The Puppy Boom – What’s at Stake?

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

We are working from home. We have some extra time. We have some extra free attention. Regardless, we are here. And, we’ve been talking about getting a puppy anyway. Why not now?

If this sounds like what you’ve been thinking, you are definitely not alone. Dog trainers and veterinary professionals around the country have been reporting an increase in puppies. Could it be a typical seasonal trend? Veterinary practice managers say no. They think folks are using this time of social isolation to get a puppy. If it is, in fact, happening on a large enough scale we could reasonably call it a Puppy Boom. And, I totally get it. What could be more comforting in a time of uncertainty and angst that an adorable puppy?

But (and you knew there was a “but” coming), having a new puppy isn’t just about cuteness and cuddles. We are responsible for this dog’s long-term behavioral health. It’s up to us to prevent serious behavior problems down the line. And, that work needs to happen right now. The term you’ve probably heard bantered about is “Puppy Socialization.” Now, puppy socialization isn’t just about putting your puppy in a play group, though meeting other dogs is part of the process. Socialization is about thoughtfully teaching your puppy resilience and behavioral flexibility. In other words, it’s showing our puppy that they are safe in a variety of settings while we teach them how to make good behavior choices. It’s work. And, it’s work that has to be done in the first few weeks our puppy is with us. The clock, as they say, is ticking.

Proper early puppy socialization can prevent any number of serious behavior issues, inducing (but not limited to):

  • Aggression toward people
  • Aggression toward other dogs
  • Debilitating fear
  • Separation and isolation distress

In normal times we would get our puppies into a puppy class. They would learn to interact with other healthy vaccinated dogs. We would visit family and friends with our new puppy (every new person giving him a few small treats). We would have a puppy party in our home. Family and friends would visit so the puppy could learn the normal comings and goings of our household. We would accompany our puppy to the vet clinic or groomer for more feel-good meetings with praise and treats. We would explore lots of new places together, take car rides, visit playgrounds and ball fields for light-hearted investigation (and yes, smiles, praise, and treats). We would go to work and leave our puppy alone. A dog walker or pet sitter would come over midday. We would teach our puppy what normal is, no matter how crazy our normal life may be. In other words, we would totally rock puppy socialization. And, we would end up with a behaviorally healthy adult dog as a result. That’s what it looks like in normal times.

These are not normal times.

What’s at stake is significant. It is likely that we trainers will see an increase in aggression cases in the next 12-18 months. We will also see an increase in  fear related behavior problems, and isolation and separation distress. Think of it as an echo boom effect from all of the puppies happily quarantined with us now. Am I generally an alarmist? Those of you who know me know I am not. Am I sounding the alarm on this, though? Yes, absolutely.

What can we do to make sure your puppy is not part of my dire prediction? How can these “boomer” puppies get the proper behavior intervention they need now in their early puppy socialization period, even while we are in a time of social distancing? Here are a few ideas:

  • Socialize as best you can. We put together a free webinar on Puppy Socialization in a Time of Social Distancing. We explored ways to:
    • Introduce your new puppy to various types of people creatively and safely.
    • Introduce your puppy to hand-picked well-mannered healthy dogs.
    • Introduce your puppy to a wide variety of experiences (activities that we typically see as problematic in our aggression cases).
  • Seek out and schedule an online consultation with a qualified dog trainer or behavior consultant. Yes, we offer this service. But, so do many excellent dog trainers around the world. In fact, you might be reading this blog now because a trainer shared it on social media. Contact him or her for help.
  • If you have not gotten a puppy yet, please wait. I’ll put my professional reputation on this. It will be best to wait until the pandemic is behind us.

There’s the warning. That’s what’s at stake. Now, let’s all take a breath (myself included). If you already have your puppy, cool. Seriously, cool. Puppies are fun and we love them. You can still pull this off and end up with a balanced healthy life-long companion. You will have to work a little bit harder at it, though. That’s the truth. But, you can do it. And, there are plenty of people who can help. We may be separate in some ways but you are not alone in this. Your vet knows what’s going on. Your local trainers see the trend, too. I see it. Together we can help you rock puppy socialization even in this very unusual time.

And one more thing. Congratulations. You’re a puppy parent. Take lots of pictures and post them everywhere. Puppies grow up so fast.

Michael Baugh is a dog and puppy trainer in Houston, TX. He is currently hunkered down with his family including his two dogs, Stella and Stewie.

How a Pandemic Reintroduced me to my Dogs

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

My dog, Stella, is 10. Stewie is probably around 12. Our relationship is pretty solid. I’m a dog trainer, after all. I teach people how to build relationships with their dogs. That’s my job. But, here’s the truth. I often didn’t have time for Stella and Stewie. I’d come home from a long day with clients and crash. We’d chill together, yeah. But the day had slipped away. There was so much to do for everyone else and not enough left for them.

Stewie

Now? Well, you know. Things are different.

All of my dog training appointments are online now. I shower and get dressed (yes, really) and work here at home. My lunch breaks and coffee breaks are just downstairs. I’m guessing this isn’t all that different from your work days recently. We’re at home all day. Because, that’s the way it needs to be. Sure, it’s mind numbing at times. But oh, I keep thinking, what an opportunity this is as well.

By circumstance more than design I’m getting a whole new outlook on what my relationship with my dogs could be. Yes, I’ve discovered they bark much more than I ever imagined. And, yeah, they sleep way too much. But, I’m also discovering just how cool they are. Okay, I knew they were cool. But, their personalities! Senior dogs have such a gentle wisdom about them. I’m actually getting to know Stella and Stewie all over again. Let me share a little of what we’ve been doing.

We play. My old dogs still love to play. I know your younger ones do too. Stella especially loves playing tug and retrieving. It’s refreshing really. The time I would have normally spent driving between clients I can now use to take a breath and play. Play is like the cement that bonds social animals. I can tell you with certainty that it crosses species lines. You want to really get to know your dog? Take some time today to play with him. If you have more than one dog, sit back and watch them play with each other. It can be a beautiful dance.

We walk. What I really mean is we explore. Stella and Stewie do okay walking on leash. What we really like, though, is exploring off-leash. We walk the narrow path along the drainage creek back to the green space behind our subdivision. I’ve spent years teaching these two a strong recall. We practice it every walk. The safer option is just as good. Take your dog out to a wooded area or field on a long line. They love to wander around and sniff. It’s great physical and mental activity.

We train. We practice coming when called every walk. I mentioned that. Next week we will start teaching mat work at the front door. I’ve taught this to hundreds of client dogs. I think it’s time I take on the challenge with my own dogs. Don’t you? Haha.

Stella

We hang out. Life goes by so fast. Our dogs are puppies and then just like that we look over and they are white-faced and cloudy-eyed. Where did the time go? And, where was I all that time? Sorry I’m so late. I’m here now.

Most evenings I just get down on the floor for them. They don’t care how long it’s been or what I’m wearing or even if I’ve showered. One or the other comes in for the huddle. Usually it’s the pair, like an old married couple. They totter over and plop themselves down. And, we don’t do anything. We just share the moment and settle in.

It’s funny how many details we miss when we don’t really look. Their toes and the soft fur in between. The way their mouth curls up at the corners like they are smiling. Their eyes, heavy, when we rub their bellies. Sometimes I just watch them breath – and then notice how my breathing falls in with theirs. It’s a kind of meditation, letting the rest of the world fall away just to be present in this one moment. Stella. Stewie. Me. Nothing else.

What an opportunity. And they were right here the whole time waiting, these damned dogs. All it took was for the world to go crazy enough and grind to a stop, so that we could pause and find our sanity again – in them.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He’s currently offering online behavior consultations.

A Message to my Dog Trainer Friends

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

My dog’s have had a month’s worth of walks this week. My eyes, unfit for staring at a screen so long, are weary from webinars and online dog training consults. My treat bag, empty and freshly cleaned, is in a cupboard. Putting it there felt like an act of surrender.

We trainers are masters of behavior change. Change the environment; change the behavior. One small change (as small as a virus) can have huge effect. It’s what we teach. It can happen quickly, fast enough to be startling. It’s what we are learning.

Stay at home. They asked politely then ordered it. Then, how quickly everything stopped. Phone calls. Consults. Classes. And, we’re afraid. It would be wrong to discount that fear. There’s rent and the mortgage and the car payment and the family and employees. And this may be the biggest thing. There’s the unknown. We don’t even know how far this will go or what may be at risk.

But, here’s the other thing. It would be equally wrong to discount who we are as a community – who you are as an individual. We don’t all have the same story. But, I bet all of us trainers can tell stories about someone who told us what we can’t do. You can’t just start a business from nothing. You can’t earn that certification so fast. You can’t help that dog – make a difference to that family. You can’t change the culture of dog training. And time and time again you – you – answered with strength and determination. Watch me.

Last night I stared into the darkness hoping sleep would come. My mind was stuck on a spin cycle of thoughts. “We are all in this together” That is so cliché. (But, clichés, every one of them, are rooted in truth). How can I help? I’ll write? What will I write? There are no words (f’ing cliché). There is no way to make this all better. So many are so much more afraid than I am. Survivor’s guilt. I need to fix this. I need to sleep.

Everyone suffers.

That’s where I landed. And, that’s when sleep took me.

A friend and a trainer wrote on Facebook “Who knew chemo/cancer treatment would adequately prepare me for a pandemic in 2020? I’ve been self quarantining and social distancing for 18 months.” Suffering. It’s universal. It’s tied in with being human. We all have our stories. We’ve all been felled, face down in the dirt, spitting out blood. The business that failed. The marriage that failed. The body that failed – cancer – heart – the passing of years. The life that goes on. Better times and joy. And, the comeback story. What came to me just before sleep is an ancient truth. Suffering, life’s tragedies, the big and the small of it – that’s the common ground on which we all stand. Every one has a story. Every one of us. And we’ve all suffered. It’s in the fine print. There’s no getting out of it.

My dad grew up in the Great Depression. He was one of 7 kids. His father was a traveling salesman. When the world came to a grinding stop and no one wanted to see a salesman because no one was buying anything because no one had money (no one), my grandfather struck a deal. He went to the owner of the company and said, “We both know I’m your best salesman. Carry me through this and I’ll pay you back when it’s all over.” You can’t do that. But, he did. And as a nation we rallied as well. We built bridges and dams and tunnels and theaters, huge projects against the protests of you can’t. A few years later Germany started bombing London night after night. 32,000 people were killed. Winston Churchill vowed that the British Empire would live on and that “men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.'” The audacity.

Because that’s what we humans do. Because as universal as suffering is, so too is our capacity for compassion and immeasurable strength. All that was remarkably human about The Greatest Generation, my Dad’s generation, is equally remarkable about us as humans today. Watch us.

There are moments history by which we measure who we were against who we became. The Great Depression. The World Wars. Vietnam. 9-11. Perhaps this moment in history is one of those. In our own training community it is likely that how we teach and learn as dog trainers is already changing. Our colleagues are stepping up and standing out with fresh thinking and new ideas. I have no doubt that around the world trainers are, right now, developing new methods of teaching and new ways to train better. We are writing and collaborating (at a distance) and finding profound inspiration in these quieter stay-at-home moments. Another one of my trainer friend has identified this as a time to “start creating.” Change, sometimes painful, is the natural way of things.

In my past career in TV news I had the opportunity to meet a young man who’d been badly injured in Iraq. His vehicle ran over an IED (Improvised explosive device). He was burned over half his body including his face. Recovery from burns is indescribable suffering. He was permanently and irreparably disfigured. We interviewed him for our report and listed to him tell us about the dreams he had once had: the love of a woman, a family and holding his child, a career after service, his body, his face, days and weeks and months and years without pain, a future and old age. He spoke with that wisdom of years he had not yet lived. “But now I have to set some of those dreams aside.” He paused. “And dream new dreams.”

I began this year with a plan. My “start creating” trainer friend talked me into getting one of those hard-bound yearly planners. Goals and action points and that sort of thing. On the very first page I listed a goal of mediating every day for 20 minutes (a goal I’ve kept). Half way down the page the planner asks for reasons why this goal is important. In my messy block printing I wrote “To become more comfortable with groundlessness.” It’s a reference to the Buddhist teaching that all things are impermanent (even suffering). Change is the constant story of nature. Beginnings and endings and every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. (Closing Time by Semisonic). The more we struggle with change, the more we suffer. The more we connect with compassion for ourselves and others, the less we suffer.

It would be a mistake to underestimate how hard this might be  – the groundless uncertainty of it. But you, my dear trainer friends, were born to navigate this path. And you are not alone. And countless others have wandered deep into the unknown ahead of you, brave and scared. It would be a mistake in equal measure to underestimate you – your resilience, your lateral thinking, your creativity and force of wit. And if anyone dares to doubt you, take a breath. Feel the ground moving under you, move with it, and tell them straight up. “Just you watch.”

Michael Baugh is a dog trainer in Houston, TX. As of this writing he is staying at home until the pandemic subsides.