How to get you and your puppy through lock down
The current situation that we find ourselves in means that our lives and potentially our plans for our new puppies have changed dramatically. If your puppy is now home with you, how to best to socialise and train them may be something that is on your mind. Here are some ideas for how to best prepare your puppy for life now and for when things get back to normal.
Think about all of the things that your puppy may encounter as an adult dog and build this into your plan. Puppies should be carefully exposed to experiences in order to build their 'template' of what normal life is like. Dogs that have not been properly exposed to certain things are more likely to be fearful of those things as adult dogs. Make the most of your puppy's squishy, absorbent brain and find opportunities to help them learn about their world. This 'sensitive period' lasts until approximately 16 weeks of age, after which the brain becomes more rigid and behavioural responses more difficult to change.
Exposure to People and Dogs
Social distancing means that your puppy will not be able to actually meet new people as well as other dogs. Although there are some disadvantages to this, it does mean that you can allow your puppy to grow in confidence with seeing other people and dogs before having to meet them. It is easy for puppies to become overwhelmed with new experiences. A typical example of this is when meeting a friendly but over exuberant dog. Good socialisation happens when the puppy is enjoying the experience and therefore learning that there is no threat to them. Over exposure risks sensitising puppies to situations and creating more fearful reactions upon future exposure. Socialisation is all about the quality of interactions over the quantity.
It is also worth bearing in mind that most people do not actually want a dog that is desperate to greet everyone and everything so social distancing may actually be helpful in setting realistic expectations for out puppies.
Although your puppy will not be able to socialise with other dogs and people, this may allow you to impress on them just how fun and interesting you are! Play your puppy's favourite game whilst others are nearby or feed them some treats. This will help them learn that paying attention to you despite distractions is the best choice and valuable for them to do again. Pairing together the presence of others with something that your puppy likes will also help create a positive association of being around other people and dogs.
Another way that you can help your dog become used to the variety of shapes and sizes that people come in is to dress up. I'm not kidding! And actually, this is an exercise that we do in Puppy School classes. You could put on your big coat, tall hat, head scarf, walk with a stick, get out your umbrella and wheelie suit case and 'introduce' yourself to your puppy. Make sure that they don't see you dress up so you may actually be a new person. Have some treats with you to offer your puppy to help ensure that they have a nice time meeting you.
Livestock and Horses
Social distancing does not really have any effect on what we should be doing with these animals. It is not necessary for your puppy to meet theses animals and actually this could be dangerous to do as well as unfair on the other animal. What is best to do here is teach your puppy to be calm and attentive to you around these animals. You can achieve this by keeping to a very large distance (well over 2 meters) and pair your puppy seeing the animal with a treat from you. Pay attention to the other animals as well as your puppy for signs of discomfort as you and your puppy could inadvertently cause worry to livestock. Move to a greater distance if your presence causes the animals to run away, freeze or stare at you.
Gently exposing your puppy to a variety of sounds will help them learn that there is no need to be concerned when hearing them. Playing your puppy's favourite game or doing some training whilst these noises are occurring should help them create a positive association of hearing them. If your puppy shows any signs of fear or anxiety, lower the intensity of the noise by being further away from the source. These sounds could include the hoover, lawn mower, hair dryer, passing traffic and the cooker alarm. There may be more things in your house that you could be practising with.
There are plenty of recorded sounds available for the purpose of habituating puppies that you may not be able to otherwise access, for example babies crying, thunder and fireworks. Please read any instructions before starting with your puppy. Dogs Trust have sounds available on their website and there are recordings on YouTube. Make sure that you test run the sounds before playing to your puppy to ensure that there are not any surprises!
If you have been given the all clear from your vet to walk your puppy, that is great and you can show them the outside world, within the current restrictions. If your puppy has not been able to have their vaccinations yet, you can carry them round on walks and also watch the world from the car. Your puppy could be seeing, hearing and smelling lots of things even when you are both sat on the boot. Give your puppy a treat when they see something new to help build a positive association.
There are plenty of ways that you can provide your puppy with new experiences at home. Creating small obstacle courses out of bubble wrap, loo rolls (if you have any!), towel over a side table to create a tunnel and a thick book to create a new level will help expose your puppy to different surfaces and little challenges. Encouraging them along these challenges can also really help strengthen your puppy's bond and trust with you. If your puppy looks overwhelmed at any point, help them by scattering a few treats for them to find whilst you adjust the exercise to what your puppy is comfortable with. The point of this is not for your puppy to race through but for them to learn that novelty is fun and you are there to give them guidance and support.
Prevention of Separation Problems
It is easy at the moment to forget about teaching our puppies to learn to be alone but this is really important if you are expecting to leave your puppy by themselves in the future. The most important thing is to not sensitise your puppy to being alone; to never leave them longer than they can cope with.
Start by giving your puppy something that they enjoy doing independently, for example a chew or filled Kong. Whilst they are enjoying this activity, practise leaving the room for a few seconds and then returning. If your puppy remains content at this stage, you can extend your absences gradually whilst always keeping your puppy relaxed. Keep extending this until you are able to leave the house, even if just to go into the garden or sit in the car for a few minutes.
Record your puppy when they are left if you are not sure if they are comfortable. Some puppies are predisposed to being more sensitive to being alone and you may need to move at a slower pace to help your puppy learn. If you are struggling to leave your puppy, please seek professional help quickly and before trying to persevere with leaving them alone.
You puppy will need to be handled by unfamiliar people and sometimes quite invasively in their lifetime. When you fuss and cuddle your puppy, you will not typically palpate their belly, hold their tail or express their nails – all things that a vet may need to be able to do to your puppy for their annual health check or if they are unwell. You can start handing the not so often touched places on your puppy and show them it is ok by giving them a treat. Start including towels and brushes into your handling routine. Paying attention to your puppy's body language is very important as continuing to handle a stressed puppy risks making them feel more worried. Equally, if your puppy gets overexcited by handling, continuing to handle them will only further stimulate them. Handling is best done by only touching your puppy for 2 seconds before taking your hand/brush/towel away and giving a treat. This will keep your puppy calmer and teach them that accepting handling = something nice.
You've now heard me say several times to look at your puppy and check how they are feeling about things so I thought it best to actually show your some signs of fear or anxiety. Here is a poster from the RSPCA to show you some things to look out for.
Teaching your puppy new cues such as sit, come and heel will be well worth it, especially when life becomes busy again. If you and your puppy have mastered some basic cues in a quiet environment, you will have a good foundation for then adding distractions.
Attending a puppy training course such as the nationally run Online Puppy School course will coach you and your puppy through all of the basics and provide you with live help and support. Puppy School have been running classes online with great feedback from participants. Training really can continue despite the adversities that we face. Check out details of our Puppy School classes here.
When we are free again....
Whenever this time may be, it will be tempting to try and 'catch your puppy up' with what that have missed out on. This could risk flooding your puppy with too many new experiences all at once and sensitising them to bouncy dogs, excitable children, busy roads, etc. Try to take things gradually and at whatever pace your puppy is comfortable with.
And so . . .
We are all in this together. Finding ways to support one another is more important now than ever. I would like to take this opportunity to give a huge thanks to the key workers and to the NHS for keeping the country going, despite the risks to themselves.
Stay at home; Protect the NHS; Save Lives
Coronavirus related links:
Government - https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus
To keep up with our latest news, articles and tips, visit and 'like' our Facebook page: www.facebook.com/RobynAtkinsonAnimalTrainingandBehaviour