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For dogs, the pandemic means more walks but new anxieties

People are altering their routines and dog-walking routes, avoiding other people and pups.

J.B. Hoyt and his dog, Sir Drew, an 8-year-old Airedale terrier, walk at Lincoln Township Park in Stevensville, Mich., on Aug. 7. (Evan Cobb for The Washington Post)

Sir Drew, an 8-year-old Airedale, passes dozens of other dogs on his daily walks near the shores of Lake Michigan. Normally the pets might exchange a friendly sniff, but these days, his owner says, “we just pull back and he gets a firm 'no.’ ”

Jasper, a 3-year-old goldendoodle, doesn’t hit the beach in Portland, Maine, as often as he used to and hardly ever visits dog parks, his owner explains, “because they aren’t sanitized, and there’s no way to control who comes.”

Just as the novel coronavirus pandemic has upended our daily lives, it has also changed those of our pets, many of which are getting a lot more attention and a lot more walks. But for many dogs and their owners, those walks have also changed: They are imbued with new anxieties, altered routines and carefully modified routes.

Where once there might have been sociable butt-sniffs between canines, now there are sometimes awkward interactions between strangers who don’t share the same protocols on social distancing for dogs. Passersby are offering fewer caresses, and dog owners are more often turning down other people’s requests to pet for fear of unfamiliar hands depositing the virus on fur. Leashes are helping keep people six feet apart, but more of them on the sidewalks present new entangling hazards.

And then there are the masks obscuring humans’ faces, which some dogs aren’t huge fans of. Jasper doesn’t seem to mind them much, but he “feels defensive,” said his owner, Jennifer Baldwin, 46, a recruiter for a consulting firm in Portland. “But I think he just senses people are on guard.”

Questions about how to navigate dog-walking in a pandemic have become familiar to veterinarians, who are advising clients based on science that is still evolving, said Douglas Kratt, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

A small number of pet dogs living with coronavirus patients, including one German shepherd in the United States, have had confirmed infections. That has led scientists to conclude that human-to-dog transmission is possible, but there is an “extremely low likelihood of that happening,” Kratt said. Research on those dogs and others intentionally infected in laboratory experiments suggests dogs are not very susceptible to the virus, show mild to no symptoms and don’t transmit it to other dogs. There’s also no evidence of dogs spreading it to humans.

Because relatively little research has been done on infections and transmission in animals, experts say pet owners should stay cautious — including while walking the dog. The big idea: Dogs should socially distance, too. If you’re not having contact with others outside your household, neither should your dog.

“My dog doesn’t see other people and doesn’t see other animals,” said J. Scott Weese, a veterinarian who studies infectious disease at the University of Guelph in Ontario. “If I don’t let him go interact with someone, he doesn’t become a vector.”

That means crowded dog parks aren’t a good idea, Kratt said. It also means dog owners who have covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, or are quarantining after exposure should isolate from their pooch to prevent potential transmission. If that’s impossible, he said, owners should be vigilant about hand-washing, wear a mask around the pet and “don’t sit and nuzzle with the dog.”

Even with this guidance in mind, real-world walks can get tricky. Narrow sidewalks and trails can force those adhering to the six-foot rule onto the streets or into thickets. And some dog-walkers are warier than others.

Baldwin said she has had “several” uncomfortable encounters while walking Jasper on the wooded trails she now favors for outings, especially in the less-crowded early morning and dinnertime hours. In one instance, a woman walking her own dog “panicked” at more than 15 feet away, anxiously telling Baldwin that her husband at home was immunocompromised.

“This woman asked if we would be sure to not let my dog touch her dog,” said Baldwin, who felt the reaction was a bit extreme, but understandable — her own father is high-risk.

At the same time, Baldwin said she thinks Portland, where temporary virus-prevention measures include a ban on off-leash walking between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., has overcorrected when it comes to dogs.

“There isn’t scientific evidence to suggest that dogs are spreading the virus, and dog owners probably have a stronger immune system when they’re able to exercise their dogs freely without restrictions,” Baldwin said.

Dogs are known to researchers as “social lubricants” — animals that make it easier for strangers to strike up conversations — and all the staying home and increased neighborhood walking has led to new friendships, some dog owners say. Yet worries about the virus have also stunted a key element of those interactions: petting.

Although the virus that causes covid-19 in humans can live for hours to days on surfaces, including cardboard and stainless steel, no one has tested its viability on the lush fur of a golden retriever, the smooth coat of a pit bull mix or any other animal hair. Experts say it’s certainly possible that someone’s hand could deposit or pick up the virus via petting, though. More important, they say, is that allowing caresses can bring people dangerously close together.

“Until we have a better handle on the disease itself and everything about it, I think that potentially opens up a risk factor that I’m not sure at this point is warranted,” Kratt said.

That’s disappointing to Jamie Damato Migdal of Chicago, who was walking her chihuahua mix recently when she passed a mother with two small daughters.

“They looked at each other, and they looked back at their mom. I slowed down and I said, ‘Do you guys want to pet her?’ And both turned around and said ‘Mom, is it okay?’ And the mom said, ‘No, I’m sorry, we’re not petting dogs right now,’” Damato Migdal said. “It’s sad when that sort of basic interaction is not safe or welcome.”

But Damato Migdal, the CEO of a company that provides online education for people who work in pet services, said she knows the mother was sticking to best practices. Her firm, FetchFind, offers a course for professional dog-walkers on handling a job that now involves what it calls “a very complicated dance” of masks, hand-scrubbing and distance.

It may be tempting to smooch the doggy client, but “stick with rubs and butt scratches,” the course advises. When crossing paths with another dog-walker, step off and turn around, to avoid engaging and sharing airspace. Keep a short leash in crowded areas, it says, “so that your dog is effectively part of your own mobile quarantine bubble.”

Coronavirus-era dog walks, of course, are not all about stress. For J.B. Hoyt, they’re a way to cope with pandemic worries. He’s logged at least 10,000 steps daily for more than 140 days straight with Sir Drew, the Airedale, by his side.

For several weeks, the pair did it alone. Then Hoyt, 67, discussed quarantine protocols with a friend who has a puppy. Both were comfortable with the other’s standards, and they began walking together.

“We figured if we’re outdoors and six feet apart, then we’re fine,” said Hoyt, a retired executive who lives in St. Joseph, Mich.

After hitting 100 days, Hoyt said, he lost a bit of motivation. But Sir Drew kept him going. One recent day, with the temperature in the high 80s and the air dripping with humidity, Hoyt wasn’t so sure about the walk. Then Sir Drew began skittering back and forth near the door, brimming with enthusiasm, Hoyt said.

They took an extra-long walk that day.

“Despite the fact that he’s 8 years old, he can act like he’s 8 weeks old,” Hoyt said. “He just loves to go, and that just motivates me.”