Here’s my doggy roadmap as lockdown restrictions ease.
By: Niki French, Owner & Founder of Pup Talk, on-line training community.
Did you get a new dog or puppy in lockdown?
Are you feeling daunted about how they’ll cope as we get used to life coming out of lockdown?
Or do you have a dog that's changed their behaviours in lockdown?
There’s a whole world of fun, exciting and potentially scary experiences out there. And most of our dogs (and us for that matter!) haven’t had much exposure to them in the last year.
I cannot wait to sit in a cafe or pub with a calm dog curled up under the table. But that vision might take a little work!
But dog training doesn’t need to take long each day, and it doesn’t need to feel like hard work. You just need to play games and have fun with your dog.
Here are some steps we can take to help ease our dogs into life after lockdown.
I cannot wait to sit in a café (or dog-friendly pub 😊) with my dog curled up at my feet. I’m working towards that visions!
Being able to switch off and do nothing is a great skill for any dog to have. And not one they all find easy. Especially when out and about. Especially after not going out much recently!
But you can grow this skill. When our dogs are naturally doing nothing, that’s when we tend to ignore them. Reward them with calm praise when they’re sat being quiet near you. Or drop treats into their crate or on their bed when they’re nicely settled, or even asleep. Your dog will want to do more of these lovely behaviours.
Start playing this one at home throughout the day. And then you can take it out and about with you. If you have a few pots of their food around your home, wherever you and/or they sit, it will be much easier to pop that food down straight away, rather than disturb them as you get up to go and get food from the kitchen!
Don’t worry if they wake up when you pop the food in front of their nose. Try it a few times a day for at least the next couple of weeks. They’ll learn that being calm is the way to get the reward.
Ditch The Bowl!
I’m a massive fan of the 'ditch the bowl' ethos. You simply use all (or most) of your dog’s daily food (dry/wet/raw and a few tasty treats) for games and activities, as well as strengthening the relationship between you. There are so many ways to use their daily food to help reshape their brains and reward any great choices they make.
How and why do I ditch the bowl?:
An easy starter - see 'scatter feeding' below.
Give them a long-lasting natural chew or tasty bone to promote calmness.
Use ‘lick mats’ and top with anything spreadable (including natural yoghurt, mashed carrot, wet dog food, moistened dry food etc).
Play games! There are a few ideas below to get you started.
Even simply taking their normal breakfast or dinner out with you on a walk to reward them as you go. While they're walking nicely on a lead (even if only briefly!), checking back in with you in between trotting off for a sniff. Or calmly feeding them when you want to stop and chat to someone (and maybe in the future give them a hug!).
Taking your dog out when they are hungry will really help their motivation to play training games with you.
Even non-foodie dogs grow more interested in their food when you play games and create experiences with their food.
The Calming Power of the Scatter Feed
Scatter feeding is so simple but so powerful.
The simplest game is using your dog’s breakfast or dinner and scattering it on the kitchen floor, patio or grass.
If your dog is new to this, you might need to encourage and show them where to look for it and don’t scatter it too far. As they get better at it, you can make it more of a challenge. The act of sniffing, for and looking for the food, naturally tires them out because they’re using their noses and brains.
NB: This is easier with dry food/kibble but there are solutions if you feed raw (message me for more ideas).
You can also scatter a few pieces of food around your feet if you want to stop to chat to someone. Or you want to slow /calm your dog down a little after a period of exciting play in the park. Or an interaction with a dog or some traffic that they found worrying. If they are unable to eat, they are too worried, or too excited and it’s definitely time to head home to give them time to relax.
Whining & Barking in the Car? – Play Ride to Nowhere!
If the only time your dog has been in the car recently has been to go to the park, they might well have started whining or barking every time they get in the car. That’s probably not fun for you.
They’ve built up excitement and anticipation about being in the car. You can help this by playing ‘Ride to Nowhere’.
You can just get in the car with them, sit there for a few minutes (catch up on some emails or social media) and then going back inside again.
Or pop their harness / collar / lead on as if you were going for a walk. Then just walk around the car a few times. Perhaps play a game around or near the car. And yep – head back in!
Another alternative is giving them their long-lasting chew or a lick mat in the car.
Or go for a drive somewhere that doesn’t involve getting out at the park. Take them with you on errands if it’s safe to do that.
This might feel like a bit of an effort but if you want to break the association of excitement with the car, this will absolutely help. You’re making being in the car a non-event.
If they are reluctant to get in the car. Perhaps they get a bit stressed when you get to the park. Or they suffer from car sickness. Playing Ride to Nowhere will also help you here (excitement and anticipation can make car sickness worse).
Crazy Lady Game
Does your dog get over-excited when you greet someone? Then this game is for you!
With your dog settled at home just say quite loudly to someone (or no one if you life on your own) ‘Hello!’ ‘Hi, how’s it going?’ ‘Oh I haven’t seen you in AGES!’ You can be calmly feeding them the odd piece of food as you do this to reward any calm behaviour.
It doesn’t matter what you say, you’re just helping to make the sound of greeting someone less of an event that could cause them excitement.
To step it up a level you can put your hands up or outstretched out ready for the days when we don’t have to stay 2 meters apart!
You can then start playing this one when you’re out on a walk. You don’t need to have anyone in earshot to start with as we get them ready to not overreact as much when you excitedly greet people in-person again!
Create Calmness with Boundary Games
This super-simple game teaches your pup to happily go to a specific bed or place. And stay there and chill out, until you say it’s time to come off the boundary and interact with you. The simple steps to get you started are in the free Facebook group Pup Talk with Niki French
You start playing it at home and if you play it with a towel you can take the towel with you to different places (say hello to the pub or café!).
Get the support YOU need to help you with any training struggles and stresses
Find a great positive rewards trainer to help you target the specific training struggles you're having. Training doesn't need to feel like hard work. It should only feel like fun for both of you.
Many trainers are now working online (one-to-one and classes).
Online training works brilliantly because you are both working in the least distracting environment - your own home. This is THE best place to learn new skills, before you take them out and about.
Find local or online communities (such as Pup Talk with Niki French - see link below). Having a safe space to ask anything (there is no such thing as a silly question) and even be able to just vent when you've had a frustrating or stressful day with your pup. We all have them! Surrounding yourself with people who have had similar struggles can really help.
Remember: Training is happening all the time, not just when you want to ‘do some training’
Your dog is reacting and learning from what is going on all around them, every day. So try to minimise their exposure to situations that they find scary or too exciting. They will get better at what they rehearse, i.e. if they see a dog that worries them and they bark, they will be even more likely to bark at them next time. And if they get to excitedly jump up at someone they haven't seen for ages, they will learn to get better at jumping up at people!
As you start to go out more and leave your dog on their own, if you’re concerned about possible separation anxiety, please feel free to download another free PDF. Get Your Pup Ready To Be Home Alone.
For more help, join Pup Talk with Niki French - the friendliest FREE Facebook group of dog-lovers supporting each other and providing training tips and games.
For 121 online training, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
You can also check out Niki "Keep Calm and Carry on fun training video HERE.