We are living through wild times, y'all. Life is requiring a whole lot of behavior change from us humans. Some of that behavior change is working out great for our dogs. Many of them have us home far more often than they're used to. They're getting aaaaaalllll the walks and couch cuddles. They're finding foster and adoptive homes at a heart warming rate.
But some of it is a little less great. We're seeing and hearing some of the more immediate impacts from clients and friends but unfortunately, many of the more serious repercussions of how facets of our current adapted lives may negatively impact our canine best friends won't show up right away. That means we need to talk about prevention. So what can we be doing to make the most of this time with our dogs while setting them up to succeed when we emerge from shelter in place and social isolation protocols?
This was one of the first alarm bells to go off for behavior professionals. Early and well done socialization is critical and the rollout of (necessary) pandemic restrictions happened to coincide with kitten and puppy season here in the US and much of the world. Oof. But hope is not lost!
It is imperative that those caring for puppies and pregnant mothers be aware of developmental milestones and socialization windows and act accordingly. A puppy's primary socialization window is open from approximately 3-16 weeks (studies show some variability by things like breed). Lack of successful early socialization is in large part responsible for a far too significant portion of the behavior modification dogs need later in life for all manner of challenges but in particular, for fear, anxiety, and aggression issues.
- American Veterinary Medical Association on Socialization of Kittens & Puppies
- Socialization: Why Later is Too Late
- Conditioning Confidence in Your Dog or Puppy
- 10 Most Important Things to Teach Your Puppy
So now that we know how important early socialization is, how the heck do we do it during a global pandemic where we're all socially isolating and sheltering in place? Fortunately lots of trainers locally and beyond are coming up with great answers to that question!
- Puppy or Rescue Dog Socialization During COVID-19
- Time is of the Essence: Puppy Socialization During a Pandemic
- Puppy Socialization While Sheltering in Place
- Local Online Puppy Classes From Our Colleagues Conscious Dog Training and 1Up Dog Training
Talk of socialization brings us right to the next issue and this one we're already seeing and hearing some of the impacts of from clients and friends. Overly isolating fearful dogs can cause both regression and escalation. While it's critically important that we always work at the fearful dog's pace and set them up to succeed, it is also critical that they get a chance to practice feeling safe with situations they're practically going to encounter in their everyday life at the level for which they're ready. What that looks like will vary somewhat from dog to dog but it will include some key components: counter conditioning & desensitization and a supportive environmental set-up adapted to the dog's needs and evolving as those needs change.
What can you be doing for your fearful dog right now while we're under social distancing and shelter in place recommendations? Continue building a positive emotional response to a variety of social and environmental stimuli and showing them a good time in environments they are able to handle and enjoy outside your home (and inside too!). Bring high value food with you on walks (or if we're closer towards the beginning with a more extreme case, to an area like the back or front yard initially) or outings to low traffic parks (or even quieter areas like the currently closed schools, churches, libraries, or other open parking lots/grassy areas) and ensure you are sticking to routes, environments, and distance from/intensity of the stimulus your dog is comfortable with. As soon as your dog sees (or hears in some cases!) the stimulus (person, other dog, novel object, environmental sound) provide them with the high value food you've brought. Let your dog sniff and explore and if they are at the braver end of the spectrum and ready for it, play some low pressure games with them while out and about. Working on fear issues can be tricky so if you are financially able right now, we highly recommend getting professional guidance from a trainer.
Read on for more in-depth information and exercises specific to fearful pups:
- What is Desensitization and Counter Conditioning?
- Helping Your Fearful Dog
- Debbie Jacobs' fearfuldogs.com
- Eight Tips to Help Fearful Dogs Feel Safe
Team Leash Gremlin
Not always all that far off from our fearful pups are our #teamleashgremlin crew pups. What's tough for our LGs right now? The biggest challenge we're hearing (and, um, experiencing ourselves too...whew!) is the sudden increase in foot traffic in neighborhoods. Quite the opposite of seeing less people and other dogs during #pandemiclife, we are suddenly encountering all of our neighbors and dogs we didn't even know lived down the block. What's true for our LGs always is still true now and we'd hope that social distancing would be working in our favor so definitely use it, guys! "I'm sorry, we're distancing!"
If your neighborhood is too hopping for your gremlin right now, make use of strategies to find more manageable (and enjoyable! and easier to maintain safe human distances too!) walks. Alter your walk times to lower traffic times of day. Choose the walking routes of least resistance where you're less likely to encounter a high volume of whatever stimuli your dog is reactive to. Use the available space on your route to your best advantage by creating as much distance as you can between you and your dog and the potential trigger you are passing. Drive to a quiet area (just like those closed schools, libraries, churches, and other open grassy/paved areas) where you're unlikely to encounter many of your dog's particular triggers and enjoy a low stress walk while working on skills and enjoying the enrichment benefits of a new environment.
Also being missed by our #teamleashgremlin crew? Group and buddy classes and outings. Us too, guys! And we know the importance of the use it or lose it concept in reactivity. With that in mind, take care not to fall into the isolation trap with with your gremlin by choosing only walking routes or locations where you _never_ come into contact with your dog's trigger or stopping walks entirely and isolating to just your own yard. It is absolutely fine to choose those routes for some of your walks or to skip walks if/when it is unsafe for person or pup but try to ensure you are still getting to practice your and your dog's skills at least a few times a week at a level they can handle and that's safe for our current situation.
- Leash Gremlins Need Love Too: Help For Reactive Dogs
- Understanding Threshold: It's More Than Under- or Over-
- He Just Wants to Say Hi
- DINOS: Dogs in Need of Space
Separation & Isolation Distress
This is a big one. A lot of us aren't leaving our houses much and many of our dogs are loving it. But at some point, we're going to leave again, some of us for full workdays at a time. And if we haven't left our dogs alone or let them practice separating from us for months, that's going to be tough. Up there with the puppy socialization concerns among behavior professionals is worry about dogs struggling with separation and/or isolation distress when their people suddenly leave for long periods again.
So what can we do? Safely leave the house. Go for a walk, run, or drive without your dog. If you are going on an essential errand like the grocery store or pharmacy, run through the regular routine you'd do on a work day with your dog. If you've brought home a new dog or puppy during the pandemic, consider what that routine will look like and implement it now. Make sure as we always should that you're leaving your dog with fun enrichment and some supportive background music/audio when you depart. As signs move towards things reopening or you potentially returning to work, gradually begin adding time to the length of your absences to prepare.
- Dr. Jim Ha on Preventing Separation Anxiety During the Pandemic
- The COVID-19 Lockdown and Your Dog: Tips to Get Ahead of Separation Anxiety Before it Starts
- Solutions for Separation Anxiety: Making Alone Time Less Scary
"The humans are home! All the time! OMGOMGOMG!!!" In addition to the concern above with dogs struggling when we leave them again, some of our dogs just can't even with this humans home all day stuff.
"The people are here so we must be ABOUT TO DO SOMETHING! What are we doing? Whatarewedoingwhatarewedoingwhatarewedoinggggggggg???? Why are you typing and talking to a person inside the computer? Take this toy! TAKE IT! Okay, I'll use your arm as the toy. Okay? Hmm. Maybe barking? BORKBORKBORKBORK. Sheesh. What is this human not getting? Maybe I should go eat the toilet paper..."
The thing is, a lot of our dogs aren't used to having us home all day or to settling and doing nothing for such long stretches while we're here. Enter upping the enrichment, both fun stuff to do with us to get their quality time in and activities they can do independently, targeted to when they're most likely to need them to settle (Dog craziest while you work? During dinner? Give 'em the goodies then!). Also helpful, particularly for work from home folks? Settle exercises. It's a non-negotiable for behavior and quality of life that we meet our dogs' enrichment needs but it's also important that we help our dogs learn how to genuinely relax for downtime.
- Enrichment and Behavior
- 100 Days of Enrichment Challenge
- Canine Enrichment for the Real World
- Teach Your Dog to Settle Down
- Go Settle
- Really Real Relaxation from Suzanne Clothier
Don't Wait to Get Help
We know some folks are hesitant to try remote services in place of in person services and so many of us are taking a hit financially. Unfortunately, behavior issues don't just go on pause and lots of them will get worse rather than better without intervention and a plan. There's the advice we can give generally in a blog post and there's tailoring a plan to meet your dog's and your family's specific needs and ongoing individual support in troubleshooting and adapting that plan. There are limitations to remote consults but we can still do all of those things for you. If you need help, let's get working now.
We've temporarily discounted our services to reflect the reality of the pandemic for many people as well as the remote options but if you need help and they're still out of your price range, please contact us. We don't want you going without and we understand people are losing their jobs and/or generating less income. We will work with you as best we can to make sure you and your dog(s) are supported.
- PS. Our Skills & Games Group Classes are back and have gone virtual and in-depth webinars are on the way!
- Email us: email@example.com
Take Care of Yourself, Take Care of Your Dog
This is a stressful time and our dogs are sensitive to our emotional states. Making sure we're taking care of ourselves is incredibly important more generally (this is hard, guys! and the physiological effects of stress are well documented) but if you have trouble being kind to yourself *for* yourself, please know it will also help our dogs. Our stress won't become their stress and we'll be able to be more present, more patient, and better equipped to support our canine best friends. And it just so happens, dog walks, play time with dogs, and dog snuggles are some of THE BEST ways to relax, destress, and get the oxytocin flowing. Here are some of our favorite resources & solidarity: