Pandemic Dog Training
Here are some tips on what training to do with your dog while we are all housebound during Covid times. Basic training, separation anxiety basics and behaviour prevention are discussed.
At the time of the writing of this article, most of the world who is not considered essential services is still either self-isolating or keeping to social distance protocols. We are going out rarely, shopping for food only once weekly, and staying at home for work in some form of isolation or another depending on the rules in your community.
I can only imagine the joy and amazement most of our dogs have felt once realizing this was “a thing”. We’re home daily, rarely venturing out and even when we do, it’s not for long. Weekends are blending into weekdays – what a wonderful thing for most of our pets!
Odds are, though, there are still many things you have to get done in the course of your day, and the weekend “feel” can only carry on for so long. You might have kids at home who you are busy home schooling or directing their online schooling; you might be an essential service worker still needing to work, perhaps even more hours than before; or you might be like me – online A LOT figuring out ways to keep your business alive now as well as trying to plan for the future in whatever our “new normal” may be.
During this time, our dogs are our constant companions, happily by our sides working and waiting right along with us. For many of us, that’s one silver lining to the cloud of uncertainty – at least we have our dogs! However, we must remember to think about their well-being too. While it might be wonderful for most of them to be home with us 24/7, we need to keep in mind their mental and physical health, now and for the future.
This can very easily be a time of great opportunity for us with our dogs. I’m sure all of us have things we keep meaning to work on or spend time training. Have you noticed anything different about your dog now that you’re spending more time with him or her?
Have you noticed just how much your dog barks at various sights and sounds during the day – maybe more than you thought? Despite having your seemingly constant attention, are they still bugging you for more – especially during online meetings? Do increased walks point out just how poor their leash walking skills are or the spotty results of their recall? With everyone living in the house at the same time, all the time, have you noticed your dog getting grumpy? Are you struggling with ways to keep your dog content and tired if your day is already full and tiring? Perhaps you chose this time to get a new puppy or adopt a dog – what are you doing for training?
Trainers around the world are concerned about dogs’ ability to cope once the world does begin to open up. Separation anxiety is a hard problem to solve and we worry about dogs developing it or regressing from any training they had in the past for anxiety. Lack of socialization for puppies or lack of social practice with new dogs or young dogs is another concern. Have you given any thought about how to prepare your dog to cope once we do have greater freedom?
In the past, I’ve always found that despite best intentions, people would find few opportunities to work on training exercises outside of any scheduled classes or private sessions themselves. There just didn’t seem to be enough time in the day for most families.
Well, now we have a real opportunity to spend some regular time working with our dogs. We have a sizable window to use to work on preventing future issues with new dogs, train our puppies, work on improving some key skills, or just find some different ways to provide enrichment and entertainment for both us and our dogs.
Whatever your reason, training your dog is something that can be done anytime, and you get far faster results if you train for a very short time but do it daily. Being home every day, we have the perfect opportunity to see some real results with our training.
Despite not leaving the house for work, I’m still finding the days are very full and I can’t seem to get it all done at the end of the day. What I have discovered is that scheduling my week, much like I used to, makes me much more productive. Why not try doing the same with your dog training? If you can book 2, 5-minute training sessions or 1, 10-minute session into your day, that’s all you need! You can make some real headway in a very short time as long as it’s daily time.
Think carefully about what issue you might want to solve or what skill you might want to polish up and set up a daily training routine for a week – test the waters and see how it goes. The following are some suggestions for things you can work on or do with your dog, some resources for training and some advice to get you started.
- Make sure you have a fresh, motivated dog. Consider training in the morning before the first walk of the day, or later in the afternoon after your dog has had his walk and spent several hours napping and is refreshed.
- Make sure you’re fresh and motivated too. Don’t train if you’re tired, frustrated or just needing to take a break from other things. If that’s the case, just go for a walk and recharge.
- Ensure you have some treats your dog really, really likes. There’s nothing more frustrating than being all motivated to train your dog only to have a “meh” response to the treats you carefully prepared. Test them out and find some really enticing options. Cooked or dried real lean meat and cheese are generally popular choices. Up the excitement of kibble by drizzling the water from a can of tuna or salmon over it.
- Create a good space for the kind of training you plan to do. If you’re doing some stationary training or training inside, clear enough space so it’s fun and easy to train without running into obstacles. Ensure you’ll be uninterrupted by other household members so you can focus and be successful.
- Have a plan and write it down. It’s much easier to be successful if you have a very clear picture in your head of what you are trying to accomplish and what step you are working on. You’re doing 5 minutes of training at a time – the plan should be very simple and the steps very clear. Mark them down and rehearse them in your head so you can give clear instructions to your dog.
- Keep it simple. Break things down into easy to achieve pieces and work on one thing at a time. Get the behaviour, mark the behaviour, reinforce the behaviour, repeat – simple.
- Use a timer. You really need to keep your training sessions short. If you end up just training until some random moment you decide to stop, you are far less likely to keep the training routine up or be as successful. It will end up taking more time than it should in your day. You are also likely to train past any success and to the point of frustration by you or your dog and/or you will end up training in some things you didn’t intend. (Note: use a timer that is appropriate for your dog as some do have noise sensitivity to particular sounds.)
- How did it go? You will be far more successful if you go in with a plan, keep your sessions short and evaluate how it went after the session. Make short notes about how you might change things or progress from here for next time.
Ready? Motivated?! You got this – it will be fun!
A. Separation Anxiety.
If your dog has successfully resolved anxiety in the past, now is the time to keep up his skills. If you have a new dog, now is the time to prevent problems from starting. If you have a dog who currently suffers from separation anxiety, now is the perfect time to work on the problem. Even if your dog has never exhibited anxiety, I would spend some time ensuring that he can handle the change when the world goes back to our new normal.
Here are some basics:
- Write down a daily routine that resembles the one you are had and/or are likely to go back to in the future. Think about how you can begin to go back to or practice that routine beginning with very small steps. For example: Get up in the morning, shower, get dressed for work (not the couch) – that’s a good start if you’ve been getting up, making coffee and beginning your workday on the couch instead.
- Make it into a training session by including and preparing your dog. For example: Pre-shower, take him out for a pee, give him breakfast. Shower and dress, then give him a treat dispensing toy and sit yourself out of your dog’s area and somewhere other than the couch – the “going to work” portion of the training. Set a timer and for 5 or 10 minutes, get up and give him treats (or toss him treats from where you sit) periodically while he works on his toy – yes, “pay” him for occupying himself.
- When your timer goes off, go change into “after work clothes” and come back to hang out with your dog or take him for a walk. Make your notes and plan for another session.
- Unless your dog has or had serious separation anxiety before, you don’t have to progressively work up to the whole routine, you can just practice small sequences of it broken down into easily manageable pieces.
- Our dogs’ behaviour is triggered by our routines – picking up the car keys means something to our dogs, putting on our runners means something, picking up the leash means something. They are masters of figuring out what, when and where based on our repetitive actions. Break those down and use them for small training sessions.
Other helpful tips:
- Make sure your dog gets lots of sleep every day, just like he should and normally would if you weren’t home.
- Keep an eye out for signs of your dog truly relaxing, even sleeping, and walk over and give a treat calmly with some quiet praise and walk away. Relaxing is a behaviour we want to increase in our dogs but a very difficult one to manufacture in a training session, so reinforce it when you see it. Be aware that your dog may pop up and follow you at first. Just carry on as you were before you stopped by with your treat. He will figure it out and quit following you at some point if you don’t engage them in the moment.
- Have specific areas where you work without your dog and specific areas where you relax with your dog. Work somewhere your dog can’t join you so there’s at least that physical separation. I often work on the couch with my dog beside me when I’m writing articles. Now, with all the computer time I’ve been logging, I have to make a conscious effort not to do this all day. I make a point to work mostly at the kitchen table and make couch time, our relaxing time with cuddles.
- Go for short walks without your dog. This is a hard thing to do, but a necessary one. Leave him with some great treat dispensing toy options and head out the door on your own.
- Research some new treat dispensing toys and give one or two a try. Now is a good time to observe your dog working with his toys so you know what he can and can’t be left alone with.
Note: Get the help of an experienced, positive dog trainer if your dog has severe separation anxiety. It IS the perfect time to work on such things if you are constantly at home – so don’t wait, start now, but get the right, knowledgeable help to be the most effective.
- The leading resource for Separation Anxiety is here: Malena de Martini.
- Check out local trainers who are members of the Pet Professional Guild: PPG Find a Member.
- Look for someone who is a Certified Training Partner for Karen Pryor: KPA Trainer Search.
B. Alert Barking.
Always annoying, this just might be getting on your nerves now more than ever before because you’re at home more, maybe trying to attend online meetings or webinars and you’re finding that you just can’t easily participate or concentrate. What can you do?
- Increase your dog’s enrichment. A mentally content dog is a far more productively tired and settled dog. Use enrichment wisely and plan your day to meet your needs.
- Do some training. Make a list of all the things your dog alerts to so you can begin a systematic process of desensitizing him to each noise. Pick the ones you can more easily control to begin your training. Here is a great video by Emily Larlham (Kikopup) on the process of desensitizing and counter-conditioning your dog to noises in their environment: Kikopup CC to Noises.
Use white noise. If your dog continues to bark at things when you aren’t training, your training will take much longer and may not be successful. Find ways to manage his behaviour by decreasing the intensity of the stimulus for your dog. White noise can be an actual white noise machine, or it can simply be turning on your bathroom or kitchen fan, playing talk radio or soothing music at a suitable volume and at key times of the day.
- Set up your environment for success. Ensure your dog is physically as far away as possible from things that cause him to bark. If it’s squirrels, cover the windows or keep him in a different room when you’re not training. If it’s sounds in the hallway, use a baby gate to keep him away from the front door and keep him in the bedroom when you aren’t home. Even putting a rolled-up bath towel on the floor at your front door can help muffle hallway sounds.
C. Enrichment and Entertainment Ideas:
(Note: Please supervise your dog with any toy or activity to ensure it’s safe for your dog and also safe to leave them alone with it if that’s your intention.)
- Enrichment / Treat Dispensing Toys. There are tons of enrichment toys on the market – maybe now is the time to find some new options to try out. My dog’s current favorites are:
o Gyro made by Kong Company
o Toppl or Qwizl by West Paw
o Orbee Snoop or Mazee by Planet Dog
o Snuffle Ball or Snuffle Mat
o Tricky Treat Ball or Kingpin Kibbler
o Wobbler by Kong Company
o Treat Maze by Nina Ottoson
- Yard Finds. If you have a yard or a reasonably large, flat expanse in your home do some treat tosses. A large handful or kibble or small, dry treats tossed out can occupy your dog happily for some time especially if your grass is long or you have shag carpet!
- Towel Snuffling. Take one or more old towels, put some kibble or small tasty treats layered between them or knotted or twisted among them and let your dog figure out how to get them all out.
- Social Media. Social media has some great resources. The “Canine Enrichment” Facebook group has a huge following with tons of unique and creative ideas for enrichment. “DIY Canine Enrichment Toys is another one to check out. Search #canineenrichment on Instagram for over 62K posts.
- Toilet Paper. A big news item, a treasured grocery find, now a dog entertainment toy! If your dog doesn’t consume paper products but like to chew them up, you can make use of all those empty toilet paper or paper towel tubes by turning them into a treat dispensing toy. Fill with treats, fold the ends, add a couple of holes and voila – instant enrichment.
- Pizza Boxes. If you’re doing “Take Out Wednesdays”, save your pizza boxes. I saw a great post recently about using pizza boxes to “hide” several different treat dispensing toys inside. The same person also smeared peanut butter inside the box and stuck lots of treats to that same box to make it a multi-layered experience much like a child’s entertainment centre – clever idea!
- Plastic Bottles. If you have some empty water or pop bottles on hand, toss some kibble inside and let your dog have some fun getting it out. If you can jam the knotted end of a short rope inside, you can add to the difficulty. Some dogs just love crinkly water bottle sounds even without the kibble. If this is the case, stuff an empty bottle inside an old sock, knot the end and invent a new dog toy.
- Hide and Seek. The best way to mentally enrich your dog is to engage their nose in the game. I’ve been making an effort to periodically hide my dog’s stuffed treat dispensing toys all over the house. We’ve systematically worked up to harder and harder levels like multiple toys scattered over several rooms, and hidden under blankets or dog beds covered with stuffed toys! Begin by teaching your dog a cue to “Find It” and help him the first few times until he understands that “Find It!” means something is there for him to locate. Dogs love finding people too, so throw that game into the mix with family members hidden in other parts of your home.
D. Polish Up Your Basic Skills.
This is the perfect time to work on some basic skills that need some work. Create a simple plan with clear steps you can follow daily to build up your dog’s skill. These are skills that are commonly either ignored, tolerated or can be managed with equipment but could easily be trained better instead:
- Leash Walking
- Jumping up on people
- Waiting in place (stationing)
- Going to a bed or mat on cue
- Proofing the a Sit or Down
- Having nails trimmed or basic grooming routines
- Getting a harness or other equipment on
Check out my YouTube video showing a simple training session for desensitizing your dog to putting on his harness: Jack and Harness Training
There are some very good free training videos and other sources to use for all of these things and more out on the Internet – just make sure you find some with knowledgeable, positive trainers:
- Training videos to check out: Kikopup Dog Training on YouTube, Chirag Patel on YouTube, Karen Pryor Clicker Training Website.
- Webinars to check out: Pet Professional Guild, FDSA Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.
- Puppy Training: Puppy Culture Program and their Madcap University for a free puppy class.
- Books, Ebooks and DVDs: www.dogwise.com. Check out authors like Pat Miller, Patricia McConnell, Jane Killion, Kathy Sdao, Ken Ramirez.
Once the world does start opening up again, it will likely be in a very limited way and plans will unfold cautiously and slowly. It’s my sincere hope that we never experience a world health crisis like this ever again and that things will get to our new normal sooner than later. However, we do have an opportunity now, and I’m hoping many people will take advantage of the time we have available to us to spend some productive time with their dogs.
If you are experiencing any serious issues with your dogs, all trainers are figuring out very effective ways to help people remotely. You can literally hire any trainer in any part of the world to help you. Online training can be fun and surprisingly as much or even more effective than training in person. Give it a try!
Take care everyone. Keep it positive and stay safe, always.