Pandemic puppy owners still struggling with their dogs’ behaviour, survey finds

Whether it is jumping up at strangers, tugging on a lead or disappearing into the distance, the UK’s pandemic puppies are still in the doghouse, a survey has revealed.

Research by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) has added to growing concerns that many owners who acquired a puppy during the height of the Covid pandemic were struggling with their dogs’ behaviour as they reached 21 months.

Among other findings, a fifth of owners surveyed reported their dog had eight or more problem behaviours at that age, such as pulling on the lead, clinginess or aggression, while 33% of owners found training their dog harder than expected – something that was more common among first-time owners.

Dr Rowena Packer, a lecturer in companion animal behaviour and welfare science at the RVC, and lead author of the study, said a key problem was that many people did not do enough research, and were unaware of the level of responsibility involved in training their dog.

She said: “I think a lot of new owners go in with very high hopes [of] their dog’s behaviour and then when they realise actually training is quite tough, that’s where a third of them were really struggling.”

Another problem, said Packer, was the trend to project human thoughts and feelings on to dogs – for example labelling certain behaviours as naughty.

“Dogs don’t come off the shelf ready to know how to spend a day walking around on a lead meeting other dogs, going into social spaces with other people – all these things need to be taught,” she said.

However, not all struggling owners are inexperienced.

Phil Wright, 59, from Southport, owned a number of labradors before he welcomed sisters Scout and Harper into his home as puppies in February 2020.

He said: “I didn’t anticipate any problems. But I didn’t anticipate lockdown either.”

Phil Wright’s two labradors, Scout and Harper
Phil Wright’s two labradors, Scout and Harper Photograph: supplied

Both his black labradors have severe separation anxiety, with Scout howling if Wright leaves the house, as well as problematic behaviour on the lead such as barking – particularly if they see a small dog.

“They can pull me over,” said Wright.

“The separation anxiety definitely stems from me being around so much during lockdown. Likewise the behaviour on lead [is] due to lack of socialisation during lockdown,” he added.

According to UK Pet Food, in 2023 there were about 12 million pet dogs in the UK, with some data suggesting there was a surge in puppy ownership during the height of the Covid pandemic.

However, the RVC survey reveals Wright is not alone in facing difficulties. Out of more than 1,000 UK dog owners, 97% reported their dog had at least one problem behaviour from a list of 24, while on average owners reported five problems.

The most common problem was pulling on the lead – reported by about two-thirds of participants – with jumping up and poor recall in second and third place respectively.

Overall, control problems were the most common type of trouble – being reported by 84% of participants – however 25% reported their dog had aggressive behaviours.

The latest results are part of a project by the RVC that follows a group of dogs bought as young puppies in 2020, during the Covid pandemic.

While the study was not able to compare the prevalence of problem behaviours among pandemic puppies with their prevalence among dogs acquired before or after the pandemic, Packer said comparisons with other datasets suggested a general elevation of issues among the pandemic puppy cohort.

The team added one area of concern was that, while 96% of owners used positive reinforcement such as praise to train their dog, 82% used one or more punishment-based methods such as choke chains, shouting or pushing their dog – methods that can cause further behavioural problems.

Such approaches, they note, appeared to be more common in owners who had not attended online puppy classes during the pandemic.

Packer added owners reported turning to friends, family or even social media for advice on dog training, but that many of the latter advocated punishment-based techniques.

“These owners are struggling but they’re not actually reaching out to professionals for help,” she said.

The RVC advises those who are struggling with behaviour problems in their dog to take their pet to the vet, as difficulties can cause health problems, while those who missed out on puppy classes can still get help with behaviour from experts registered with the Animal Behaviour Training Council.

Wright added that despite the challenges, he would not be without his dogs.

“They are great, beautiful, friendly, but just a nightmare when they are out on a lead,” he said.