Pandemic Puppy Pointers
There has been A LOT of puppies show up on the scene during the Covid 19 Pandemic to date. Many of us have been inundated with requests for puppy classes and private training help.
Unfortunately, during early Covid, holding classes was been problematic for many trainers due to the restrictions on indoors events, and many facilities typically rented for training classes are closed to the public for these purposes. Outdoor classes are always an option but hard for puppies especially when the weather changes into rainy, colder conditions.
The busier things get, the less classes are available and easily registered for. However, that shouldn’t limit your ability to raise your puppy well. If you can’t find a class, seek out a positive, force-free trainer recommendation from some trusted sources. Online classes are very valuable too – don’t disregard that possibility! Believe me, some money spent up front can make a world of difference during the life you and your puppy will have together.
Based on the calls and client sessions that I’ve had over the past several months, I’ve taken a sample of common questions and put together some Pointers for the Pandemic Puppies. Well - actually pointers for any puppies at any time, not just in a pandemic - and not just pointer puppies like Hugo pictured throughout this article!
This article is not intended to take the place of a well-run puppy class or private training from an experienced positive trainer, but hopefully you’ll find some helpful tips and useful resources for your own situation!
1. Those first few nights
Recommendations on how to manage your puppy in the first few nights he is at home have changed a lot in recent years. If you have older books or are getting dated advice, toss it aside and contact a trainer who keeps up with their education!
- Consider your puppy’s perspective! He is just a baby maybe on this earth a mere 8 weeks, and he has just been taken away from the only family and environment he knows. He needs you to be as comforting and supportive as possible as you integrate him into your own family.
- Be prepared to keep him company at night for a few nights – either with you sleeping beside his sleeping area or having him sleep beside yours within sight and sound of each other.
- Consider using a “Sleeping Loop” to help your puppy sleep more easily – helping to mimic the warmth and comfort of many bodies pressed together. Here is a great video on making and using a sleeping loop from Service Dog trainer, Donna Hill: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myraAIhU3JU
- Remember that your puppy was used to food on demand, potty as needed and could move about as he wished while still with mom and littermates. Be mindful and ready to respond to his needs as they arise.
- Ensure you have water and some stuffed treat dispensing toys always available for puppy wherever he is – even during the night. Dogs don’t have the same sleep patterns as we do and puppies are used to waking and eating often when they’re very young.
2. Crates and Confinement.
Confinement is important for puppies and young dogs. We simply can’t let them have full run of our homes before they understand house training rules and are able to direct themselves to appropriate toys and chew items. However, for a variety of reasons not all puppies or dogs come into our lives with this skill already on board.
I find that many breeders, unfortunately, are not taking the time to properly crate train puppies before sending them to a new home, so expecting them to go right into a crate for naps or to begin immediately spending the nights in this level of confinement in your home is really unfair and unrealistic.
You want your puppy to build a bond with you, not feel as though suddenly no one can meet his needs or be there to comfort him when he needs it. It is no longer considered good training advice to let him “cry it out” until he settles down.
Until you’re able to train your puppy to be completely comfortable with crate confinement, consider using the type of pen set up recommended by Puppy Culture (puppyculture.com) – I really think it’s brilliant:
- Set up a wire pen or similar secure confinement area that can accommodate a crate (containing a comfy bed) at one end and left open, a clear area in the middle for play, and a toilet area at the other end.
- The pen should contain water, some chew toys and a stuffed treat dispensing toy for when puppy feels hungry (remember mom was feeding your puppy on demand, not on a human-type schedule).
- The toilet area should be clearly defined – think shallow litter box idea vs. simply a pee pad which is flat on the ground. This area should contain a suitable surface that attracts your puppy and allows him a clearly defined spot to head for in the middle of the night when he wakes up needing to potty. The “litter box” could contain a pee pad or it could contain wood shavings, newspaper-style cat litter, dirt, or another safe substrate that’s not likely to be tempting to chew and swallow.
If puppy is in a closed crate at night, he has to fuss and make noise and become quite stressed needing to get out to potty and not entirely sure how to get there. It’s stressful for the human, too, trying to sleep lightly enough to hear puppy in the middle of the night and worrying about house training accidents.
If you have a pen set up like this one, there’s less stress and better sleeps for all!
- If you’re thinking “will my puppy take longer to be house-trained”? Don’t worry – stick to the usual house-training rules during the day, and your puppy will still learn to be housetrained as usual.
Socialization doesn’t stop at puppies meeting other puppies – there is soooo much more to socializing a puppy than most people think! Take a snapshot at the next 12-15 years with your dog and form a general socialization plan based on what that looks like:
- Get your puppy out and about to the extent you can (considering your area’s Covid restrictions) and help him experience and be comfortable with all the people, sights, sounds, environments, animals and objects that are represented on your list.
- Socialization is about letting your puppy have many experiences at their own pace, with you there to keep them safe and provide some tasty treats to add to the experience.
- Every puppy is different in their level of confidence, so pay close attention to your own puppy’s body language and level of comfort in order to figure out how much and how often works for him or her.
- Here is a good Socialization Checklist from Dr. Sophia Yin to give you an idea of what to include in your socialization plan: https://drsophiayin.com/app/uploads/2015/12/Socialization_Checklist.pdf
If you can’t get out very much due to the pandemic restrictions in your area, get creative. Consider using audio and even video to replace some of the socialization opportunities:
- Find YouTube videos of fireworks, loud trucks, motor bikes, crowd noises, children laughing, crying and playing and the sounds of other animals.
- Play the videos at a lower than normal volume and let your puppy watch, listen and get treats at a comfortable distance that he sets for himself. Let him investigate at his own pace while you stand ready to move him further away or lower the sound if necessary and hand out tasty treats for bravery.
Get help from those people in your circle:
- Ask your family and neighbours to dress up in different outfits to help with “meeting new people” socialization opportunities.
- Invest in a long line – a leash of more than 2 metres – and let your puppy investigate new people at a comfortable distance on his own and come running back to you as needed.
Get creative in your home:
- Make obstacle courses with new surfaces and different objects in your home, on your deck or in your backyard to let your puppy investigate at his own pace while you cheer from the sidelines and toss treats.
- Dig out the Christmas and Halloween decorations and let puppy investigate scary or new objects in his environment that may make noise, move or have flashing lights.
- Pitch a tent in the living room or back yard and get your puppy comfortable with “camping” and where his spot in the tent is going to be when you go on family vacations.
4. Having visitors to your Home.
This is a tough one when your area’s Covid 19 restrictions may include not having many visitors to your home. It’s also not something everyone really thinks about until that day your kitchen tap springs a leak and you need to have the plumber in. It will become apparent very quickly that having a stranger enter your home is entirely different for your puppy than seeing strangers at a distance on walks.
Again, you need to get creative to find ways to ensure that your puppy won’t have a complete melt down the first time you have a visitor!
- Dress up time again! Ask your family and visiting friends to change their appearance. Get them to add hats, backpacks, carry different pieces of outdoor equipment, arrive at the door, change their voices, knock and ring the doorbell – imagine all the different scenarios from friends to service people coming into your home.
- Prepare ahead and have puppy confined at a good distance from the front door and have lots of tasty treats ready to go to help ease any fear responses that might occur.
- Proceed slowly – ask a family member to dress up in full view of the puppy (or do it yourself if you live alone), go out the door and come right back in while talking to the puppy in a normal voice. Break down the “stranger” experience as much as you can so it’s not a complete stranger, knocking and “breaking in” as the first exposure for your puppy.
5. Leash Skills.
Leash skills and walking nicely on a loose leash is always an issue for dog owners – pandemic or not. Now that many of us are spending more time at home and/or have more flexible schedules, use this time to get some really solid skills in place before you head out on many leashed walks.
- From day 1 with your puppy, practice leash walking without a leash right in your living room or kitchen with a “following” exercise.
- Repeatedly Mark (verbal or with a clicker) and treat your puppy for simply catching up and following you around the house in something resembling heel position. As they are young and small, it’s easy to keep slightly ahead of them vs. struggling to keep up.
- Use treat position wisely – provide the treat close to your leg each time your puppy catches up to you, on one side or the other. Work on each side separately.
- Use the treat as a lure to get him close to your side if necessary. This will help solidify your puppy’s desire to hang out by your leg / at your side vs. forging ahead or coming around to your front.
- Work all around your house, on your deck and in your yard in small 5 minute or less increments of training fun before taking a break. If you make sessions too long, your puppy will lose interest and motivation.
- When puppy gets ahead of you, darts away or lags behind just call or lure him back.
- If he doesn’t seem interested in continuing, take a break rather than force him to continue – this is supposed to be fun and engaging and it’s up to you to find ways to motivate your puppy and keep training fun for him.
- As your puppy gets good at the following exercise, add in the leash on a collar or body harness held loosely in your hand and do exactly the same exercise.
- Once you introduce the leash, work hard at keeping even with your puppy and keeping your puppy engaged with you. The goal is to keep the leash loose at all times so leash tension it doesn’t become part of the walk.
This is a great way to use part of your puppy’s meal portion – working on leash skills in very low distraction areas in a very gradual way.
When you do need to go out in the world on leash, use a longer line so you can easily keep up with your puppy and reward him frequently in the same position with verbal praise and encouragement and lots of tasty treats. The more practice he has walking on a loose leash, the less likely he will be to pull. If things go sideways and tension happens, stop moving and encourage your puppy to come back to your side for a reset.
Keep training sessions very short and take breaks often.
6. Recall – Come when you’re called!
Recall is obviously an important skill and one many dog owners struggle with throughout the lives of their dogs.
Not long ago, I reviewed a good course offered by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy from Guatemala-based trainer, Chrissi Schranz.
Chrissi hits the nail right on the head as she has constructed her course in such a way that you are instructed to begin building or enhancing your relationship with your dog before delving into the actual mechanics of the Recall skill itself. This (and simply practicing a lot) is exactly the problem I see people having with developing that “as close to perfect as possible” Recall.
I’m not suggesting that you may not have a great relationship with your dog – most of us do. But it’s super helpful if you have a relationship that goes beyond simply hanging out with your dog and taking him for walks. I want to see dogs enjoy hanging out with their people just as much as I see people enjoying hanging out with their dogs. I see lots of dogs loving being out and about, but are they just loving being out on a walk or loving being out on a walk because they are with you?!
It would be great if walks were full of anticipation for your dogs, never quite sure what fun thing you had up your sleeve next. Chrissi has some great instruction involving lots of interactive games that can be played in the house initially and then out on walks. The games are geared toward many different personalities of dogs do there’s something that will work for everyone. I think it’s a brilliant approach to Recall training that will greatly enhance your dog’s desire to hang out with you, and it can’t help but boost the success of your Recall training.
Some simple ideas to try:
- If you have a fetch or tug-toy oriented dog, take a “hidden” toy along with you and produce it as a surprise at times for some fetch or tug along the way.
- Go out by yourself, pre-walk, and hide a toy to “find” on the walk with your dog – your dog will think you have a genius nose too!
- Get more interactive with the environment on your walks: walk across logs, jump over small obstacles, climb up on rocks, weave through tree. Make a fun “agility course” out of a normally straight walk.
- Occasionally toss treats into the underbrush and cue your dog to use his nose and find them – a nice mental break along the walk.
- If it’s appropriate, go out before you walk and hide a treat or two or something extra special like a hot dog somewhere along your walk. I recall being in a seminar given by Washington-based trainer Kathy Sdao talking about the “hamburger tree”. She would go out early and hang cooked hamburger patties from a tree and then “discover” this amazing thing with her dog on their walk. It was a magical moment for her dog when he discovered she could call him and offer this amazing tree for him as a reward! Obviously this is not an appropriate option to do everywhere but get creative and come up with a similar idea that might work for you!
And of course, nothing boosts training like good old-fashioned practice. With more time at home, what better time to be able to practice your Recall frequently instead of just on weekends when you have more time. Keep sessions short and fun. Consider having treat stashes throughout the house so you can practice calling your dog randomly throughout the day, every day, when he least expects it – a fun game all in itself.
7. Being Alone.
Probably the number one thing that people are concerned about during this time of Covid 19 shut down and restrictions, is raising a puppy that has separation anxiety or separation distress as it’s more accurately called. With large numbers of people spending much of their workday at home, it’s a genuine concern. If you have a dog with severe separation distress, I highly recommend you contact a positive trainer who has specific experience in this area and who is certified by one of the 2 best known certification programs for Separation Anxiety. One is by Julie Naismith and the other by Malena deMartini. Both have some good resources available on their pages as well as a list of their certified trainers.
If you’re raising a puppy, there are many things you can do to prevent separation distress from becoming a problem. Here are just a few prevention tips:
- Build up the amount of time your puppy needs to be in his confinement area very gradually beginning with just seconds at a time. We humans have a tendency to rush things too quickly whenever we start to see progress. Don’t keep adding time to your puppy’s confinement, be as random as you can: 1 minutes, 5 minutes, 30 seconds, 6 minutes, 2 minutes, 10 seconds, 40 seconds, 3 mintues, etc.
- Pick your time to leave your puppy alone wisely. A tired, full and successfully toileted puppy will be much less prone to distress than a puppy who is hungry or raring to take a few laps around the house.
- Ensure you have a good supply of a variety of treat dispensing toys stuffed and ready to deposit in your puppy’s confinement area that, initially, will last far longer than the time he needs to be left alone.
- Make sure your puppy can empty the treat dispensing toys you’re using reasonably easily – at least at first. Take the time to teach your puppy how to successfully empty out each toy so he doesn’t become frustrated and stressed when he’s left alone with them.
- Don’t immediately let your puppy out when you return, try to gradually get your puppy used to being confined even though you’re back and available. Treat dispensing toys will help here if there are still some food left in the ones you left behind. You can also add another toy or toss in a couple of treats to give you a few more seconds of being back before you let your puppy out.
- Work on confining your puppy the same way for mere seconds at a time when you are home and he’s not technically alone. Again, make use of treat dispensing toys and pick your timing wisely. Learning to be able to busy himself when you’re unavailable but still at home is an important skill too. You also don’t want treat dispensing toys to predict being left alone, so it’s important to use them randomly throughout the day for no particular reason.
- Even when you’re not working on “alone training”, consider finding a way to fasten a treat dispensing toy like a rubber kong on a rope to one end of your puppy’s open crate or somewhere in his confinement area when it’s open and available for puppy to come and go.
If he can’t take his toy with him but can only work on it in place AND it’s stuffed with really tasty treats, your puppy can choose to remove himself from you and get a highly valuable reward for doing so but yet still be able to come back to you when he needs to. This is a valuable confidence building exercise!
- Here is a great video on Separation Training from trainer Emily Larlham and her popular YouTube channel – Dog Training by Kikopup: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWT9DI7hMfo
Hopefully you’ve found some helpful information within my article. Remember that puppies are babies and need a lot of support and guidance from us to learn how to live in our human world. It’s a lot of work to raise a puppy well, but having a confident, fun and loving dog in your life is well worth the effort!
My top Puppy Pointer: