Last Updated: 21st July 2020
Demand for puppies increased exponentially during lockdown at a time when access to the outside world was severely restricted. During this period, puppies were only able to be taken outside the house to the wider world once per day, and when they were taken out they had limited exposure to traffic, parks were closed, puppy classes couldn’t run, car journeys couldn’t be justified, we couldn’t get them used to settling in public places with lots of surrounding distractions, and visitors couldn’t come to the house.
As restrictions start to lift, how are puppies likely to cope with this lack of exposure during such an important period of development, and what can we do to help them? The Vetoquinol team have partnered with clinical animal behaviourist Rosie Bescoby who shares her top tips on coping with this new situation.
Author: Rosie Bescoby, Clinical Animal Behaviourist
Rosie Bescoby owns and runs Pet Sense which provides behavioural consultations for dogs and puppy problem prevention sessions in the Bristol and North Somerset area. She is a full member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC), an Animal Behaviour & Training Council (ABTC) registered Clinical Animal Behaviourist and member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT).
Puppies are particularly sensitive to learning about the world (what is safe, what stimuli they do not need to be worried by, and how to interact appropriately with other dogs and people) up until about 14-16 weeks of age, when their brains become less amenable to new things and they enter a more fearful stage. Many owners worry that their lockdown puppy is at a greater risk of developing fear-related responses to anything they didn’t have repeated positive experiences with during their first 3-4 months of life. However, it is also worth considering the advantages of the situation we found ourselves in because we often inadvertently overwhelm our puppies in an attempt to simply tick experiences off the socialisation list, without actually taking into consideration how the puppy is feeling.
When we introduce puppies to something unfamiliar (or something potentially scary), we need to be aware of the first signs of uncertainty and provide the puppy with appropriate support at this stage – it is important that we protect them from getting to the point of exhibiting distress.
We need to avoid putting any pressure on the puppy by coaxing them towards something they are wary of, however irrational their reaction seems to us (and never tell the pup off for showing unconfident or fearful behaviour, including any vocalising, as we risk entrenching the fear). If they seek reassurance, we can give it. If they want to retreat behind our legs, we can let them. If we are their advocate, our puppies will not have to resort to resolving the situation by themselves in a way that we find undesirable. As a general rule, time and space are our friend – allowing the puppy to observe from a safe distance and giving them the choice about whether to approach or not, if appropriate, provides control and confidence. We can also provide them with something they find pleasant to form a positive association with whatever they are unsure about.
Here are some suggestions for how to introduce your puppy to unfamiliar scenarios, whilst applying the principles mentioned above.
In a café or pub we might choose a quiet table in the garden away from other people or dogs, placing a mat down with something for the puppy to chew, and prevent people from approaching the puppy if that is something the pup might be uneasy about.
We might spend time sitting in the car with the engine off whilst the puppy settles next to us with a food-stuffed toy, repeating the next day with the engine running and building up to a short journey at the puppy’s pace.
The pace of walks can be dictated by our puppy, allowing for lots of sniffing and
safe exploration of this new environment rather than us determining where they
can and cannot go.
We might stand a distance away from roads, people or dogs and let our puppy
watch the world go by if they choose, or move away if they prefer.
We can register for online puppy classes if necessary, to get started on teaching things like recall and walking on a lead without pulling. We can practice recall with our puppy at home and rewarding them with something they love. We can also teach them that walking next to us is a brilliant place to be, by practising in the garden, feeding them some of their meal portion as they walk beside us.
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