You wake up to a snow squall warning and as you look outside, you already see the snow blowing sideways and hear the wind howling. Not a good day to get outside. But if you’re a dog owner, you may not have a choice. Your pet pooch needs to get out for a walk no matter what.
Stay-at-home orders created by the pandemic have provided both opportunities and challenges for local dog owners.
Robb MacDonald, a health promotion specialist and entrepreneur, sees the responsibility of making sure the family pets get outside regularly, as a positive nudge for his own wellbeing.
“Having dogs has definitely had an impact on how I enjoy the outdoors,” said MacDonald. “If we didn’t have dogs, I might not choose to get out as often.”
Both MacDonald and his partner Sue work from their home in Horseshoe Valley and their routine involves taking their dogs, Kula and Ziggy, out for walks three times a day.
“It’s a good excuse to get out and get some exercise. We don’t have a fenced-in backyard, so we end up exploring all kinds of different trails with the dogs. Even if I don’t feel like going out some days, it’s not often that I come back wishing I hadn’t gone out.”
Lynn Jamieson of Orillia says she can’t imagine her life without a dog.
“I’ve had a dog for as long as I remember. Even as a kid, my family always had a dog. Walking my dog every day, often twice a day, is just part of my life.”
Jamieson, who recently retired from full-time employment, continues to start her day early and is usually out walking Elmo, her 18-year-old German longhaired pointer, by 6 a.m.
As someone who loves being outdoors, Jamieson enjoys cycling, rollerblading, working at a local organic farm and as a volunteer at a nearby falconry centre. But the time she spends walking her dog is what she finds most valuable.
“When I’m walking, I do my best thinking about what kind of day I’m going to have, or what I want to get done.”
She also brings her phone or camera along. “There is so much to see, whether we’re walking in town or on a trail in the woods – there is always something interesting," Jamieson said.
While dog owners have benefited from having a built-in incentive to enjoy the outdoors during stay-at-home directives, the circumstances of the pandemic have also caused challenges.
With many public areas (including designated dog parks) closed, local parks and trails have become extremely popular and sometimes overcrowded.
Even in the Simcoe County forest tracts, where MacDonald often goes to walk, snowshoe or run with his dogs, the trails can get busy.
“There is no shortage of routes,” explained MacDonald, “but with the increase in activity during the past year, dog etiquette is really important.”
He stressed that dogs should always be on a leash, for their safety, and for the safety of others.
“Not everyone is comfortable with dogs,” said MacDonald. “And it’s also important to be mindful of wildlife (such as porcupines) and areas that are environmentally sensitive. Dogs can even spread invasive species. There are all kinds of reasons to keep your dog on a leash on trails.”
Rachel Edwards, owner of two golden retrievers – Maple and Mia, ”the girls” – has also noticed a change in trail use over the past year.
A dog owner her whole life, over the past few years, Edwards has become an avid hiker and enjoys getting out for one- to two-hour hikes with her “girls” in local parks and forests.
“You quickly get to know the trails and the regular dog walkers. It has become a real community. We’ve gotten to know each other and can greet other dogs by name. We get to know the dogs’ personalities and how to interact safely.”
But with the increase in trail use, Edwards and her fellow dog owners have had to become more vigilant about their dog’s behaviour, while helping others to understand trail and dog etiquette.
“It’s important for dog owners to be careful about how their dogs greet others and make sure they ask before allowing their dog to approach another dog or person," said Edwards.
Edwards has started to explore other, less populated areas and also enjoys walks after dark. “In the winter, the snow provides all the light we need.”
Jamieson is used to looking for a less busy time and place to walk her dog to alleviate any confrontation.
“Elmo was raised in a rural setting with just one other dog, so he’s not used to meeting a lot of other dogs. I either walk him very early in the morning, or along the Oro-Medonte rail trail. It’s one of my favourite places,” said Jamieson.
And even though local trails are busy, isolation has also become an issue, even for dogs.
Tanya Clark, development coordinator with The Couchiching Conservancy, says walking her dog, Charlie, has helped her escape from her computer screen and get outside consistently. But she’s noticed the biggest challenge during the pandemic is not being able to greet people and other dogs.
“Unlike before the pandemic, it’s just the two of us out for a walk and we keep our distance from other dogs and dog walkers,” said Clark.
Although she hesitates to analyze her dog’s behaviour, she says that he may have a bit of pandemic anxiety. “He seems to be more fearful, or at least more cautious, around other dogs and people.”
And she says it’s more difficult to find places for her dog to run. “I know it’s important for his health.”
Clark said one solution she’s found is to set up backyard play dates with a friend’s dog who she knows is compatible with Charlie.
Chris Glover, director of student affairs at Lakehead University, has been working remotely ever since the university switched to online learning almost a year ago, and is happy to have his dog, Peanut give him a break.
“I find myself exhausted at the end of the day after spending so much time video conferencing and staring at a screen,” said Glover. “Having Peanut means that I at least get out to take her for a walk. I get some fresh air and sunshine. I think it’s helped me appreciate winter walks more than ever.”
Glover says he also misses the interaction with other dogs and people. “Unfortunately we haven’t visited any dog parks in a long time. I’m looking forward to a post-COVID world where Peanut can spend more time at some of our favourite places, like Clayt French Park.”
Despite the challenges dog owners are facing as a result of our new pandemic reality, the benefits of dog ownership – when it comes to enjoying the outdoors – can’t be ignored.
“There are real physical and mental health benefits from getting outside with your dog,” concludes MacDonald. “As a responsible dog owner, you’re getting your dog out for exercise, and in doing so, you will benefit as well; it will just happen; you can’t avoid it.”