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Pandemic pups benefit from proactive rewards, consistency

Photo by Allayana Darrow Puppies socialize during a puppy class last April.

When the pandemic locked Americans indoors, into computer screens under new work-from-home regimens and remote school schedules, setting off a cascade of social and economic challenges, millions sought comfort in pet companionship.

About 23 million American households added a dog or cat to their family between March 2020 and May 2021, according to a survey by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Local experts say as far as training, working from a solid base is the key to a positive long-term relationship with a pet.

With puppy love comes inevitable accidents, chewing on the wrong items, mouthiness, and resistance to being left alone. Mishaps and other typical behaviors can be made less tiresome with a strong support system, including a veterinarian to provide health care, a qualified trainer and a friend or family member to offer some respite when puppy parents need a break, said Kaye Geyler and Carrie Brooks, co-owners of Go Rogue Dog Training Center in Phoenix.

Nearly half of Americans said they brought a new dog into their life during the pandemic, according to a January report by The Dog People. Of people who adopted pets in the past year, more than half chose a dog, about one-third a cat, and 14% adopted both. About 13% are first-time pet parents.

Nearly all (93%) respondents said their “pandemic pet” improved their mental and/or physical well-being, and the top reasons for adopting were seeking joy and emotional support.

“During the pandemic, people have been spending more time with their pups, but unfortunately that has not translated to reducing the puppy blues,” Geyler and Brooks said. “There is a big learning curve for our puppies to live happily in the human world, so give yourself and your puppy a lot of slack. Puppy raising can be exhausting and stressful, but it is our job to be patient.”

Geyler holds a degree in animal science and has worked in the field of behavior and training since the mid-1990s. She also holds degrees in exotic animal training and wildlife education.

Geyler and Brooks are both certified assistance dog trainers, and Brooks worked as program instructor and kennel supervisor during a 10-year tenure with Dogs for the Deaf prior to co-founding Go Rogue Dog Training, which offers group puppy and mixed-age classes, private training, behavior modification, cat behavior and training, and kitten kindergarten, according to its website.

Geyler and Brooks said from the beginning, dog owners can set their puppies up for success by giving them time to settle in, feel safe in their new environment, take it slow, and by keeping early experiences as positive as possible.

Geyler and Brooks’ top tips for starting off on the right paw include using “management devices” such as playpens and crates to keep pups safe when complete supervision isn’t possible. The puppy area should be a positive space with tools to help them succeed, rather than a negative environment they are left to “get used to.”

“Set up an area for them to eat, play and nap in during the day,” they said. “Having a safe place for them to be is also helpful for the beginning stages of learning about being left alone, creating positive experiences with other family members, and to prevent them from practicing unwanted (but likely normal) behaviors.”

Teaching use of enrichment toys and pacifiers helps with self-entertainment, -calming and -stress relief. Daily activities such as food toys and positive reinforcement training serve as mental enrichment.

“Mental exercise is a better way to help your puppy relax than physical exercise, especially when they are still physically maturing,” they said. “Enrichment toys can be used to keep your puppy entertained and calm while you work, help the kids with homework, etc.”

According to Geyler and Brooks, socialization should focus on quality over quantity — showing puppies that “novelty is fun and nothing to be concerned about.”

Socialization aims to prepare puppies to be happy, stable and confident adults by allowing them to feel safe as they learn about the world, they said.

The first three months are the most important time for puppy socialization, according to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior.

“During this time, puppies should be exposed to as many new people, animals, stimuli and environments as can be achieved safely and without causing over-stimulation manifested as excessive fear, withdrawal or avoidance behavior,” according to the AVSAB.

Enrolling in puppy classes before 12 weeks “can be an excellent means of improving training, strengthening the human-animal bond, and socializing puppies in an environment where risk of illness can be minimized,” the AVSAB said in a position statement.

Consistent training centered around positive reinforcement, with frequent rewards, praise, play and/or treats, “is associated with fewer behavioral problems and greater obedience than methods that involve punishment and/or encourage human dominance,” according to the AVSAB.

Geyler and Brooks recommend easing up entirely on obedience expectations in the first year, except to work on an effective recall (to safely get a pup to return when called). Puppy parents should teach safe and helpful life skills and positive conditioned responses to experiences like going to vet appointments and grooming in the first year, they said.

Tapping into online resources, Geyler and Brooks are part of the Pandemic Puppy Raising Support Group, which brings together trainers, breeders, behavior counselors and puppy owners with tips for safe socialization, enrichment and positive reinforcement training during the era of physical distancing and cabin fever.

Owners can help pups achieve comfort and confidence by being proactive instead of reactive: Catch and reinforce when they sit quietly with an approved chew instead of scolding for unwanted behaviors, Geyler and Brooks said. Teaching the “joy of sharing” reduces tendencies toward resource guarding, and allowing alone time with enrichment toys helps reduce separation anxiety.

Last but not least, “Have fun!” they said. “They grow up fast, so remember to take the time to enjoy your puppy.”

Reach reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.