Having a Puppy During Lockdown
If a puppy is not exposed to enough challenges during the sensitive or critical development period, his level of sensitivity to some or all subsequent challenges may remain high into adulthood and he may always be reactive and fearful of novelty. Socialisation means learning how to interact socially with other living creatures, whereas habituation is learning to respond calmly and appropriately to everyday goings on and to ignore irrelevant environmental stimuli.
The key thing is to provide your puppy with as many different experiences as possible. Emotional stability can be achieved – provided your puppy experiences novelty, daily challenges and some problem-solving activities. By doing so, your puppy’s neural pathways will develop and enable him to be more confident when he encounters something unfamiliar in the future.
Why is the critical period of puppy learning so important?
Between 3 and 10 weeks of age is the critical period of learning about the world. It is during this time that a puppy learns what it is to be a dog. He will practice body postures, facial expressions and vocalisations, and learn how they affect his siblings and any other dogs. The formation of strong attachments commences, and it is essential that the processes of socialisation and habituation begin now. A puppy should be introduced to those things that will play a role in future life. At seven weeks of age his attention span is short, but he can learn. This is the age when the most rapid learning takes place, everything he experiences makes a greater impression on him now than at any other time in life.
They must develop a system of communication to enable them to socialise with unfamiliar dogs and must also learn to adjust to a range of environments and develop competence to cope with the many varied stimuli and challenges that they will encounter as adults. While such learning takes place throughout life, the period when a puppy is especially receptive and responsive is rather limited. The developmental stages clearly demonstrate that this sensitive period of emotional development, occurs from the age of about three weeks to eighteen weeks.
What socialisation does my puppy need?
Pet-dogs need to be able to relate well with humans, other dogs and other animals (in some cases). If a puppy shares his home with other pets such as cats and rabbits, then it is essential that he learns solid social skills with rabbits and cats. Conversely, farmers may want their dogs to interact socially with lots of different types of livestock, but the average pet owner will not want their dog to attempt to interact socially with sheep – they need him to ignore them!
Puppies also need to meet children, adults and other species on a frequent and regular basis. They should learn to greet people without jumping up and should also learn that there are times to be friendly and times to ignore others and simply be focussed on their owner.
Teach your puppy about novel items indoors and outdoors
Make an adventure playground within the house and garden. Introduce your puppy to unfamiliar things. You could place several objects around your puppy. These could be anything from new toys to a skateboard, a tin tray, a gym ball. Be inventive, but make sure you do not overwhelm your puppy.
When your puppy approaches one of the unfamiliar objects reward him with a treat. This will teach your puppy that strange things have positive outcomes and he will feel more confident when experiencing new environments and stimuli.
Include household appliances, let your puppy experience the sound and the sight of these and then introduce movement. Load and unload the washing machine and dishwasher. Do some ironing (yes really!!!) and vacuum the carpet – if you have ever tried to use a vacuum cleaner with a terrier puppy you will know exactly why!
You can develop this further by getting your puppy used to negotiating different surfaces such as bubble wrap, large bin bags, a child’s play tunnel or walking over a ladder on the ground. All these things will boost your puppy’s confidence.
Set up some obstacles both in the garden (if you have one) and in the house. You could use some saucepans as weaving poles. Use a chair as something your puppy can go under. Variety is the spice of life!
Move furniture around. This will help your puppy to get used to changing environments and be relaxed if something has changed position making it look totally different. Teach your puppy how to negotiate stairs. Very often a puppy will go up the stairs without any real problem but once at the top he may not be confident enough to come down the stairs. Be supportive and encouraging.
Ride round the garden on a bike (if you have one) or roller skates/skateboard. Anything which is novel and creates movement.
Dress up in fancy dress, different hats, coats, sunglasses. Bounce a balloon, open and close an umbrella. However, you may want to do these things in the house in case your neighbours think that you have lost the plot and call the emergency services!!!! Do not overwhelm your puppy; have a plan in place and introduce something different every day.
Teach your puppy fun games to play
Play games, teach your puppy some tricks, find all the things your puppy enjoys doing. Use these activities, toys and games to help him relax and love playing in new environments and situations. A useful game is to teach your puppy to find treats you throw on the ground. This is a great searching game and allows your puppy to focus on you as well as refining his exploration and foraging skills.
Start puppy obedience training
General obedience exercises should also be part of your confidence boosting plan. Every day teach your puppy a new exercise using positive reinforcement. You could start with teaching your puppy to recognise his name, then progress to teaching him to come when called. You can keep building up your training regime by adding a new exercise as well as recapping on those you have already done. Practise in all parts of the house and with different distractions.
Through positive reinforcement training your puppy will enjoy learning when to sit, lie down, and come when called. Providing your puppy with the knowledge that sitting, when asked, has a positive outcome and makes him feel good, means that asking your puppy to sit if he is apprehensive in a particular situation will relieve his tension and replace his negative feelings with more positive ones.
Teach your puppy about different sounds
There are some excellent sound recordings you can buy to get your puppy accustomed to sounds such as sirens, thunder, fireworks, heavy rain, traffic, babies crying. Play the recording, whilst you are having a game and playtime with your puppy. This will allow your puppy to get used to the sounds while he is enjoying himself.
Teach your puppy to OK at home alone
Home alone! You will need to make sure that your puppy can cope with periods of isolation. When the world returns to normal, you will need to leave your puppy alone in the house. Crates are great for this, as you can leave your puppy in a safe place and go and have a long soak in the bath, cut the grass or go to the toilet. It is important to try and replicate the daily routine you would normally have so that your puppy becomes accustomed to your usual daily activities.
Teach your puppy about the great outdoors
Depending upon the current vaccination protocols, take your puppy with you on your daily exercise if it is safe to do so. If not, you should try to carry your puppy so that he can experience the world outside the house. It is unlikely that there will be a huge amount of traffic which is why using the sound recording and introducing moving objects in the house will be beneficial. If you see vehicles approaching, stand still and let your puppy see the vehicle go past. Do not keep walking towards the oncoming vehicle, allow your puppy to see the vehicle and be ready to give him a [treat]( as the vehicle passes. You can do this at home when the bin lorry stops outside.
In an ideal world we would like our puppies to learn to interact with other dogs, but social distancing means that we must take a hands-off approach. If you can, walk 2 metres apart from another dog (fully vaccinated). Try to walk in the same direction at first, as walking towards another dog can be daunting for a puppy. Begin to teach your puppy to sit and greet other dogs, making sure you reward calm and compliant behaviour.
Keeping 2 metres apart, stop and chat to other people, families with young children and babies in pushchairs. Use the sit and greet routine but do not allow people to pet your puppy.
Teach your puppy you support them
When things return to normal, you may find that your puppy lacks a little bit of confidence in certain situations, such as heavy traffic. Make sure you are ready for this. A good plan is to begin teaching your puppy to go behind you. By doing so you will be able to provide a shield from whatever your puppy is worried about and he will feel more secure and confident.
Hopefully, the nation will be able to return to some sort of normality in the not too distant future and you will be able to enjoy long walks and other activities with your growing puppy, but if you have any concerns about your puppy’s behaviour please get in touch with an accredited trainer or behaviourist for advice.
Do you need further advice?
If you need any further advice, please contact the OSCAR Helpline Team on our freephone number 0800 195 8000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.