The Downtime Guide To: Hanging Out With Your Dog

The Downtime Guide To: Hanging Out With Your Dog

Kate Mooney

Your dog loves that you are around more. Here's how to keep up that level of energy.

With the election, climate change, record breaking unemployment, ongoing horrific acts of racist police violence—oh yeah, and a global pandemic!—it often feels like there simply couldn’t be more going on this year. And yet, at the same time, nothing is happening.

On a day-to-day basis, our lives have shrunk. There are no parties, no big travel plans. With the majority of offices and businesses closed, we spend significantly more time at home, only venturing out for groceries, jaunts to the park, or maybe to meet a friend for a drink at an outdoor bar. Enduring this slog requires patience and a dedication to simple pleasures. One weird trick to liven up this quiet, doomful existence? Spend your days with a dog.

Dogs are ideal companions during any era, but they’ve perhaps never been better suited to our current stay-at-home lifestyle. A dog doesn’t care if every single day is the same, so long as it contains yummy snacks, ample opportunities to sniff around outdoors, and plenty of quality time spent by their owner’s side. If only we could swap out our existential despair for a dog’s perspective, then our humdrum days might not seem so bad, because the smallest of moments could still feel worthwhile. At the very least, during the pandemic you and your dog are logging more hours together than you likely ever have before, so you may as well settle in and make the most of it. Here’s how.

Establish a routine

Dogs appreciate the mundane, and they thrive on having a daily routine. My dog Phoebe is 10 years old, yet she becomes airborne multiple times a day to express enthusiasm about the same repeated activities, which typically consist of mealtimes, daily walks, and playtime. A morning walk around the block followed by a bowl of crunchies is never not thrilling (and to be honest, I always look forward to a run and a coffee, so I get it). If you’re not already doing it, take your dog for a walk at least three times a day, and feed them breakfast and dinner around the same time—the structure will help you, too.

Take breaks

During the pandemic, it’s possible to spend an entire day never setting foot outside. Having a dog forces you out of the house multiple times daily, and it always reminds me how important it is to take breaks and get some fresh air (while wearing a mask and keeping social distance, of course). The mental health benefits of taking regular breaks and going for walks are no secret, yet it’s all too easy to get stuck in our heads and glued to our screens. A dog can free you of that.

In addition to the daily walks you take your dog on so they can relieve themselves, bring them on errands and small outings, whether it’s a trip to the bodega for a Diet Coke and Takis, or a Saturday stroll to drop off your compost, or more ambitious jaunts across town to explore a far-off greenspace. As a dog owner, you learn pretty quickly which businesses are dog-friendly—Home Depot and Chase Bank are two examples you might not immediately think of!—and tailor your errands accordingly. During the pandemic, errands are a godsend: they give you a sense of purpose and an excuse to leave the house. Well, the dog can come along too.

Talk to them

While you two are hanging out literally all day long, you should talk to them! Even though they don’t literally talk back, research shows that dogs like hearing the sound of their owners’ voice, particularly if it’s in a lilting tone, akin to “motherese”. Physical cues can indicate that they’re relaxed, like a lowered (but not tucked) tail, slack body, slightly open mouth and ears back (or cocked to the side to show they’re calmly attentive). On your end, talking to them can function like a therapy sounding board.

Making eye contact and taking cuddle breaks also triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone that creates a calm, happy feeling and facilitates bonding in relationships. If you’re anxious or just need a diversion from work, spend a few minutes petting your dog or lying down next to them and chatting. You’ll both feel better after.

Don’t forget to play games

Whether you’re regulars at the neighborhood dog park or your pup prefers one-on-one rough housing, don’t forget playtime! Take them out for a healthy run around with their neighborhood dog friends, or to the park for a game of fetch. Inside the home, you can still throw a toy around —got a hallway?—and there are also brain games you can play with your dog to keep them mentally stimulated, which can tire them out, too. Work-to-eat games, like the shell game or putting their kibble in muffin tins or hidden in a towel, provide fun and challenging diversions for your pup.

Get cozy

Bedtime is a whole event when you have a dog companion who loves to snuggle. When they’re next to you, putting on a scary movie isn’t nearly as spooky as it would be if you were alone. And as long as you aren’t blasting doom metal or techno, dogs enjoy listening to music, so that’s another mellow indoor activity you two can do together. Or play to them, if that’s your thing—just channel Neil Young.

Don’t forget to take some space

While in my heart I endorse being glued to the hip with your dog for the rest of your days, it’s actually a good idea to separate occasionally so that you don’t become “overly bonded,” which can lead to anxieties down the line if and when we end up leaving the house more regularly.Be sure to go out without them every so often, and even spend time at home in different rooms. Sooner or later it’ll be time for the next walk and you’ll be reunited again.

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