Ask the Dog Trainer: Pandemic Pup Progress
Like many of our friends and family, we added a puppy to our pack during the pandemic. With lockdowns and limited social interactions, we couldn’t provide Leo with the same socialization experiences as our former pets. Recently we started attending community events again and noticed that Leo is very nervous around others and barks loudly at strange dogs. I know this is a common problem with pandemic puppies, but what can we do to help Leo become more confident?
– Pandemic Puppy Parent
Dear Pandemic Puppy Parent,
Given recent events, your situation is very common. Dogs that are introduced into our lives during times of stress often benefit from confidence building and safe socialization. When we cannot provide these learning experiences, they can become anxious and afraid of normal interactions with the outside world.
To build Leo’s confidence, I suggest starting by taking him on calm, rewarding walks where he has the chance to experience the world without being thrown into the “deep skin”. For example, instead of going to a concert downtown, start by walking around your neighborhood, observing construction machinery from a distance or sitting on the outskirts of your local park. Invite your family and friends over to see if Leo wants to say hello, and if he seems nervous, cheerfully tell them “sorry, not today” and ask them to ignore him. Often, shy dogs will work up the courage to approach if the visitor simply gives them space. Of course, using tasty treats, self-shaping tools like Peanut Butter Stuffed Kongs, or an animated game of fetch can help pair fun and enjoyable sensations with new and stressful ones.
If you have friends and family with their own calm, friendly dog, consider having dog dates, going for walks, or taking training classes together. I encourage all of our clients to have sleepovers at another house. This is especially useful for preparing Leo for dog daycare, boarding while you’re on vacation for the week, or moving to a new home.
Once Leo shows increased confidence, move on to highly distracting outings, keeping in mind that ideally he should be placed in situations that inspire curiosity rather than aversion. Drive-ins, local movies in the park, quiet pet-friendly cafes, and low-key trails are all great socializing opportunities. Pet-friendly stores such as Lowe’s, Tractor Supply, and Home Depot are all great places to expose your leash-friendly dog to forklifts, automatic doors, shiny floors, and different sights, sounds, and smells. To increase the challenge as Leo grows even more confident with these adventures, attend a neighborhood barbecue, a child’s birthday party, or a concert downtown.
Another important step in the life of a pandemic pup is incorporating behavioral training into Leo’s life. Dogs thrive on healthy structure and team building activities, with the added bonus of increased obedience creating even more opportunities for safe socialization. A dog that can walk politely on a leash without pulling, greet people without startling, and wait patiently while you sip coffee is more likely to be included in family events. Consider finding a trainer who specializes in canine behavior and who prioritizes individualized private lessons over large, generalized groups so they can focus on Leo’s unique needs.
My final piece of advice is to allow Leo to progress at his own pace. Our modern world can be an overwhelming and stressful environment, but by exploring its wonders with curiosity, we can show even the most anxious pup that life is amazing.
Kendall and Chandler Brown are owners of Custom K-9 Service Dogs, a dog training business serving Minden/Gardnerville, Carson and Reno. For more information, visit customk9servicedogs.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.