A central part of training for any puppy, and even more necessary for a therapy dog, is socialization. This sounds like playtime! Unfortunately, socialization in the dog world doesn’t mean play time, but refers to exposure to wide array of places, sounds, surfaces, animals, and people to desensitize them. This should be titled something more like “Exposure to everything humanly possible, 7 times each in 8 weeks”. There is a critical time for socialization and learning that the world is not scary, which is prior to 16 weeks/4 months of age. In general, when puppies experience new situations during this period, they are unlikely to have adverse reactions in the future (fear, barking, aggression or biting). This is super important for a therapy dog puppy, because the last thing we want is a therapy dog who could hurt a client.
All of November and December we went on specific outings to get a wide breadth of exposure for Cloe. We walked downtown, went into stores, pharmacies, accessed places with different walking surfaces, talked to police officers, mailmen, saw bikes and skateboards, fire engines and sirens, parks and children playing, even into a preschool classroom or two (thanks to everyone for helping us!). We went to the vet and had a grooming and did an overnight. We got the train schedule and made sure we saw all the things that might be scary or cause a reaction, including things as simple as a man wearing a hat or backpack. We even stopped at the fairgrounds to get some exposure to farm animals, got to know some friendly (and no so friendly) horses. And always, we go to the pet store.
Does this sound like a lot of work? We tried to get as much done as possible by 16 weeks, which coincided with the holiday season (week 16 was something like New Years). We bundled up and loaded with towels and treats to do our shopping, take the kids to and from school, different parks/restaurants/stores, you name it. Our awesome babysitter loves Cloe and helped a bunch during this time, too.
Puppy Foundations Course
We signed Cloe up for a puppy kindergarten class so that we could start working on obedience and manners right off the bat. Some of the topics included more socialization (sounds, people, dogs barking), greetings to new people, recalls (Cloe coming when we call her), obedience like sit, down, stay commands, setting rules/expectations about visitors, furniture, and ended with loose-leash walking.
They also addressed problem behaviors, such as demand barking and aggression. It was at one of these visits I realized that she was demand barking/whining in the middle of the night and I was responding to her in what I thought was “soothing”, but reinforced her barking. A few nights of not responding to her neediness (her potty needs taken care of) she stopped being such a brat at night and we all feel bright and shiny in the morning :)
We had our favorite instructor come out to our house for some one on one family instruction, since all of us going to the classes felt like a bit much (and our kids got bored and climbed all over the dog training equipment, through the tunnels, etc.). She gave us pointers on some behavioral issues with the kids, who were unintentionally reinforcing Cloe’s playfulness when they really wanted her to stop, as well as guidance on fence training, greeting visitors, and other two-dog scenarios.
We've taken several other courses: Extending Your Stay, It’s Tricky – learning a new trick, Scent training, and some upcoming friendly greetings and loose leash walking courses. We’ve found all of the trainers to be warm, friendly, knowledgeable and helpful – here’s a link to their site if you happen to be looking for some quality dog training:
See some new pictures below; this little girl, like all labs and retrievers, has a HUGE amount of energy and we’ve bonded through our daily walks and hikes in the woods.
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Kate Adkins, PhD, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and professional counselor, owner of a private practice in central Ohio. She specializes in anxiety disorders including trauma and eating disorders, and couples therapy. She also teaches at the collegiate level, currently working with doctoral interns at The University of Akron. Kate's personal life includes a husband, two children, and now two dogs, and in her spare time loves dog training, reading, and naps.