Isolation hell or solitude heaven?

by | Apr 14, 2020

Strange times often give birth to new insights and understanding. Certainly a new aspect of empathy as we experience social situations that may not be of our choice.

It takes me no difficulty to imagine a lockdown may be hell for one person and heaven for another. Perhaps the feelings we are experiencing can be used to bring understanding, and more empathy, for our dogs?

Isolation may be a lifestyle choice for one person, where solitude allows for their particular personality to be comfortable. We use the terms “comfortable with their own company”, or “self-entertaining”. For another person the sense of exclusion from their friends, family and opportunities to integrate can be pure hell.

Most of us enjoy a balance of the two, where we can choose to integrate a certain times of choose to walk in isolation with dogs for company. The key point here is “choose”. We choose what company to keep, when and for how long and in what format. Those choices are rarely experienced by dogs that are forced into social situations of their owner’s preferences.

A passing social cartoon sparked this thinking. The guy was running to the window to see the rubbish collection. Not something he would have ever normally considered the highlight of his day, or a reason to leave a comfortable chair. He had empathy for his dog – who runs to the window at every sound to check out the events in the street.

When you are forced into isolation, the small events that would never have had significance bloom into necessary engagement. That engagement may be a desperate need for interaction or an alarm of potential threat. That dog that seems so “friendly” with all dogs desperately needing some interaction because of living in forced isolation ?

Is the dog comfortably friendly, or is this just a need as a result of the isolation for the other 23 hours of his day? Has your view of social events taken a change because your choices have been removed or are you able to adapt your social needs to a different format?

A two meter social gap could suit us perfectly or be a frustration. Acceptable queuing distances have changed, possibly permanently. Our awareness and understanding is in a learning phase. Perhaps we are realising that our social norms were just something we were used to, but not really aware of the risks?

Social distancing for dogs is normal. They do not choose to hug, stand closely to strangers and would never subscribe to queuing.

Isolation by choice is quite different to isolation out of necessity. If we know that everyone is experiencing the same conditions we can cope with this separation. But consider that we are the only ones forced to miss out on the events we normally enjoy and those events are continuing without us. The dog show, the classes, the wedding, the party – all happening and we have been excluded. The isolation then begins to stink.

A dog can enjoy social isolation in their own small world. Provided their needs are met, companionship that doesn’t drive them under the sofa, opportunities to play, sniff, hunt, enjoy food, chewing, comfort and good sleep. Their stress may be entirely in the outside world, where they are forced into social situations not of their choice, doing activities they find stressful and simply being away from home causes an anxiety they cannot resolve until they have their own car.

A dog can find social isolation pure hell. Where their physical needs are met but they never get to play, run, enjoy the wind, hunt with company. Being home alone is an exclusion from everything they enjoy. The weekly rubbish collection is their moment of extreme desperation for interaction.

The conditions we find ourselves in can be turned into opportunities for discovery, learning new skills, creativity and adaptations that we had never imagined. Or quite the opposite. We are resilient as are dogs, but the elements that contribute to that resilience are not present for every person or every dog.

Having a choice to enjoy solitude can make it a pleasure, having a choice who to socialise with, and at what distance is a right most of us enjoy. Becoming aware of our privileges should make us more sensitive to the lack of privileges our dogs have to adapt to. Perhaps we can help them have a wider range of choices where we can.

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Key Reading

What Words Conceal

The language across all kinds of media paints a picture of dogs and our relationships with them.

Location is Their Cue

We begin teaching the dog to go to a target, such as a mat or platform and in this process our focus is on the outcome – the dog can place feet on the object or settle down. But at the same time this learning is happening the dog is also noting the location: where this is happening in this room, in the house, relative to the food-machine (you).

Cue Seeking is Connection

Connection is very individual and to be authentic we have to observe, slow down, understand our dogs and meet them where they are.

The Right Bed in the Right Spot

Resting and sleeping are not necessarily the same state. Good sleep where we feel safe and comfortable is important for us all.

Play Health Check

When we look at play or food delivery as an ACTIVITY we share the same mindset as the dog: is there pleasure to be experienced?

Since the Dawn of Dog Training

The old joke reminds us that the only thing dog trainers can agree on is that their training method in the best one. It becomes increasingly difficult to know which method is “right” and whether it will suit the dog, the situation and trainer’s skills.

Back to Basics?

The word “basic” is often derided as synonymous with “shallow,” but in its origins it is the very opposite: foundational, profound, supportive.

The Whole of The Dog

We cannot divide training into compartments of fast recalls, or sit for greeting, or loose leads as everything we ask of the dogs is interrelated.

Not Today and Not for My Sheepdogs

Standard protocols of extinction, impulse control, counterconditioning are quickly grabbed off the shelf as satisfactory solutions. These solutions are unlikely to help your collie, your sheepdog as the focus is heavily on suppression of who they are and why they live.

Do you see what I see

Doing better is the reward from doing the work. This work needs to be the right work at the right time with the right intent done in the right way.

Top Training

Evidence of learning

When we use the words “teach” or “train” child, person or dog, the operative term implies that the process is under the ownership of the teacher or trainer. What your teacher thinks you have learned may not be what you actually learned.

One dog watching

The other dog working
or ….how to train the spectators to quietly rest and watch whilst you work, play, teach a single member of the group

The Power of Passive Learning

Active learning: the learner takes active choice of what to do, how to respond, is attentive and making conscious effort
Passive learning: little conscious effort, reward is delivered for minimum effort.

A Day of Learning

A no-training day does not mean he gets a lazy day lying idly in the sun. Learning is still happening and this is significant and important for his development.

Surprising Puppy

Surprising Puppy. With obnoxious moments. After introducing the obnoxious puppy as a youngster I am knocked over by the Delightful Young Man he is turning into……

Obnoxious Puppy

The delight of your new puppy is probably going to last a few weeks, maybe four if you are lucky. When 12 weeks old hits, and you will feel a slam, the Delight is going to demonstrate ungrateful, obnoxious traits.


Preparing before you train and the final check list

More than words

We expect our dogs to understand the meaning of words and signals, but if you have ever worked with computers you will know that what you say doesn’t always turn into an actionable response.

Not all lures contain food

“the direct use of the reinforcer to elicit the behaviour”
This should always be foremost in our mind, in that many alternatives lures are available.

Remote lures

Lures at a distance, separated from hands, pockets . Using reward stations, patterns, containers


  1. Chris Bond

    Very insightful. A perfect time to remind us how powerfully choice weighs into an individual’s perception of an event. Lack of choice can result in an intended reinforcer becoming an aversive.

    We can choose to learn from our experiences and emotions during this pandemic, using that knowledge to improve our human empathy for our dogs and for all species that share this world. We can choose to create our own silver lining.

    • Theresa

      I love to read my dog and read her decision.

  2. Julie van Schie

    It certainly is an interesting time and one I hope we use to reflect and learn from. We, us and our dogs, are wonderfully varied, if we can learn to see and understand this what a nicer world it will be.

    Thanks for another insightful article Kay.


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