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Untrained pandemic pups present dilemma for Americans

As society reopens, now is the time to train and socialize dogs to prevent an influx at animal shelters.
Courtesy Best Friends Animal Society
/ Source: TODAY

A few weeks ago, Jeffrey Davis decided his son’s dog is no longer welcome in his home.

It’s not that the Utah resident doesn’t love dogs — he does. His yellow Lab, Cosmo, is a loyal running buddy and beloved family pet.

But about six months into the pandemic, his 25-year-old son decided to get a puppy for companionship. Initially he spent lots of time with little Francis, a black Lab, and brought him to work. Then he started a job in an office that doesn’t allow pets, and the energetic dog wound up kenneled at home every day. Without training and attention, his behavior issues grew — while he physically grew to be about an 80-pound dog.

“He’s got big, huge paws. He knocks people down,” Davis told TODAY. “It just got worse every time (my son) would drop him off at our house.”

The final straw was coming home to find Francis had destroyed Davis' backyard while he was gone, ripping up newly planted shrubs and a flowerpot.

“He’s a sweet dog. But he’s a Lab, and that dog has got to be entertained, especially when they’re young,” he said. “I feel bad.”

Francis, a black Lab, and Cosmo, a yellow Lab
Francis, left, faces an uncertain future because he wasn't trained during the pandemic and needs an outlet for his energy.Courtesy of Jeffrey Davis

Francis is heading soon to a dog training boot camp. Davis hopes this will give the pup a chance to stay with his son or find a new home if Francis winds up in a shelter, depending on how this summer goes.

Roughly 23 million American households acquired dogs and cats during the pandemic, according to a recent survey from the ASPCA — and the vast majority of them are still in those homes.

A young girl smiles with a puppy
Close to 1 in 5 American households acquired pets during the pandemic.Molly Wald / Courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society

Innovative efforts by animal welfare groups across the country helped some people keep their pets as the pandemic took a financial toll. However, stories of untrained pandemic puppies like Francis have raised concerns with some rescue advocates.

Marissa Sunny, CPDT-KA, a certified professional dog trainer and dog behavior specialist for the nonprofit Best Friends Animal Society, said as things open back up, it’s important to prioritize training and socialization to help prevent an influx of untrained adult dogs in shelters.

“A lot of shelters were almost running out of dogs to be adopted, which was incredible to see,” Sunny told TODAY. “But a lot of those dogs now are getting used to people going back to work, being alone for the first time, interacting with new people and new dogs for the first time. And it can just be really overwhelming for dogs that haven’t had that experience up until now.”

Sunny recommends investing in training classes, such as group sessions that also offer dogs a chance to spend time with other dogs and people. While it might be tempting to try for a quick fix by using punishment or shock collars to correct unwanted behavior, she said positive training methods such as rewards will yield the best results.

“In the long run, it’s going to take less time and less work using positive reinforcement because you are showing and teaching the dog that this is a positive experience — there’s nothing to be scared of here,” she said. “They’ll start to learn to trust you.”

A woman trains a dog
Positive training methods, such as rewarding good behavior with treats or praise, help dogs build trust and manners.Courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society

For example, if a dog has an issue with jumping on people, rather than yanking on a choke collar, yelling or kicking, she suggests having the dog sit before meeting new people, even keeping him on a leash in the house when friends come over so he doesn’t have a chance to practice jumping on them.

When there’s an issue with the dog jumping on the owner, she advises turning away from the dog.

“If that’s not working or not dramatic enough for the dog, I’ll even walk back out of the house,” she said. “I’ll start to open the door. The dog is about to jump. I’ll shut the door, go back outside, count to five, try it again. You might be stuck there for 20 minutes, but it will get shorter every day. And it’s really worth the end result.”

Dogs look up at a handler obediently
Dogs trained to sit before meeting new people won't jump on them.Molly Wald / Courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society

Dog owners who aren’t comfortable attending in-person classes can access free online resources from Best Friends and Fear Free Happy Homes, or use dog training apps like Dogo.

Still, training is just one piece of the puzzle. Enrichment activities are important to engage dogs’ minds, according to Sunny. This might include puzzle feeders, snuffle mats, freezing wet food in Kong toys, or scattering kibble in grass and saying, “Go find it.”

“Hiding kibble in towels and rolling it up is another super easy way to add some enrichment,” she said. “Anything to keep their mind engaged while you’re gone.”

A puppy scoots around energetically
Dogs need enrichment activities to engage their minds and help channel their energy.Courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society

Society reopening presents new opportunities for socialization, from inviting friends over to walking around outdoor malls or entering pet-friendly businesses. The key is to take it slow and not overwhelm the dog, she noted.

As the saying goes, a tired dog is a good dog. Exercise is a basic need, from walks, hikes and runs to playing fetch or racing around a dog park. People who don’t have time to exercise their dogs can reach out to neighbors or hire dog walkers through companies like Rover and Wag!, she said.

Ultimately, Sunny hopes pet owners will repay the companionship puppies provided during lockdown with some training now, even if they decide they cannot keep their pets.

“If you’re handing off a dog you can’t handle to someone else, it’s very likely that they can’t handle the dog either — it’s going to keep passing through hands,” she said. “Get some training with them, or maybe even if you’re looking to re-home the dog, sponsor a couple of sessions with a trainer for their new owner, so that they can get set up for success as they go into a new home.”