Sadly, as a behaviour vet, I have witnessed a spike in behavioural issues since Covid-19 began.
This could be attributed to many things – we are home more to ‘see’ the problems; families are stressed and this is rubbing off on our pets; or perhaps they are simply being over stimulated because the kids are home and constantly interacting with them leading to inadequate R & R.
It is also likely due to the type of puppies we are seeing being born.
Everyone, it seems, wants a puppy this year; reputable breeders have long waiting lists and rescues are overwhelmed by the number of people searching for a canine companion.
This has led the way to backyard breeders and puppy farms churning out litter after litter with the sole intent of making money. They don’t care for the welfare of the adult dogs they breed, nor do they care about providing these pups with the right start in life, to give them the best chance of being good family pets as adults.
We know, without a shadow of a doubt, that early weaning predisposes to long term behavioural problems and yet many of these pups are being ‘weaned’ and sold at 5-6 weeks. There is NO justification for this, and it should be a red flag to prospective purchasers.
Reputable breeders are generally happy for clients to meet the mother and pups prior to buying a pup. They aim to select the pup that fits the new family dynamics the best. Breeders that refuse to allow you to visit their breeding facility or view the mum, should be approached with caution. I have heard of several people who have bought pups in motorway carparks and other ‘venues’ – usually because of some elaborate story that the breeder has made up. To me this is a huge concern- this sort of practice is very common with puppy farmers. If they don’t want you to see the condition the mum is kept in – you need to ask yourself why.
Research tells us that high stress levels in pregnant bitches can, and does, have a detrimental effect on the emotional development of her pups. This isn’t an issue that ‘goes away’ once the pup is in a loving home. It commonly continues to impact the dogs behaviour throughout their life and can lead to issues such as fear aggression and separation anxiety.
In addition, pups from these sorts of abhorrent facilities have little to no positive socialization before they go to their new home. We know that, along with the genetic makeup of an individual, early life experiences (both good or bad) have a profound influence on what sort of dog a pup will develop into.
A high purchase price is no guarantee that the pup has come from the ‘right sort of breeder’ either. Ironically, some of these puppy farm pups are now commanding higher prices than pups from reputable breeders…
What should we be looking for when we buy a pup?
It may sound obvious, but we need to consider what our lifestyle is going to look like post covid. Will we have time for a dog once we are all back at work? Will we still want one? Assuming the answer to these questions is YES, we need to make sure that we get the ‘best fit’ for our family.
If a small/medium breed is really what we are after, but the only available pups are the Maremma ones from the farm up the road, WAIT UNTIL THE RIGHT PUP COMES ALONG. All pups are cute, but not all dogs are suitable as family pets (without the right amount of knowledge and commitment).
If you really want a female pup but the reputable breeder whose waiting list you are on only has males born DO NOT SIMPLY JUMP ON GUM TREE AND FIND ANY ALTERNATE FEMALE PUP GOING WITHOUT ASSESSING WHAT TYPE OF BREEDING FACILITY IT IS COMING FROM. In the short term the kids will be happy, but given dogs live on average for 10-15 years, it could well end up being a decision you live to regret.
Pups should never be rehomed before 8 weeks of age- preferably a little older and they should have all the appropriate paperwork, including proof they have had at least one vet check/vaccination. Legally all animals being transferred from one person to another should also be microchipped. Remember though, that microchipping can be done by the breeder – so it does not, in itself, prove that they have ever seen, or been health checked by, a vet.
I really caution against buying pups ‘sight unseen’. Flying pups interstate can have a myriad of unforeseen consequences. Seeing how mum and pups interact, and being confident that mum had the best care during her pregnancy and lactation period, is ideal. If the breeder can’t, or won’t, allow this – you need to ask yourself why.
What if you already have the puppy?
Whilst puppies from unscrupulous breeders undoubtedly risk developing poor emotional resilience, there are certainly things you can do as their caregiver to help them in their mental development. The earlier they get the appropriate intervention – the better the prognosis.
All pups need positive socialization during the first few months of life. This doesn’t just simply mean exposing them to everything- it means exposing them in a way that generates a positive (or at least neutral) emotional state. We have all seen puppies being dragged around playgrounds and farmers markets with their tails between their legs. I have no doubt that their owners think they are doing the right thing – they have heard of the term ‘socialization’ and think this is how it is done.
The fact is, that there is a very fine line between ‘desensitizing’ and ‘sensitizing’. In order for socialization to be effective and beneficial, the puppy must not be overwhelmed or scared during the process, otherwise they can develop a fearful response to the very thing you tried to socialize them to.
Years ago, puppy preschool always had sessions that were pretty much a ‘rough and tumble’ play time. It was thought that this was ‘good socialization’. And there is no doubt that many pups enjoyed this and developed into ‘normal dogs’.
But for the pups on either end of the spectrum (the ‘bully’ dogs and the ‘timid’ dogs) this practice was really dangerous. Good modern day puppy preschools no longer have these ‘free for all’ sessions as part of their training. Inappropriate play, that elicits fear or over arousal, can have long term behavioural consequences. This isn’t just restricted to ‘dog to dog’ interactions, it is equally important when we look at ‘dog to child’ play interactions.
Therefore, getting good advice, either from a vet or trainer, is vital. Learning subtle stress signs in puppies and dogs is vital. Understanding a pups’ needs, such as the amount of sleep they require, is vital. This will provide the very best chance of your pup developing into an emotionally robust individual as they mature.
Unfortunately, there is still a lot of outdated and dangerous advice out there that is packaged and sold in an attractive way to appeal to new dog owners. When looking for an appropriate resource, I recommend looking for someone that is a member of the Pet Professional Guild of Australia (PPG) or an appropriate alternative organization.
For those on social media, consider joining the Facebook sites called ‘Anxious Dogs of Australia Support Group’ and ‘Canine Enrichment‘. These are a great support resource for puppy/dog owners in general, even those with no anxiety traits. Because a lot of what is recommended for anxious dogs (to promote their emotional resilience) should really be recommended to all our companion canines – food puzzles, nose works etc.
I hope that this overdemand for pups will settle down and that we will see less irresponsible breeding happening as we move into next year. Unfortunately, given that many behavioural issues manifest at social maturity (at around 18 months – 3 years) I think the consequences of ‘lockdown pups’ will be seen for some time to come.
I truly feel for both the animals and their caregivers caught up in this situation. The unscrupulous greed that has lead to this type of breeding, merely to fulfil current demand, is an unfortunate side effect of Covid-19.
If you have any questions or concerns about a specific case, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr Emma Hughes BSc; BVSc; MSc (Animal Behaviour and Welfare); MANZCVS (Veterinary Behaviour).