Vikki Meakins is one of our fantastic volunteer puppy socialisers. She currently has two of our puppies staying with her and her family; Dante, a 15 month-old golden retriever and Jet, a three month-old black Labrador…
Two weeks before lockdown, our family welcomed a second Dogs for Good puppy, Jet, into our home. Jet is a black Labrador and when we saw him at eight weeks old, we all immediately fell in love.
There was originally going to be a short crossover between our older DfG puppy, Dante, leaving us and Jet arriving. We weren’t looking forward to saying farewell to Dante – he has the most magical nature – but we all knew he was ready for the next step on his journey towards becoming a life-changing assistance dog.
Dante was due to leave on March 23rd. A big date for us and him and, as it turned out, for the rest of the country!
I took a call from Dogs for Good a few days before lockdown asking if Dante could stay with us for a bit longer and I didn’t skip a beat before saying, ‘No problem!’ Of course, I wanted Dante to stay in the place he is familiar with and my family would get to enjoy him for a little while longer.
I wouldn’t have been the only puppy socialiser that had that phone call and I know we were all committed to helping Dogs for Good in whatever way we could.
There were many dogs, like Dante, due to start their training and with things the way they were, and still are, the charity needed volunteers more than ever.
So, the head count in my house now was three dogs – we have our own yellow Labrador dog, ‘Nanny Katie’ – two children, myself and one mildly helpful husband!
As we settled into lockdown life, I went about creating a system that made sure that children and dogs had their needs met.
Life in lockdown runs a little like a military operation in the mornings, with my husband making sure the dogs have been walked first thing while I get home schooling underway.
By the afternoon, things tend to be less orderly as I find myself googling English grammar and how to teach fractions to an eight-year old!
The afternoon is usually when I get to take the dogs out. I love it.
Having the dogs at home with us has helped shape and structure our days. It’s given my children the opportunity to understand the dogs’ relentless feeding regimes and different personalities much better because the pace of life has slowed.
I have witnessed a lot more interaction between them which will only be an advantage for both the dogs and the children.
My husband and I have enjoyed watching their friendship and understanding grow.
We have had to change the way we think about puppy socialising in normal terms. It has brought into sharp focus what the puppies really need to know at an early age.
Fortunately, Dante has seen and heard many things in his time with us already. Before lockdown, he was ticking over nicely with general obedience and trips out to the shops were a good opportunity to get him confident in a variety of environments.
Jet, however, is at the beginning of his journey and I really want to do the best I can for him.
We established early on that he was happy on a lead and also, that he had a good grasp of some of his basic commands. So, I set about utilising the village more than I ever had before for socialising.
We still came across lots of things at a distance that I could introduce him to while making sure he was as relaxed and happy as possible. Children, cars, buses, tractors, sheep, cows, cats, other dogs and anything else I could find that I thought might be helpful!
After a few weeks of lockdown, I was confident that we’d seen most of the things our village had to offer in terms of socialising puppies. Then, one morning, I woke up to the sound of the recycling lorry outside our house… Music to a puppy socialiser’s ears!
Still in my pyjamas, I knew what I had to do. I threw on my coat and wellies, clipped on Jet’s lead, grabbed some treats and we went out to find the lorry. On my way, I was trying to figure out how I was going to make this look like a natural interaction; for the sake of Jet’s training and also my reputation among the villagers!
Once I had caught up with the lorry, I walked past two or three times and followed them as they made their way up the street, letting Jet get accustomed to the noise and the smell.
Jet did a super job of observing, being relaxed and taking in the experience.
Then one of the workers shouted, “Excuse me… are you lost?” Needless to say, I was a little bit embarrassed.
I feel it’s important at this point to clarify that wandering around outside in my pyjamas is not something I do regularly… nor is it in the Puppy Socialising manual!
But now, having exhausted my options for new things to see and do to get Jet exposed to new encounters, I was a bit stumped about how to go forward.
If I was going to feel glum at all about the limitations on socialising within the current situation, then it was at this point.
What we can’t provide for our puppies during lockdown is that first-hand experience of being in busy shops and public places. The different feels of shiny floors, the sounds and smells, the general hustle and bustle of a busy environment. Building on this training and wisdom for assistance dogs is vital and it’s difficult to replicate.
I needn’t have worried. The team at Dogs for Good have been incredibly supportive and have come up with weekly challenges to keep the puppies minds occupied and the training going.
Some of the challenges have included:
A walk around the garden with the puppy on a lead and a cup of water in the same hand, making sure not to spill the water and that ‘loose-lead walking’ was practiced where possible.
This is much harder than you think!
We had a week to perfect and practice this challenge and then, if we wanted to take part, we could post our videos on to the Dogs for Good Puppy Socialisers Facebook page.
Another memorable challenge was building/constructing a doggy puzzle. This saw some amazing entries and such dedication from my fellow socialisers. The planning on the challenges front is a job in itself!
For me, the Puppy Socialisers’ Facebook group is the best place for team moral and it’s really uplifting to see everyone going through the same highs and lows during this time.
I am sure all socialisers will agree that having like-minded people to talk to about what they have been doing, new ideas for the puppies mental stimulation and also to just see other friendly faces, is key to keeping everyone’s spirits up.
We have had to adapt as a group and what stands out more now than ever is the wonderful staff at Dogs for Good. The effort that has gone in to making sure we always have support and practical advice available has been amazing.
In addition to this, we have had continuous information and updates about how the charity is handling Covid’s impact on the organisation and how we can continue to keep ourselves and our puppies safe.
I am sure I speak for all socialisers when I say we are proud of the charity and how it has handled this new and unnerving situation.
For now, we will sit tight, practice safe distancing and any procedures required until Dogs for Good is able to continue the amazing work it carries out.