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Canine training during COVID gone to the dogs

A lack of clear direction from the province during the pandemic on whether dog training is or should have been an essential service will lead to greater difficulties with dogs, say local trainers. The problem is compounded by the rise in dog ownership during the last year-and-a-half.

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Lack of canine socialization opportunities and proper training are turning into increasing instances of fear aggression and separation anxiety. They have become major issues during the pandemic, and the situation is only going to get worse, say dog trainers and new dog owners, placing the responsibility on the shoulders of the province.

“The problem is the government isn't aware of these things,” said Carol Neil of Soul2Soul Dog Training. “The socialization window in all dogs starts at three weeks and it starts closing between 12 to 14 weeks. Most people aren't aware of this, and as a result, every time we get shut down, all these puppies are getting no socialization. Now a year out, we are literally seeing epidemic amounts of fear aggression in these adolescent dogs that are now turning nine months, a year, a little older.”

Fear aggression occurs when a dog feels threatened because of an unfamiliar person or animal, but can’t escape the situation. Instead, it attacks. Separation anxiety happens when a dog becomes distressed that its owner is away. This distress causes them to exhibit destructive behaviours such chewing or scratching, or acting out in the form of barking, even urinating or defecating.

Neil and other dog trainers are saying a lack of clear direction from Alberta Health Services (AHS) and Alberta Biz Connect has meant puppies have not been getting the proper training at the right stage of their development. The pandemic has put a huge strain on businesses with restrictions and intermittent closures, leaving new dog owners out in the wild.

Neil is joined by Kerry Peddle (of Kerry’s Canine Creations and Training) and Kaytie Stack, who runs K9 Awareness – a dog training facility on Rowland Crescent where trainers such as Neil and Peddle offer their services.

“This is a 2,000 square foot facility, and we're fully capable of distancing people 15 to 20 feet apart: one person allowed per dog, masks, et cetera. We've got hand sanitizers, and yet every time we turn around, there's nothing on the website to give us any direction. You won’t see dog training on there anywhere. Every time anyone reaches out to Biz Connect, or AHS, people were getting different answers every time. It's been a challenging year,” Neil said.

Biz Connect is the government agency tasked to offer “workplace guidance and supports for businesses and non-profits affected by COVID-19 to operate safely and support their recovery.” One look under its Guidance Documents page shows sector-specific instructions for everything from libraries to industrial work camps, equestrian events to schools, and weddings and funerals to warehouses. Animal training operations doesn’t exist, nor does an "Other" category, but the page does state, “This guidance supports all workplaces.”

“When you contact AHS, there seems to be different people have different opinions on whether classes should be up and running, and then someone else says, ‘No, that can't be.’ It's been very unclear where we fall into what category,” Stack noted.

“There's a discrepancy between Biz Connect, which is the outreach for businesses during COVID, by the restrictions. They seem to be blaming AHS for the answers, and AHS seems to be blaming Biz Connect for the answers. We're not sure where the information is coming from,” Peddle continued. “One person gets, ‘Yes, you can do it,’ and another person gets, ‘No you can't,’ and then all of a sudden nothing can be done.”

“The biggest concern I have is that they really haven't recognized certain aspects of the training industry as an essential service,” Neil said, adding, “It’s undoubtable that certain aspects are, such as puppy socialization, in particular during COVID. There's a lot of factors that go into creating things like fear aggression. One of the primary things we know can cause it is a lack of quality, positive socialization experiences and exposure to unfamiliar-to-the-puppy people, dogs, etc.”

The three even started offering “very special ‘drop your puppy off’ socialization gatherings so that puppies could get that necessary exposure to unfamiliar people under their supervision.

“We certainly don't want to just be taking our puppies to dog parks and putting them in high-risk situations in terms of getting attacked by other dogs and things like that,” Neil said.

Tjana Jennett saw how interruptions in her Chihuahua pup Blake’s socialization training affected his behaviours. He was getting along fine while trainers were operational last summer and early fall, but that was before public-health restrictions changed things for the worse. “Once a cuddler with all, Blake has become very fearful of people. Everyone wants to touch and reach out to him but some of these COVID animals are feeling fearful with the unfamiliar,” Jennett wrote in a post on Soul2Soul’s Facebook page.

“Winter came and he wasn't getting a whole lot of dog walking, so he became a little bit aggressive,” she said, relating how his puppy vaccinations went from fine for the first, to peeing and snapping for the second.

His neutering was another story entirely.

“They had to pull and drag him in. They had quite a time with him,” she continued. “They said, ‘By now, he should be trained. He shouldn't be doing that. He is aggressive and he's trying to show his strength. Just before they pulled him in and they took him from me – because I wasn't allowed to go in at all at that point, or my son – he peed. I thought, he does like to protect us, but peeing is a sign of nervousness.”

Neil was able to work one-on-one with Blake. Over the course of several sessions, the pup was able to get back on track with proper socialization and better behaviour. The Chihuahua will turn one year old next month.

Jennett has heard of other people having similar problems with their "COVID pups." Some situations are exacerbated by how people were laid off or working from home during the early stages, but then had to return to the workplace, leaving their animals alone.

Stack, Neil, and Peddle are still concerned. Not every pup was able to get these extra sessions with trainers. The expect to see fear aggression and separation anxiety issues in the future. They hope they can rectify more problems now that things are opening again.

Scott Hayes

About the Author: Scott Hayes

Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns, and profiles on people.
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