Dog Training During COVID-19 Shelter-in-Place

As the planet’s humans deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, our dogs can be a big part of helping us get through social distancing, self-quarantine and isolation.  Talk about emotional support!  The CDC does not believe that humans can contract COVID-19 from domestic pets (although dogs may be able to contract the virus but remain asymptomatic and non-contagious), but you should err on the side of safety.

The lockdown also introduces challenges, especially in regard to socializing our puppies and dogs with each other while we humans must remain six feet apart.  Here are my thoughts on how to approach puppy socialization, socialization to people, and training using Zoom or other video platforms during this new (if temporary) world.

Puppy Socialization
One of my primary objectives over my dog behavior consulting career has been to encourage new owners to establish a rich socialization agenda for their puppies, including attending indoor puppy socials before full vaccination.  With shelter-in-place orders, many businesses that offer these weekly events have put them on hold.  While most socialization events are temporarily unavailable, the crucial need to socialize your puppy, starting before full vaccination and continuing through week 18, has not gone away.

Like many professionals, I have transitioned to Zoom video conferences for my behavior consultations and training sessions but am working to connect my puppy clients with each other so that they can set up brief, safe playdates for each other’s puppies.  When they are able to set up playdates in their backyards, the humans must wear masks, wash their hands before and after the playdate and then bathe their puppies when the session ends (another great lesson!)

Perhaps you can try posting on social media platforms or Craigslist to find other owner/puppy pairs in your area, and hopefully one or both of you have access to a private yard with entrance other than through the house.  Talk through your strategy before meeting, keeping a safe distance, and clean yourself (and your puppies) afterward. 

Socialization to People
In a perfect world, all puppies will meet at least 100 people of all sorts before 12 weeks of age, especially men, babies and toddlers.  But how are puppies supposed to meet those people when we can’t get closer than six feet to them ourselves?

In my experience, the most important aspect of puppies learning about people (other than their owners) is simply observing them.  For instance, I strongly recommend that before 18 weeks of age, puppies be exposed to babies and toddlers, but this does not necessarily mean physical contact between them.  Simply having your puppy observe and listen to the sounds of children playing in a playground is enough, and if you want to increase the likelihood that your puppy will build positive associations with babies and children, feed your critter her favorite treats only when children are close by. 

You will have to be creative now, because playgrounds and schools are closed.  Perhaps you can ask neighbors with children if they would like to observe the puppy for 10 minutes, and if it feels right, have the kids toss small, healthy treats to the puppy.  This does not need to be an all-day affair:  Those puppy brains are changing with every single observation, and the more positive and happier we can make these experiences, the better for all concerned.

On-going Dog Training
Here’s a secret about dog training that many people do not know:  It takes almost no time at all.  Frequent (twice per day), brief (two- to five-minute) sessions are all it takes to teach your dog, young or old, new tricks.  Now, that said, once you have taught your dog a new cue or behavior, you must use it frequently (and reward randomly) to keep the command fresh and your dog’s compliance level high.

With so many owners sheltering in place with their dogs, and with limited access to parks and beaches, this is an ideal time to otherwise stimulate your dog.  My experience is that challenging a dog with training (using their brains) can be exhausting and rewarding as chasing that Chuck-It ball (relying solely on exercise for stimulation), so with a lot of time on your hands, locked down at home, think about teaching your dog new commands and tricks.  And if you’ve been curious about clicker training but never used it, now would be a great time.

Video training
I must admit that I am missing my in-person training and behavior consultations but have been surprised at how fun and effecting these sessions are using Zoom or FaceTime.  In fact, I can see permanently incorporating this sort of training into my business once the shelter-in-place orders are lifted.

While I allocated 90 minutes for my on-site behavior consultations, my video appointments typically last 45 minutes to an hour. Once an appointment time is established, I email PDFs of my proprietary training materials for clients to print out or follow on-screen during the session. 

As with my on-site behavior consultations, after each session I email a follow-up/training plan. So far, my video consultation clients have been quite pleased with the process and several have referred other dog owners to me.

There’s nothing like a global crisis to showcase new ways of doing things!

About Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA

Having owned well-trained dogs all my life, I started Better Nature Dog Training to exploit decades of experience teaching across a number of fields. I am nationally-certified through the highly-respected Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers and am a professional member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. I teach people how to effectively train their dogs by clearly demonstrating that every interaction counts when training a dog to come when called, for example, or instructing a puppy how to best get along in life. I take a scientific and holistic approach to dog training. The scientific aspect comes from understanding dog psychology from an evolutionary perspective, knowing how dogs are both similar to and distinct from their ancestors, including the grey wolf. The holistic component derives from taking into account all facets of any particular dog’s situation, including upbringing, prior training, traumatic events and—most importantly—the characteristics of his home and family life. Training a puppy or dog can be a most rewarding life experience; it can also be stressful and perplexing. One of the best services I provide is taking the guesswork out while lending a sure, guiding hand in successful dog behavior development and modification.
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