My husband, son, and I have always been a two-dog family.
Our first two golden retrievers, Minnie and Mickey, were born 4 years apart. Mickey was very depressed when Minnie passed away, so we got another golden retriever puppy to cheer him up. In homage to The Lion King and the “Circle of Life,” we named the new puppy Simba.
Mickey passed away 19 months after we got Simba. The following December, we put down a deposit for a summer 2020 puppy from the same breeder as Simba. Little did we know that the Covid-19 pandemic would hit, impacting our puppy-raising plans on several levels.
Puppy Pick-Up Day
Born on May 28th, our new puppy was scheduled to come home on July 20th. Our breeder let us visit Simba’s litter 4 weeks after birth to engage the puppies and observe their personalities, but because of Covid-19 restrictions, we could not see the new puppy’s litter in advance. Pickup day was different, too. The breeder allowed us to observe three females of the litter in play, but we were not permitted to touch the puppies or anything else in the room, unlike in the past.
Since we planned to train the puppy to become a reading therapy dog, we looked out for certain traits: confidence, curiosity, playfulness, independence, a lack of fearfulness, and openness to new people and experiences. Two of the puppies came bouncing out in a tug of war together. The third puppy pranced out with curiosity, exploring the room on her own. At times, she dipped in to play with the other two puppies, but she was also content to be by herself.
We picked this third puppy because she displayed many of the traits we were looking for. Plus, she was cute as a button! Continuing The Lion King theme, we agreed to name her Nala.
Puppy Training Plan
In our house, everyone has a job when it comes to the puppy.
My job is to use positive reinforcement techniques like clicker training and verbal praise to shape our puppy’s behaviors as the designated dog trainer. My husband and son’s job is to learn these techniques from me and follow my lead when alone with the puppy.
Even Simba has a job! It’s up to him to teach the puppy how to play politely. Dogs copy dogs, so the puppy learns good behaviors just by watching Simba be Simba. Hopefully, she doesn’t start picking up his bad behaviors, like chasing after squirrels!
Before picking up Nala, we wrestled with the decision of whether to attend a puppy class. Although we believed it would be in the puppy’s best interest to enroll her in a class, we did not want to jeopardize our health by putting ourselves in a setting where we would be in close contact with strangers.
After much deliberation and consultation with our dog trainer, we decided not to attend a puppy class. While the classes followed all federal guidelines and were kept small, we didn’t want to take that risk.
Luckily, this wasn’t my first rodeo. We still had training materials from Simba’s puppy class 4 years ago to do most of the training at home. The main concern was how to compensate for the loss of socialization opportunities. During the social distancing era, could we find a safe way to familiarize Nala with other people and dogs?
As Executive Director of K-9 Reading Buddies of the North Shore, I have access to well-trained reading therapy dogs and their families.
After we got Nala, I emailed our members an invitation, asking for their help in socializing Nala with their dogs and family members of various ages. The responses started pouring in immediately! A steady stream of team members soon began to show up at our house, bringing along their dogs, spouses, kids, and even other young puppies to see Nala.
All guests had to adhere to proper social distancing protocol during their visit. Socially distanced chairs and a big mat were placed in our front yard for guests to sit on. Guests had to wear a mask at all times, and they had to wash their hands with hand sanitizer before petting Nala.
To let Simba know he is important and loved, visiting dogs and humans alike must accept a greeting from him before meeting Nala. A 15-foot leash allows Simba to greet visitors and maintain social distance between humans. After he has gotten his fill of pets, I go inside to get Nala.
When she was young, I placed Nala in a fenced pen so that visitors could retrieve her and bring her back to the mat for petting. When it was time for them to leave, the visitors would put Nala back in the pen for me to collect.
As Nala got older, we eliminated the pen. Now, I hold Nala’s leash when she meets visiting dogs. After their visit, our guests get to pose with the dogs for a Facebook photo.
Our goal was to get as many visits as possible by the end of Nala’s 16th week. We offered windows of time that took Nala’s napping schedule into account, and we were careful to limit visits to a maximum of two a day to avoid over-stimulation.
If You Offer It, They Will Come
We still have teams coming to visit. Ironically, Nala has likely become even more socialized than our other dogs were at her age due to everyone wanting to get out of their house. Since we have also been hunkering down at home, these visits have provided a social outlet for us, too. Friends ask to visit when they need some “puppy therapy.” Sadly, some of those friends lost their own dogs this summer, so they truly find joy in being with Simba and Nala.
We live across the street from a beautiful park on a dead-end street by a lake, and during summer/fall, there is a constant flow of people and dogs walking past our house all day long. Nala believes they are all coming to see her. She sits and watches, wagging her tail. Sometimes, they interrupt their walk to come to visit her – provided they agree to follow our protocol, of course. Other times, they don’t. Such is life.
Nala will be 16 weeks old on September 20th. She is growing into a confident, well-mannered, approachable puppy. Certainly, we have more challenges to tackle – like figuring out how to safely have her ride in an elevator, or introduce her to other species, or bring her into a store – but where there is a will, there is away.
In response to the pandemic, K-9 Reading Buddies launched a free Virtual K-9 Reading Buddy Program to motivate children to want to read.
Sign up here: www.k9rbns.org/schedule