In the last blog post we looked at some of the challenges of getting a puppy in the context of COVID lockdowns and travel restrictions. This blog will examine ways you optimize your puppy search and prepare for a puppy coming into your home in the face of the unique challenges presented by COVID 19.
Looking for a puppy in the time of COVID
If you are looking for a puppy, there are some things you can do to maximize your chances of getting a puppy and getting the right puppy for you. Most of these are not unique to COVID but will stand you in good stead whenever you might embark on a search for a family dog.
1. Start by reassessing your decision to look for a puppy. Be honest with yourself about whether this is an impulse or a well-considered choice. Are you prepared for a life-time of commitment and care – both financially and in terms of time? When life returns to normal, will your work and personal situation, allow you to fully meet the physical and emotional needs of a dog? Think through these issues carefully, not only because if this is not the right time to get a puppy, you will not be doing yourself or the puppy a service by charging ahead, but also because a good breeder will want to know the answers to these questions. With breeders inundated with puppy requests, they are trying to weed out the impulse buyers from the truly committed.
2. Set yourself apart from the pack! Many breeders have a long list of potential puppy homes. Your application needs to stand out.
• Learn all you can about the breed – the good, the bad and the ugly. Be sure to carefully consider if the breed fits (or does not fit) your lifestyle. If you are not very active now, don’t plan on getting more active when you get your high-energy puppy! Your life style now needs to demonstrate that you are a good candidate for the breed now, not at some time in the future. Learn about typical breed behaviours and plan for how you will accommodate or deal with those. If it is a Cairn you are looking for, are you prepared to deal with digging: is this something you are prepared to live with? will you provide an outlet for your dogs natural digging instincts?. Does your current property have effective confinement: is your fencing fully secure or could a tiny puppy squeeze through small gaps or dig underneath? If so, now is the time to start beefing up your security.
Showing that you have thought through the less desirable behaviours of your breed of choice and have a valid plan to deal with them will help both while you are searching and when you do bring a puppy home.
• Start educating yourself about effective training methods. If you are not familiar with dog training, it is a great idea to start the learning process even before you get your dog. Books like When Pigs Fly: Training Success With Impossible Dogs (Jane Killion) and Plenty in Life is Free (Kathy Sdao) are great resources.
• Make your initial contact with breeders count! An initial Email inquiry along the lines of “do you have any puppies available” or “what is the cost of a puppy” will often be ignored as many breeders are inundated with such inquiries and do not take them seriously. You need not (nor should you) write a tome, but do give a short introduction to you, your family and why you want a Cairn before inquiring about availability. You may do better to leave cost inquiries until you have had an initial response back from the breeder. Avoid being highly specific in your request (e.g. I want a female wheaten puppy). This is not to say that a breeder will not be able to provide a puppy to your preferences but remember that puppies are not toasters! You are more likely to get a puppy if you are open as to colour (especially with Cairns) and even sex.
3. Be prepared to wait. Establish a relationship with breeders in your area – or further afield if necessary. Do your homework and be sure you are working with a responsible, ethical breeder. Expect to wait for 6 months to 2 years for the right puppy. During that time is it important to stay connected with the breeder so that they know you are still interested and committed to working with them.
Raising a puppy in the time of COVID:
COVID lockdowns and social distancing have created unique challenges for new puppy owners. Classes were unavailable for months and, while they are now opening up again in some areas, it can still be challenging to get into classes due to backlog and the need to limit class size to maintain physical distancing. Access to dog friendly businesses, walking trails and parks where owners can set up their puppies for safe exposures to other people and dogs has been limited. Grooming salons are closed or working on limited hours. All of this has made it difficult for owners to provide positive novel exposures for young puppies – at least in the conventional sense that we have come to expect.
Socializing to people and other dogs
Fortunately for our ‘Pandemic Puppies’ there is evidence that puppies do not need direct physical contact in order to become socialized to both humans and other dogs. While we would prefer to have safe, and positive opportunities for out puppies to get close to people and other animals, watching from a distance has been shown effective in helping your puppy become comfortable with both people and dogs. Do NOT stay locked down in your home if you have a young puppy unless you are legally required to do so. Take your puppy for car rides. Park in a shopping mall parking lot so your puppy can watch people come and go. Look for other local events where you can ‘park and watch’ people and animals moving about. Drive out into the countryside and park beside a field of horses or cows.
Planned outdoor socialization events Non-contact puppy socialization events allow puppies to choose to interact with people while allowing people to maintain physical distance from each other. People stay on marked stations more than 6 feet from each other and puppies are allowed to explore and meet people on their own term, one puppy at a time, either off leash or on a long line. This kind of experience that allows puppies to choose, is even better than one where people walk up to a puppy on leash, or a leashed puppy is walked up to another person. Allowing the puppy to make his own choices about when and how to approach is very empowering and helps build confidence more effectively than a forced meeting. If there are no classes with this kind of experience available, you may be able to recruit friends and family to do this in your yard.
Novel experiences Helping a puppy develop resilience and confidence is about far, far more than meeting people and other dogs. Setting up safe, novel experiences and allowing the puppy to explore them without pressure or heavy luring gives your pup a chance to learn that the world is not a scary place. Look for interesting places to walk with physical obstacles the puppy can explore. Expose your puppy to traffic, trains, buses etc all from an appropriate distance. There are many socialization resources available on line – don’t let COVID fears delay you in ensuring your puppy gets as many safe, positive novel experiences while his brain is predisposed to accepting them as normative. The first 12 weeks of life is the critical period, but you should continue to focus on getting in as many planned, curated novel exposures as possible during the next 12 weeks as well.
On line ‘Pandemic Puppy’ classes Virtual puppy classes are an option if you cannot get into local group classes.
Veterinary visits. COVID has changed the way veterinary clinics operate. Many are working with a ‘closed door’ policy where you cannot attend appointments with your pet but must remain in your vehicle, communicating via phone. This means that you are not able to be with your puppy to provide the comfort of familiarity. The risk of a negative experience is higher, especially if your puppy has had few novel experiences and the vet clinic and staff are some of their first exposures outside your own property.
- Be sure to expose your puppy to many novel experiences and people watching activities as possible before your first visit.
- Look for a Fear Free clinic if you have not already established a great relationship with a trusted vet.
- Prepare for things that will happen to your puppy during that visit. You can talk to the clinic to find out what your puppy will experience. As much as possible, replicate that at home, paired with great food treats. Most well puppy visits will include a physical exam +/- vaccines. The physical exam will include: looking in the mouth and ears, shining a light in the eyes, listening to the chest with a stethescope, examing the abdomen and testicles by hand, gently moving limbs through range of motion. You can do at home prep for all this. Work in short sessions, pair the mock exam components with great treats and praise then let your puppy have a fun play session before you come back for more. If vaccines or microchips are on the table, find out where they will be placed (between shoulder blades, in the hip or shoulder muscle) and be sure to handle the puppy in those areas. You can pick up a loose fold of skin and touch the puppy at the site where the needle would be introduce with a pen cap or tweezers starting with a gentle touch and increasing to a firm touch…then immediately presenting a fantastic treat. Help your puppy love standing on a small table by feeding his meals on a table, or offering small treats. With your puppy on a table, reward him for not squirming when hold his head, chest, move his legs etc. Get a tiny moment of stillness, then present a treat. Work towards more sustained stillness.
- Communicate special needs to the clinic. If you have noticed that your puppy has a particular issue with something such as a touch in a particular part of his body, be sure to let the clinic know so they can be prepared.
- If your puppy has shown signs of fearfulness and anxiety consider whether it is appropriate to defer the visit until you can accompany him into the exam room. For some areas, this can already be done, others are close and others may still be far away from this. Anxious puppies that have a tendency to snap or bite when afraid should be conditioned to a muzzle before a vet visit. https://medium.com/canine-behavior-and-training/positive-muzzle-conditioning-for-your-dog-21ab49cc62dd
The constant presence of owners at home can set puppies up for separation issues when owners return to normal activities that leave puppies at home alone. Separation issues can range from mild distress to severe, full blown separation anxiety resulting in destructive and dangerous behaviours. A simple prevention strategy implemented immediately the puppy comes home can ensure this is not a problem.
- Positive Confinement Training: The safest place for a puppy when you are not there to supervise is a crate. Resources for teaching a puppy to love his crate are available elsewhere on this site.
- Practice being home alone: Leaving your puppy in his crate for short periods while you leave the house – even if only to sit on the porch, will get him ready for the real thing. Your puppy will benefit from daily ‘home alone’ periods starting with a few minutes and slowly building duration.
- Make returns boring: When you are ending home alone periods or allowing your dog to leave his crate, be boring. The end of home alone or crating should be a ‘non event’ rather than a joyous reunion.
- Apart – together: Have daily sessions where your dog is confined away from you while at home. The dog can be in an Xpen or behind a baby gate and able to see you going about your routine activities, but not be able to get to you. A nice raw meaty bone or bully stick is a great way to help make these times positive – you can monitor his chewing but not be immediately present.
- Reward calm behaviour: Any time you catch your dog being calm – reward it. This will ensure your dog practices calm behaviour more and build value for calm. When you see your dog in a calm behaviour, quietly mark the behaviour with a softly spoken “yes” or “good” and deliver a food reward right to his mouth.
- Don’t set expectations you cannot keep: If your plan is to walk your dog twice a day under normal circumstances, do not walk your dog 6 times a day now. If you will normally have a 30 minute play session daily, don’t have three play sessions now. If you want to take advantage of the opportunities to spend more time with your dog, just be sure to avoid building an entirely predictable routine. Get your dog used to variation in daily activities, but overall be sure to get him comfortable with the kind of daily interactions and activities that will be the norm when COVID restrictions are over.
While COVID has definitely created new challenges for puppy owners, but good planning and proactive interventions can help ensure a good outcome for puppies and families.