals placed during the same period last year. One dog, Tulip, had been at the centre for 110 days.
Dogs Trust has reported a 25% increase in adoptions, but warned that “a dog is for life … not just for lockdown”. “We really need people to think about what might happen on the other side of this outbreak when people are hopefully back to their usual routines and have other commitments,” said the trust’s operations director, Adam Clowes.
Some animals appear to be struggling with the disruption to their routines. Livi Perkins, a pet sitter in Rock Ferry, Wirral, has been put out of work by the pandemic and says a client sent her footage of their dog reacting to a video Perkins posted on Instagram. “She heard my voice and ran around looking for me.”
Caroline Wilkinson, an animal behaviourist and dog trainer near Bristol, says dogs in particular can become needy or prone to barking with their humans more available.
She recommends keeping their mealtimes and bedtimes consistent, and ensuring they have some time by themselves. Dogs may even need “a rest day” from all the exercise.
For now, many pets are relishing their owners’ extra attention and new enthusiasm for walks. Brown – who has always worked from home, as a website designer – worries for Barney, who will have never known any other life.
“When this is all over, and everybody goes back to work and school, I’m going to have a dog that is suddenly wondering where everybody is.
(Article source: Various)