by Anne Garretson, Puppy Raiser for BluePath Radio
Binge-watching the Food Network show, Chopped on a lazy afternoon is an eye opener. Raising a puppy in the throws of a pandemic is like making a gourmet meal from a mishmash of ingredients before time’s up. The early months of a puppy’s life can make or break their confidence. At 4 months old Radio is an even keeled pup who can turn either way. How do I steer this little guy in the right direction under COVID-19 lock- down? It’s not just the puppy who’s the unique puzzle to figure out. The world around me has changed.
The emcee inside my head tells me to open the basket and see what’s inside. I must build this puppy’s confidence with: objects on hand at home, erratic spring weather and my car. The basket is missing all my go-to staples that build the foundation for a confident, well-mannered service dog. No inviting friends over to practice polite greetings with this bundle of happiness. No getting used to the noise of heavy traffic. No walking beside a shopping cart inside a busy store. No obedience classes for controlled dog distractions. No restaurants to lay quietly under the table. No climbing and sliding on playground equipment. All these staples will get folded in later. Fortunately, there are other ingredients in the metaphoric pantry. I grab the puppy raiser manual, the list of commands Radio needs to learn, a hearty measure of humor and a big bottle of creative juices. I set this mishmash of ingredients on a bench comprised of weeks-long unscheduled time before an audience of my pet dogs. Am I ready to put together this gourmet meal, named Radio? Time starts now.
First course, we’re stuck at home without a schedule. Puppies do well with routine. Humans like to shake it up. By the end of week 1 we’re both floundering. I need to give our days the right amount of structure to nurture his development and the right amount of variety to keep me from losing my mind. My solution is a bowl full of little slips of paper with one command or skill written on each. Pulling a slip out of the bowl for a training exercise gives me the variety I need. For Radio the routine is nap, get busy, training exercise, playtime, get busy, repeat. I pull ‘go under’ and use my desk for him to learn to disappear in the tight space at my feet. I pull ‘under footings’ and lay bubble wrap and a flattened cardboard box on the floor in the hallway.
For the main dish we will stretch our legs and get some fresh air. But the weather can’t seem to decide between winter and spring. One day it’s sunny and warm, the next it’s snowing. We practice loose leash walks up and down the street. On the cold, wet days we might only walk to the mailbox. Still, every trip away from the house includes practicing a calm walk back to the door and inside where he’s eager for playtime with the big dogs. On nice days I do yard work and leave him safely confined in sight on the deck. Radio is a snuggly pup. In his fantasy world he would be beside me 24/7. In the real world he’ll need to be comfortable left alone for short times. So even his time on the deck apart from me has a purpose. The big dogs are excellent role models. They teach him the fine arts of quietly watching squirrels and sun bathing, interlaced with games of tag.
And what to do for dessert? Physical distancing is a must. But darn it, I really can’t skip over Radio gaining confidence and learning good manners out in public. It’s been 3 weeks and we have unknown multiple weeks to go. The car. I take Radio for a ride to the store where we stand at my tailgate. I want him to hear new sounds, practice simple commands in a new setting and let him watch parking lot activities. His leash is long enough to offer puppy therapy to stressed-out store workers who come out to gather shopping carts. I stay back at the far end of the leash and give Radio permission to go say hi. He wiggles at their feet, giving them some comic relief and his greeting ends with a perfect recall back to me. We go to the park for a walk, watch ducks on the lake and a family riding bikes in the distance. We see other people walking their dogs. I ask Radio to soak all this in, but stay focused on me amid these distractions. I see friends. We all keep walking and blow kisses from afar. We’ll stop and give each other a hug some other day.
The one thing that remains normal, despite this lock-down, is how much I cherish being a member of the BluePath family. My fellow raisers share ideas and our fabulous staff bolster us with fun challenges. We’re laughing our way through this, leaning on each other and looking forward. I like how time has slowed down to a mindful pace and how people around the world are looking out for one another. This pandemic is an opportunity to live in a different way. It might be the best puppy raising experience, ever. And I know, even with these unusual ingredients, Radio is turning out just fine.