• Drew Webster

Times, they are a changing...

Time to get back out there! As the numbers go down here in Colorado and many states in the U.S. cities, townships and states are beginning to open back up so it's time for you and your dog to get back to work. Adult dogs need to get some kind of predictable routine established. Even if you have not yet gone back to work full time you need to get your dog out for activities during times when you would typically be home on a "normal schedule".

A lot of our dogs have been loving having people home 24/7 but this could create some big problems down the road. Dogs do really well when they have some predictability in their lives. Much of what happens in their world is seemingly totally random. They don't get text messages saying that your mother-in-law is stopping by, she simply shows up, totally randomly to your dog. They don't see that a thunderstorm is 80% likely at 4pm, the sky just becomes angry and their environment is instantly intense and scary.

Your job is to help prepare our dogs for our complex human environments. To do this well you have to first admit how complex and strange our human world actually is. Next, realize how verbal we are as a species, we EXPLAIN EVERYTHING with our language. Think next time you say, "silly dog it's only a boy on a skateboard" or "that's just a balloon" stop barking you crazy dog, "that's the garbage truck and it comes every Tuesday", what would your dog say to label or explain these objects/people/events. Maybe it would be, "Ahhhhhh, crap, the strange boy who floats fast without legs and growls loudly as he zooms away" and "oh no! the floating, shinny, ghost ball" or the "rolling thunderstorm which steals the stink treasure from our home"! Our job, no our obligation when WE CHOOSE to add a dog to our home is to teach them to feel calm and relaxed in our complex environments. We need to prepare them for the things that might change or occur within that environment, build communication with training which is compassionate and reinforcing to give them tools to help navigate the world and then go out and explore the world together.

If you added a puppy to your life during the restrictions of Covid-19 you may have had a tough time "socializing" your dog. Socializing is specifically exposure during critical development stages of life to carefully expose them to new stimuli at a level they can handle. If your dog didn't get a lot of exposure to new "places, spaces and faces" during the 7-14 week window of life, you might have to be very careful as you start to get back out there. If you take your pup into a situation they can't handle you may end up with a very scared dog who is more prone to develop anxiety and disorders that will inhibit them from being calm and relaxed in new places. So go slow, think about the swimming analogy, it's better to go into a "zero-entry" pool and wade in the shallow end of the pool than to toss someone into the deep end. They might figure it out both ways but the deep end or flooding approach could traumatize, hurt them and severely impact the ability to trust you in difficult situations.

Physical distancing has one major advantage. If you take a cute puppy out in the world people tend to gravitate toward you. A good approach to socializing the world is more like "people and dog watching" than physically interacting with the world. Go out to parks, outdoor shopping areas, and busy trails (bring a mask and hand sanitizer and maintain good physical distancing protocols) so you can set up to go watch the world go by. Your goal is safe exposure to new things, you don't have to let anyone actually greet your dog to be working on exposure and socialization. Think about the best-behaved adult dog you know or a dog you have seen out in the world. What were they doing? Typically it might look like walking calmly, being quiet, and non-reactive to new people and dogs. So much of the way people "socialize" dogs is the dog park model or "doggie fight club" as I call it. They take dogs to puppy class, doggy daycare, and dog parks where they constantly and sometimes obsessively crash into each other and practice sparing. This is not GOOD DOG PLAY!

When dogs play they are LEARNING. They are learning and experimenting with meta-communication. This is communication about communication. When dogs play they are learning to speak dog, specifically to read and interpret the body language of the dog with whom they are playing. This happens between two dogs. The false pack mentality (based on misconceptions about wolves) which everyone pushes onto companion dogs creates these "pack theory" based dog enrichment activities and facilities. Typically they are creating stressed out and over-stimulated dogs who will struggle later in life. Need some guidance? Here is a wonderful Free Puppy Socializing Webinar from my colleagues at Behavior Vets, watch here.

One more thought, now that you are getting back out there, consider leaving your dog at home during long outings. Create oportunities for socializing and training out in the world but all the dogs who were added to people's homes during Covid lockdown regulations will need to learn how to be left home alone and not be anxious, destructive or constantly having access to people or dogs.

Recap: Get out there, give some safe and calm exposure in new environments to your dog. Hand-feed your dog (instead of adding a ton of 'treats', use mealtime as a way to enrich and reinforce your dog while training) and build a schedule that resembles your "normal" routines or at least includes significant downtime where they learn how to be home alone.

Need help? Sign up for our in-person puppy classes or virtual sessions, click here.



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