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Bella will likely never be the dog anyone can just go up and pet, or the type that gets along well with all other dogs.
But the three-year-old Havanese has come a long way since meeting Corner Brook dog trainer Christine Doucet, owner of Pawsitive Training NL.
“She’s a small dog, but she’s a lot of work,” said Bella’s owner Shellie Cormier.
Cormier and her family got Bella as a puppy. It was during the winter when getting out and socializing her with other people and dogs was not so easy and Cormier admits she didn’t realize it was so necessary.
When Bella was about nine months old, the teenage years for dogs, she started to show signs of being fear reactive. Noises, like a chair moving, or someone different or another dog coming around would set her off.
“If I walked with her before working with Christine she’d bark and lunge,” said Cormier.
That would lead Cormier to react when she saw people or dogs coming towards her.
“I would kind of get nervous. I might have pulled on the leash.”
What Cormier didn’t realize was that Bella was picking up on that and her behaviours continued because she felt the fear that Cormier was showing.
Cormier had been trying to work on Bella’s issues when she saw a poster for Pawsitive Training at a local pet supply store and contacted Doucet.
Bella barked at Doucet for the entirety of their first meeting, but after two years of one-on-one training and reactive, obedience, and clicker classes, Cormier said she “has worked wonders” with Bella.
“Now we can walk through the mall,” she said. “It’s just her space. Don’t stare at her and don’t get down by her level. She has her little space limit, but her space limit was a lot further away and now it’s a little bit closer.”
The classes have also helped Cormier learn to relax when people and dogs approach. Bella doesn’t like people petting her, so Cormier will get her to do tricks and provide them with treats to give her. The treats reinforce that Bella has nothing to worry about.
“It’s important to be calm and nonchalant about everything,” said Doucet.
The dog takes cues from the owner and if they get nervous or excited when a person approaches then the dog thinks it’s because of the person.
Doucet has had to shut down her training centre during the COVID-19 pandemic, but she’s still fielding questions and offering direction on maintaining routines, training dogs, and introducing socialization at a time of social distancing.
One thing that is upsetting routines is that people are home a lot more.
“So, the dogs are getting used to having us around all the time. Which isn’t a bad thing during COVID, but when people have to start to go back to work there’s the potential there for the dogs to become a bit anxious and unused to the routine.”
That’s particularly the case for people who got puppies during COVID and the puppies have never had them gone before.
Doucet suggests before people have to leave their dog for eight hours a day they start leaving them for short amounts of time.
“Dogs don’t tend to have the same sense of time that we do. Which is why if you walk out the door and turn around and walk back in they’re just as happy to see you as if you’ve been gone for eight hours.”
The big “don’t” when doing this is make it a big deal. Forego the goodbyes, the “my poor little puppy” and the “you’ll be OK, I’ll be back.”
Doucet said that just results in the puppy or dog getting all worked up and then you walk out the door. Anxiety builds, and the dog will cry, bark or chew on things to relieve stress.
“All the things that become the destructive behaviours, those are stress relief behaviours for dogs,” said Doucet and adds if you make a scene of your return, then the dog gets all worked up again.
“Coming and going is a non-event. Whether you’re going for five minutes or whether you’re going for five hours.”
Doucet said the key is to not give them cues that will generate anxiety which will ramp up when they’re alone. They need to see that the things their owners do when getting ready to take them for a walk are different than what they do when they are getting ready to leave them.
Getting outside with dogs during COVID-19 is something that is encouraged and Doucet said outings can be done safely while keeping a safe distance from others. For puppies under four months of age it’s a huge time to expose them to other dogs, people, sights and sounds and places where they can build confidence.
“If they’re not exposed at this age it can be very difficult for them afterwards; they tend to get fearful a little bit more.”
She said dogs can be socialized at any age, but it’s easier as a puppy because as they get older dogs get more cautious.
Tips to socialize an older dog or puppy during COVID-19
Christine Doucet, a dog trainer and owner of Pawsitive Training NL in Corner Brook, suggests people do anything they can during COVID-19 to expose their puppies and dogs to things that would be different from day-to-day life at home.
She said find the right place or environment where a dog or puppy can be exposed to sights and sounds in a way that’s not scary and teach them that it’s not scary.
Doucet suggests taking them to a park where they can see people. If people want to interact with the dog, she said to tie its leash to a tree and step back to allow the social distance and for the other person to say hello to the dog.
Get the dog to do some tricks and give the other person some treats they can give the dog as a reward. That way the dog has to chance to become familiar with different people, but in a way that’s safe for the human.
At home pull out your Halloween costumes. Put on the funny hat, put on the mask, things they haven’t seen before and provide them with treats for good behaviour.
Put different textures, paper, grates, on the floor to provide sensory experiences, and reward them when they walk on it.
Use recordings of thunderstorms and fireworks. Start out at low volume and gradually turn it up. Doucet does this in her puppy classes while the dogs are playing, and they don’t even notice it playing in the background. She said it helps to desensitize them to make them think there are also good things that happen, like playing and getting treats, when they hear those sounds.
Same thing with knocking on a door. When she does it in class, Doucet will knock softly on a table and half the dogs will bark. She’ll wait till they calm down and repeat the knocking, when nobody barks the dogs get rewarded. Instead of the knock being a signal for this huge high energy experience it means the dog will get a treat.