When COVID-19 stay-at-home orders began in the spring, part-time fitness instructor Karen Eisenhut Evans started teaching Zumba and HIIT (high-intensity interval training) classes through Zoom from her home in Boyds. Her two mixed-breed dogs, meanwhile, developed their own exercise routine. “They like to make a big loop of our house chasing each other,” Evans says. “If I’m on the floor doing stuff for class, they will just pile right over top of me.” Her students, she says, burn a few extra calories by laughing. “Once we go back into the studio, I might have to start bringing them in,” she says.
Along with stir-crazy kids, pantless colleagues and technical difficulties, pets are yet another variable in the ever-evolving equation of working from home. And while pet owners aren’t always thrilled with their dog or cat playing a role in an important virtual meeting, the other participants are sometimes entertained.
Algebra teacher Susan Karpatkin, who lives in Bethesda, navigated feline antics during her virtual homeroom class in the spring. Her five cats constantly made cameos. “I would have a cat or two or three walking across the screen, or sitting down on my keyboard, or doing anything possible,” says Karpatkin, who teaches at National Cathedral School in the District. If no pets were around when homeroom started, “[my students] would demand it,” she says.
Even kids are “working” from home now and dealing with unexpected visits from pets. During a virtual violin lesson, 12-year-old Azra Williams was playing a Giovanni Battista Martini composition for her teacher when Sky, her 3-year-old Lab, started howling along. “My dog actually was acting as my personal tuner,” says Azra, who lives in Bethesda. “She was playing the right notes so I could play along to her howl.” Her teacher found the duet amusing at first, “but after a while it got kind of distracting,” Azra says.
Mary Huntsberry, an associate certified applied animal behaviorist who owns Helping Pets Behave in Gaithersburg, has a few theories on why pets confuse Zoom time with playtime. “A lot of times, that changing routine is a big anxiety producer for our pets,” she says. They don’t understand why their days look a lot different than they used to, and that stress manifests in behaviors like barking or clinginess, no matter if you’re in a meeting or not.
Another theory is that pets—dogs in particular—are very sensitive to body language. “If an owner is stressed or scared or upset, that’s going to have an impact on your pet,” Huntsberry says. Since many people are dealing with extra stress lately, it makes sense that pets feel the need to interrupt calls with comfort-seeking behavior.
Huntsberry also says shushing and pushing away pets during Zoom meetings may just encourage them to continue doing what they’re doing, dogs especially. “It is giving the dog some sort of attention, even though we consider it to be negative,” she says. “From the dog’s perspective, if it is getting a reaction, it is getting something out of it. It’s stimulating. It might be fun for them.” Pets begin to form associations, so they repeat the same behavior every time they hear the chorus of virtual voices.
Is there any way to teach animals to be proper officemates? Huntsberry recommends planning a solution ahead of time to avoid scrambling to appease your pet in the moment. Prevention can look like anything from giving dogs a long walk before a big meeting and tiring them out, to putting them in an exercise pen with an interactive toy while you’re on a call.
If you try these tricks and your furry friend still makes occasional virtual guest appearances, don’t fret. “I prefer to see somebody’s dirty laundry, or somebody’s dirty dishes or somebody’s pets. I like that we’re human. It helps,” Karpatkin says. “And who doesn’t love a puppy?”