Hello new dogs!
We’ve seen a surprising number of customers with brand new puppies in the store these past few weeks! There are also reports of shelters getting cleaned out of both cats and dogs around the country – yay! But Why? I was a little surprised at first, but I quickly realized there were two good reasons. What I heard from customers was that they thought that with all of the time they had on their hands, they could really concentrate on training a puppy. Later I also started to realize that this is a very scary time. All of us feel frightened and unsure of how long we’ll be living in this strange, suspended, frightening reality. A new dog is not just a delightful distraction from boredom- that little soul can really be a life raft for your psyche. When a puppy comes into the store right now, we’re incredibly grateful for the visit – it helps us have a moment of sweetness and laughter in our crazy upended lives of scurrying around putting together orders for curbside pickup, interacting with most people by phone and trying to get the people who are visiting in and out quickly (we allow two people in the store at a time right now). We stop for a moment and soak in the puppiness. I can see both the logic and the emotional benefits of this decision for sure. But, this new-puppy-during-quarantine situation does come with a few unique challenges.
Chalenge #1: Separation Anxiety is a Risk For The Future
Being home all day every day with a new dog sets up a tricky precedent: What will happen when you suddenly are allowed to go back to work? Adult dogs that are rescued are often prone to some degree of separation anxiety. If you think about it, it’s not an unfounded fear – they probably had another owner, and for whatever reason, lost that owner. They must worry constantly in the early days after being adopted that it could happen again. They’ll often hyper-bond to their new owner after the loss of the old one, sticking like glue to them in the house. When that new owner suddenly goes to the grocery store, the dog left behind might feel a great deal of stress.
A new puppy thinks that the routine you have in your home from the beginning is what is “normal”. Having that routine change suddenly could really throw them for a loop as well.
The most important way to prepare these dogs now for this eventuality is to show them that sometimes you leave, and yet you always come back. Showing them that you coming and going throughout the day is “normal” and doesn’t mean anything bad. First start with very short absences. Pick up your keys, step out the door, one Missisippi two Missisippi, step back in, put the keys down and go about your business indoors. Don’t make a big deal about leaving or coming back. Do that a lot until the dog doesn’t even really notice what you’re doing.
Then you can continue to build time by a little bit until you can stay outside for a few minutes. Each time, don’t mention you’re leaving, just take your keys (and whatever you’d leave with if you were going shopping). When you come back in, don’t make any sort of big deal. Jut say hi and go about your business.
At this point, you can start to work on confinement when you leave. First decide where the place is that they will stay when you’re gone. Crate training from the beginning can be helpful, or acclimating them to staying in a place like the kitchen (somewhere without rugs or lots of things to destroy). Using baby gates or an Ex-pen can be helpful. Link the confinement to a pleasurable activity like working on a treat-stuffed puzzle/slow feeder toy (Toppl, Kong, Kong Wobbler, or Lickimats are our favorites – fill the Toppl/Kong/Lickimats with moist foods and freeze them! Fill the wobbler with kibble sized dry treats or foods). You might even feed them most or all their meals in this way, so that they look forward to being confined briefly as part of their day. Remember that puppies often need to relieve themselves after a meal, so take them out of confinement and outside right after mealtime. Once they’re relaxed about your short comings and goings and also happily getting into confinement, combine them: Put them in confinement with a little puzzle toy or safe chewy before you go outside.
Eventually, take a walk around the block without the dog, or take the car around the block. Then come back (without fanfare) and perhaps take them out for another walk with you.
Challenge #2: Socialization
This is a big one of course. Socializing a new puppy or helping a newly adopted nervous dog warm up to people and to new sights and sounds are some of the very most important things that you have to work on when you bring a new dog home. This is an obvious challenge when you’re not supposed to be taking excursions or spending time with people outside your household, but it’s not impossible.
At this time, the CDC, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) say there is no evidence that companion animals, including pets, spread COVID-19. Here’s some good info about that one weird thing we heard about the dog in China.
Bring treats with you on your walks. If the dog is startled by any weird sights or sounds, be upbeat, offer treats, and jolly them out of that bad feeling. “Wooo! That was a big funny dump truck wasn’t it!” is better than consoling them in a way that makes them think you also find that dump truck big and scary. Use your happy voice and manage their space if your dog is very nervous. Bring a treat pouch with you on your walks. Pairing yummy treats with the presence of something/someone that makes them uncomfortable is called Classical Conditioning, and it works! Please see this important article on working with fear-based behaviors.
Other parts of exposing them to the world is to find new surfaces to walk on, different levels of traffic flow, different sights and sounds. Find stairways to go up and down (some at apartment buildings or motels have those open see-through steps, as does the Fremont Commons building on NE Fremont, and if you’re lucky, elevators, etc.) Some stores still might be open (like ours) where they could meet a few people or just experience going inside somewhere that’s not the vet. Home Depot? A Plant nursery? Maybe call places and see if you can come. Be cautious about social distancing and be sensitive to the fact that many stores will want you to keep your visits short.
Speaking of the vet, these days many vets are taking dogs from you at your car and seeing them without you being allowed to accompany them. This is of course smart for their employees to remain safe, but tricky for the dog to be in a a place that might be scary without you. Look for a vet that advertises “Fear Free” handling techniques. Check here. for a directory. If you can’t find one, express your desire that this first visit is positive and as fun as it can be. Perhaps they’d use a jar of Gerber’s (or whatever brand) turkey baby food for the puppy to lick to distract them from a vaccination.
If you have a 6 or 8 foot leash, you could encourage your puppy/new dog to meet people in your neighborhood, if other people are comfortable with that. Praise and encourage them to go say hi, and reward them with a little treat when they return to you. If the dog is a little too nervous, just chat with the people at an appropriate distance, and praise and give treats for any signs of interest. If the dog is very nervous, keep the visit short and reward any check-ins to you by the dog.
If your puppy has had its second round of vaccines (or is meeting a dog you know is healthy and well vaccinated) you could also allow your dog to meet other dogs in this way. If both dogs are on a 6 foot leash, the humans will be at least 10 or 12 feet apart. Always ask if their dog really likes puppies (not all dogs are keen on them) and with your adult dogs, ask how they do when greeting other dogs on leash (some are great off leash but not on). It’s better they have an uneventful sighting of another dog nearby than a yucky interaction. For puppies, perhaps ask the other owner (especially if their dog seems boisterous) to keep their dog close to them, and allow your puppy to go in and out as you cheer-lead her for any little progress forward. This way there’s less of a chance of your puppy becoming overwhelmed and frightened by a bigger dog enthusiastically running up and over her, which could be scary. Your aim is always to have one of two things happen: an event that is positive for them, or one where nothing exciting happens. Some dogs don’t care at all about other dogs, and will ignore the puppy that sniffs at them. Awesome! They interacted with a dog and nothing bad happened! It’s a win. Then they might meet another dog and though the puppy didn’t feel brave enough to approach entirely, nothing bad happened and you praised and were a cheerleader to your puppy and he got a little closer and was rewarded for it by you. Maybe the next dog is pretty awesome and your puppy is interested, yo-yos in and out getting closer each time while you cheered them on. They met and it was pretty fun! Now you’re getting somewhere! If a dog ever is a little scary towards the puppy, use your happy encouraging silly voice and say OK let’s go! Try and jolly the puppy back up again and create some fun on that walk to help them shake it off. Reward the sight of any dog approaching and passing by with a treat or two, to create positive feelings about dogs approaching.
Challenge #3: Normally You’d Have Access to Puppy Classes
Here’s some amazing news if you’re in Portland:
Doggy Business, our absolute favorite training facility, is still doing puppy socialization classes and puppy kindergarten!! These classes are currently held without owners present. They’re taught by the owners of Doggy Business, Doug and Meredith. If there’s anyone I would gladly hand over any puppy of mine to, it would be these two people. They’re also doing some virtual training classes online, and can even do one-on-one virtual sessions. These are all really amazing options and I strongly encourage you to take advantage of them. Their puppy socialization classes are amazing and include exposure to things like skateboards and vacuum cleaners, etc.
They mention that “For Play Groups and Puppy Socials, we have added some extra steps to ensure getting into the building, handing off your dog to us, and picking up your dog is as safe as we can make it. Please drop us an email if you have any questions. And, if you have any symptoms of COVID-19 please keep your dog home with you”.
I’m certain that many other training facilities around the nation are adopting similar programs, using apps like Zoom or FaceTime to give you access to advice and training techniques, and I’m quite sure there’s a lot of good (and bad) training advice online. Look for virtual puppy kindergarten classes that emphasize the importance of Positive Reinforcement Training.
Other puppy priorities:
Handling: Now’s the time to get them used to grooming and maintenance activities that will be necessary for a lifetime of care. Get your puppy used to you handling her feet (a good time is when she’s drowsy) Touch her toenails, spread her toes and look between them, and do a little massage. When this becomes normal and pleasurable to her, start holding a toe and touching something random to it, like a pencil eraser or a spoon or a bully stick. Reward this well with a treat or two sometimes (and give her that bully stick). Sometimes bring clippers to the couch and just have them lying around, and when you’ve had good success with other objects, touch them to her toenail. When you do nip the tippy tip off of one toenail, reward that really well with something amazing! (cheese? A piece of chicken?) and don’t clip any more that day. You never have to cut all nails in one sitting – it’s better to leave on a high note.
Get into her ears regularly. Massage her everywhere. Inspect her bootie. Get into her mouth frequently and count her teeth. Rub her gums with flavored dog toothpaste (yum!) (no need to brush before she gets her adult teeth, but it’s a very good idea to introduce this idea now. You could even use a piece of gauze with toothpaste on it to rub along her gum line. Don’t mess with her gums when she’s teething.) Make these activities into something she finds normal for you to do. They could be very important in the future to being able to see changes, find lumps, and do cleaning and maintenance of her whole body. You never know when she might get a burr or a cut or a tick, etc on some part of her body/between her toes, etc and you want her to be amenable to all of these sorts of manipulations.
Developing a puppy’s soft mouth:
This is an important thing to work on right from the first days you have the puppy. A puppy’s bite can be significantly painful, so it’s no surprise that people would start a “no biting” policy from the beginning. However, we feel there are important reasons not to say no mouth at all. Why? Because the early days are the only days that you can help a puppy begin to understand the difference between a gentle mouth and a hard mouth, and the only time that you can create a dog who automatically inhibits the force of his bite later in life. Developing “bite inhibition” means that if he does happen to bite, he is less likely to inflict as much damage as a dog without any automatic bite inhibition. It is critical to keeping people and other dogs safe if he were to ever bite someone. The truth is, any dog, no matter how sweet and trustworthy and gentle, might find themselves in an extraordinary situation. If he were in a dog fight, he might defend himself. Or if he were in a car accident and a stranger reaches into the car to get him out, he may be so stressed that he bites. If he is an old dog and in some sort of very bad pain you are unaware of like undiagnosed bone cancer and a child trips and falls on the dog, the startled dog might bite. When a dog grows up with a no bite inhibition, these bites could be much more injurious.
Adult dogs with no automatic bite inhibition often take a treat with what feels like a part of your finger along with it. They don’t mean to be a shark, but they never were able to learn how to use a soft mouth with human hands.
Here’s how to do it with your puppies:
You know that soft gentle gnawing that puppies do sometimes? If it’s soft, the adults in the house should allow it for now. When the puppy bears down harder you can give a high pitched yelp if you can do that, but the most important thing to do would be to get up immediately and walk away. Abandon that dog. Eew. Yucky dog. You don’t want to say “no bite”, or hold his mouth, or make him bite his own lip, etc. When you aggress against him, he’s likely to escalate, and then you might escalate, and now everyone’s feelings are hurt and he hasn’t even learned what you needed him to learn. Saying no and keeping the game going is also is a mistake, as the puppy just thinks you’re roughhousing. Instant abandonment is feedback that there’s one thing he can do that ends your desire to play with him. Even other puppies do this to a degree. Someone in a litter bites too hard and the bitten puppy yelps and stops playing to lick his wounds. If there is one thing (biting too hard) that reliably, consistently ends his playtime, he’s going to start to avoid that. If, when you get up to walk away he follows you nipping at you, just pick him up without much comment (maybe an “Oops – too bad!”) and plop him on the other side of a baby gate for a few minutes. When he’s calm, let him out. You could even try another play session, but if he bites down again, you could have a 2- strikes-and-you’re-out policy. If you have smaller children at home, it’s important that an adult be involved with all play sessions. Teach kids that if the dog is getting rough or just too excited to just stand up and “be a tree”, crossing their arms, turning away. If he persists in jumping at the kids to get their attention back, you may then want to put the dog in a short timeout, but If he calms down, they can return to gentle play. Keep an eye out for a puppy that’s had enough and end the playtime on a good note before he gets too wound up. Start a different activity like a walk outside or chewing on something in a quiet spot. If you’re out in public and the puppy puts his mouth on a stranger you should also calmly end the interaction. “Oops – Time to go.” It’s important that a dog doesn’t think it’s acceptable to goof around with strangers by getting mouthy with them. Playing with a stranger might be fun for that stranger, but a dog putting their mouth on them might not be. A lot of people out there are nervous around dogs, and they might just be litigious, accusing your goofball of maliciously biting them.
Final Stage: When the puppy is getting better at using a mostly soft mouth, you can start to become a bit more fragile, pretending that even his soft mouth now hurts as well. You’ll be able to get rid of that gentle puppy gnawing mouth and now be tightening your standards – now even a soft mouth on a human hand ends their fun. This way you will be on your way to having a dog that is always soft and gentle with his mouth with all human hands.
The good news:
Despite these Corona virus challenges, you are correct in thinking that you really can get a lot of training work done with any dog in your household with this time on your hands. Teaching new tricks and skills is fun and mentally challenging for both the people and the dogs. Try Target Training! Build an agility course and use targeting to teach them how to move around the obstacles. Teach silly tricks like “sit pretty”, being able to go around a tree or other object clockwise or counterclockwise on command, to hop up on something on command, to go under a broomstick or hop over it. Maybe they’ll learn something useful like retrieving the remote for you or turning off a light switch! We look forward to seeing all the great new tricks you’ve taught your dogs while you were at home!