Fostering a Pet During the Coronavirus Pandemic? We Tried Virtual Dog Training for a New Pup
What It Is: Tilleo's Dog Training Essentials course is a six-part video series consisting of short lessons that are easy to fit into a busy schedule. It's taught by Ian Stone, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA).
Who Tried It: Sheila Cosgrove Baylis, Health editor, and her foster dog Birdie, editor-in-chief of Cutie Pie magazine.
My husband and I had been talking seriously about getting a dog and attended the Westminster Dog Show's Meet the Breeds event in January to figure out the best type of fluffball for us. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, and PEOPLE's brilliant Pets editor Kelli Bender published a story about fostering an animal during quarantine, we were inspired to call our local shelter Bideawee.
Neither of us had ever had a dog before (we used to be cat people only), and we were truly unprepared for the challenge of bringing into our lives a 9-year-old rescue pup who had lived in multiple homes. But we had been pet-less for a couple of years, and when we met Birdie, we quickly fell in love with her sweet nature and super funky hair.
We started having issues right off the bat, including potty training, walking on a leash and keeping her off of our bed. The training course, as well as a couple of Zoom calls with Ian, got us on track. Here are a few of the most valuable tips we learned:
Potty Training Isn't Just for Puppies
At 9 years old, Birdie was of course potty trained, but we had a couple of minor peeing-on-the-carpet incidents when she first arrived. Ian explained that all newly adopted adult dogs should go through potty training, not just puppies.
Ian is the owner and head instructor at Simpawtico Dog Training and is the Canine Behavior and Training Manager for his local shelter. "Potty training is one of the top reasons cited when dogs are turned into shelters and rescues," Ian says.
When you bring your dog home, "your dog is on foreign soil now, if you haven't gone through a full potty training regimen, you haven't properly taught them how it works in your house, and you can't get upset with them for that," he says.
In the videos, he lays out a full potty training plan and notes, "Don't punish accidents ... it will only make them afraid to go in front of you. This will hinder your potty training in general and they may just get better at hiding it in the house," he says. "Clean up accidents and move on."
We were already feeding and taking out Birdie at regular intervals (something Bideawee also recommended), but learned the importance of having a bathroom "spot" outdoors. Ian taught us to put her on leash and run to that spot so she doesn't go poo on the way.
We take her to her spot before going on a walk or doing other fun activities to teach her "potty first — fun second," which was effective, along with the other potty training tips in the video. We've had zero accidents since.
The "Leave It" Command Is an Important Building Block
Birdie seemed to know the "stay" and "leave it" commands, but had a laissez-faire attitude when it came to doing them on cue. In particular, her "meh, maybe I'll leave it" reaction was making it hard to take her for a walk because she would get excited by a smell, investigate it, and refuse to keep walking.
" 'Leave it' is one of the ways that we develop better impulse control," says Ian. "A lot of annoying behaviors stem from poor impulse control." And, he points out, "leave it" is a potentially life-saving command if the dog is diving for dropped chocolate, medicine, or anything else harmful.
So we started working on the "leave it" exercises as spelled out in the videos with regular five-minute training sessions. Birdie picked them up quickly and enjoyed the interaction. To her, it seemed like a fun game that resulted in treats. To us, she was starting to mind us and develop skills to build on later.
One of Ian's most effective lessons for us was to say the command one time only — "Leave it," and then to reinforce the dog's response with either "good" or "nope." Making the change from saying "leave it, leave it, leave it" over and over again to just saying it once, and then reinforcing Birdie's response with the positive or negative, or what he calls binary feedback, clarified things for us and for Birdie.
We started practicing "leave it" outside, and now she's much more likely to keep walking alongside us (although admittedly it's still a work in progress).
Keep Consistent and Get Out of the Kitchen
One of the most important tips we learned seems obvious — consistency. Ian points out that just like going to the gym, you can't do a single training session here and there and expect transformation.
Once I realized that Birdie was actually enjoying being trained, it became easier to do it more often. The more consistent we became, the better behaved she became. She even stopped jumping up on the bed. Ian recommends two or three 5-minute sessions per day, which we do as often as we can.
He also reminds us to train in a variety of environments, unless we want to end up with a good "kitchen dog." We were training her in the kitchen, and she was behaving so well there, but then out in the world, she didn't repeat what she had learned. He explained that dogs need to practice the same lessons in different settings both indoors and out.
The Tilleo Dog Training Essentials video series has been a valuable tool for us as new dog parents. If not for the coronavirus pandemic, we would have likely taken Birdie to an in-person dog training class, but then again in normal circumstances, we might not have met Birdie and given her a forever home.
After going through this virtual training, I recommend it for your fur baby even when normal life resumes. It's expert instruction for a fraction of the price, and you could always supplement it with in-person training as needed.
For those with a new puppy, there are lessons on puppy biting and socialization. There are also videos on barking, loose leash walking, and even trick training, to name a few. The $0.99 cents a month is absolutely worth the knowledge we gained in this series, and there are plenty of other classes you can access, including courses on cooking, child psychology, electric guitar, and even magic!
I'm guessing Birdie's review of the video series would be something like, "I'm so relieved you know how to talk to me now! Now give me another TREAT, lady!"