I thought I knew exactly what I was getting into when we brought home our new puppy. My siblings and I raised two puppies in our family, and I raised a foster pup during my college years along with a few housemates who’d succumb to those puppy eyes.
Before we all had to “Den-in-Place” several weeks ago, we took our new puppy out for short walks, and our steps would ultimately turn into sniff-athons. The floppy paws and zig-zagging around my feet made strangers ask, “Is this your first puppy?”
Is this my first puppy? “No, gosh no,” I’d respond. I finally realized what others were truly expressing: “I’ve been there too! I know how it feels to go through these puppy training moments.”
In the best-selling book Marley and Me, John Grogan describes his boyhood dog, Shaun: “Saint Shaun of my childhood. He was the perfect dog. At least that’s how I will always remember him. It was Shaun who set the standard by which I would judge all other dogs to come.”
I know we all had a Shaun growing up. But the truth is this: the first puppy you raise will be an entirely different experience from the perfect illusion you hold onto so dearly from your childhood. Puppies may be irresistible, but they are also extremely time-consuming. The working-from-home and social distancing mandates, however, is making us discover a whole slew of new puppies in the neighborhood, each clumsily walking down the street with new owners. We wave from across the street with that all-knowing masked smile, clutching onto our own leashes.
Here are some helpful tips that I’ve learned during these puppy and human social distancing times:
You will spend more money than you imagined. I knew having a dog was expensive, but I told myself we’d get the bare minimum of toys, read books, watch online tutorials, and find the cheapest vet in town. But reality bit me after an afternoon of conference calls. I found the corner of our coffee table had been nibbled clean and my sunglasses snapped into 50 small parts. Clearly the importance of mental occupation applied to us both!
So off we went to the pet store! I loaded up our puppy into my arms and headed to the other room to log onto the online pet shop to buy different kinds of toys: chew toys made of all different materials, toys specifically for play (that don’t lay around for chewing), tug-of-war ropes, frisbees, antlers, real bones, Kongs with peanut butter—the online cart filled up as I couldn’t resist the guarantees of creating a healthy and happy dog.
The right amount of exercise can be tricky. You need to get your dog enough exercise to be happy and healthy. Until we are able to go to the dog park, I now play “fetch” with a treat and hide the treat/toy and tug-of-war in the house. We have an unused golf course nearby where we meet up with one or two dogs and at safe distances, we let the dogs interact for socialization. It’s safe as long as we keep our puppies' noses and mouths away from other dogs' feces and urine. And it’s safe if we keep our noses and mouths away from other humans, but I digress.
Your puppy will need more sleep than you probably realize. Some say about 15 hours hours of sleep per day is needed (wow!). Ironically, I found when our puppy slept more during the day, he also slept better at night.
When it comes to training, focus on calmness. Your dog doesn’t know how to act in your home at first. Train him to be calm. Whenever you catch your dog lying down on his own (without instruction from you), reward him with a little treat. The golden rule: You get the behavior you reward.
Prioritize socialization and handling. Puppies have a socialization window that ends at 14 weeks of age. By this time, you should have introduced your puppy to anything you want her to be confident with. I know that’s difficult to do with staying at home, but engaging other family members, playing loud and unique noises and new experiences within the home and outside the home can help with socialization.
Socialization is for the dog’s safety and your sanity. When I had my puppy in college, I would wait at a bench and have people greet her, touch her and give her treats. She would meet many types of people, those who were nervous, those who were angry and those who were happy and overly excited (think kids!). Make socialization a priority even if you have to stand 6 feet apart with masks. Ask someone to greet your dog on your walks. It may help our own mental health during these stressful times.
Handling. Get your dog adjusted to being handled. Stick your fingers gently in his ears, run your hands over his tail, slide your fingers into the corners of his mouth, play with his paws—this one is important because you want your dog to be OK with cutting his nails (more on that later!). You are getting him used to anything you can imagine should a toddler walk up to the dog so that he will not negatively react with surprise.
In-person classes are best. But we won’t be able to attend any classes until we can safely meet in a group later this summer. Our puppy will have grown into developing habits that we can only modify now. YouTube videos are a great resource because dog trainers post new content every day, videos make it easier to learn (at least for me) and because you see how dog trainers subtly adapt their methods for different dogs (no two dogs are exactly alike!).
Now, you might be thinking to yourself, is this all really worth the effort? Yes, it is. It is worth the effort and time you have at home right now. It allows you to form a bond with your puppy that you may not have experienced before. He or she is the light of joy during this complicated and unprecedented moment in history, so let’s cherish (and happily train) our puppies!