Dog Trainers Overwhelmed by Pandemic Puppies; Illustration by Kelsey Borch
Illustration by Kelsey Borch
Life

A Wave of Dogs With Severe Behavior Problems Has Trainers Seriously Alarmed

Dog trainers are getting crushed with extreme cases, thanks to owners who saw pandemic pups as a loneliness fix but didn’t start with good training.
July 14, 2021, 11:00am

One of Mark Patrick’s clients jumped out of a second-story window. Another burrowed through a wall to get out of their home. A third busted out of three heavy-duty crates. And all three of those incidents happened in just the last few months.

As a professional dog trainer for over a decade, Patrick has taken on severely unruly and anxious canines from time to time. But as the pandemic-puppy generation started aging into their teens, once extreme cases became a shockingly common part of his work. 

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Since early spring, Patrick has started his day listening to the 20 or more voicemails from dog owners desperately searching for a trainer for their pandemic pets’ behavioral crises. He can hear the worry in their voices, especially when they plead, “My dog is out of control and I don’t know what to do.” And as much as he’d like to take all of them on, he’s currently booked over a month out—and that’s working 12 to 16 hour days, seven days a week.

“I used to do four group classes a week, and now I do 14,” said Patrick, who is president and CEO of Tuxedo’s K9 Training Camp in Rochester, New York, as well as the board chair of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. “I used to see two private clients a day, but now I see five or six. I am completely overwhelmed.”

Last year, as quarantines rippled across the country, man’s best friend was heralded as a sweet, furry antidote to loneliness, stress, depression, and children in need of companionship. Roughly 12.6 million households took in pets between March and December of 2020, according to the American Pet Products Association. While many outlets reported on a pandemic pet adoption boom and a surge in puppy prices, a PetPoint Report found that adoptions were actually down 18.9 percent in 2020. Kitty Block, President and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, attributes that to fewer dogs being surrendered to animal shelters last year (and therefore fewer adopted into new homes). That aligns with PetPoint’s report which also found that owner surrenders, stray intakes, and law-enforcement seizures were all down more than 20 percent over the previous year.

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Theoretically, if there are fewer new pets, Patrick should have less work, but the onslaught of new clients—particularly first-time dog owners—has been unlike anything he’s ever experienced. And he’s not alone. Across the country, dog trainers have seen an extraordinary swelling of business, especially as people go back to the office or spend more time outside their homes. It’s practically an epidemic of very severe dog behavioral issues.

Bridget Murphy, co-founder and CEO of Koru K9 Dog Training, said each of her 16 locations is currently booked three months out, including the eight that opened in response to the pandemic. “We’re seeing ridiculously high volumes,” Murphy said. “And then we’re seeing a severity of behavior that is absolutely unprecedented.”

Humans have successfully raised puppies and integrated new dogs—the first domesticated animals—into their families for tens of thousands of years. Arguably many behavioral issues (separation anxiety, leash pulling, and all sorts of bored trouble) are a side effect of a modern life. If humans worked for millenia alongside their dogs, which were bred within cultures for practical reasons, it’s perhaps no surprise that former hunting and herding work dogs need significant adjustments to humans’ more sedentary and secluded lives. The answer to that has long been dog training, with the weight of animal behavioral science and conditioning techniques behind it. Any trainer will tell you that training should start early, immediately shaping desired behaviors, instead of the more arduous process of attempting to undo now-ingrained undesirable ones. 

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Murphy said it’s critical to start teaching family members about rules, structure, and boundaries, in a way that makes dogs feel safe, as soon as they are brought home. When dogs don’t have an understanding of what is expected, there’s often confusion and conflict. And while COVID-19 may have exacerbated some problems, some pandemic pet owners, particularly some first-timers, didn’t seem to learn the basics of puppy and dog rearing before getting one, waiting until problems became untenable before calling a trainer. Pandemic puppies may have been the seeming quick fix to social isolation but a significant number of new owners didn’t seem to consider their animals’ own long-term needs.  

For some dogs with severe behavioral issues, the problem is that they are overly reactive. Because they were largely kept at home and undersocialized as a puppy, even the littlest things can set them off: A person wearing a hat, a particularly tall man, a gust of wind. 

“My assumption is that people have a deep misunderstanding of what proper socialization and exposure is, and therefore didn’t do anything, because they thought they needed to be in close proximity to do so,” Murphy said, referring to the difficulties of introducing their dogs to different stimuli and attending in-person group classes during a respiratory pandemic.

One of the biggest misconceptions, Murphy noted, is that socialization is just thrusting a dog into situations with new people and animals in the hope that they learn to be friendly. In reality, proper socialization means the dog learns to be neutral—not aroused or excited, but rather indifferent—to its environment, a skill that takes time to build up to. Similarly, she usually advises her clients not to introduce their dogs to strangers’ dogs—you don’t know how they’ll respond or if their owners are in control of them. Like most humans wouldn’t appreciate every stranger on the street coming up and hugging them or getting in their face, neither do dogs. 

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“Over time, if they think every dog is going to mob them, they start to react to what is making them uncomfortable, so it goes away,” Murphy said, adding that it usually manifests in lunging, pulling, barking, or attempting to bite the stressor. “When the other dog and person inevitably walk away the reactive dog thinks ‘My behavior made that scary thing go away. I’m going to do that again, and be even crazier.’” 

“I’m afraid that the dogs I can’t help are going to end up in shelters and their lives are going to be cut short.”

For other poorly-adjusted dogs, the main issue is separation anxiety—not understanding why the humans who have been with them 24/7 for months on end are suddenly leaving them for long stretches during the day—that results in whining at best, destruction at worst. They never learned how to be by themselves because their pet owners did not work on training them ahead of time for when they would no longer be at home all day.

“People think separation anxiety happens because they want you to come home, but that’s not true,” said Fanna Easter, owner of Positive Pooch Behavior and Training in Dallas, Texas. “Separation anxiety is a dog that panics because they don’t know what to do when they are left home alone. They need to learn that they’ll be fine even if you aren’t there.” 

For those clients, Easter has the owners do practice sessions going in and out of their front door for longer and longer spells—something that would have been easier to start when they first got the dog before it developed anxiety. Eventually the dog will learn to settle themselves, instead of seeking their people out to soothe them. 

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“We are now seeing dogs that literally cannot cope,” Murphy said. “We have seen dogs that are chewing up an entire household. And we have seen dogs that are completely shut down; drooling, so fearful that they can’t even move.” 

For Patrick, and many other dog trainers, they are concerned that if they don't help the dog and its family, there’s a greater likelihood that the pet will be surrendered. “I’m afraid that the dogs I can’t help are going to end up in shelters and their lives are going to be cut short, because of overpopulation,” Patrick said. “And that is something I live and struggle with every day.” 

The angst isn’t unwarranted. Each year, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, approximately 3.3 million dogs are surrendered. Of those, about 670,000 dogs, more than 20 percent, are euthanized. Some of those euthanizations are due to illness, but the vast majority are due to unfavorable behaviors or overpopulation.

Easter said demand for her business has tripled since before the pandemic, largely because she specializes in separation anxiety. It’s the first time in a 30-year career that she’s seen this many dogs requiring this much extra work. The bottleneck, she said, is due in part to the increasing number of dogs entangled in serious behavioral troubles that take significantly more time to unravel.   

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“Some of the dogs get so panicked that they end up destroying the home or hurting themselves,” Easter said. “Some try to chew their way out of the crate and in doing so get broken teeth or sometimes impale themselves on the wires. Others may rip up doors and windows, bloodying their paws and pulling toenails out.” 

By the time owners contact Easter, who is booked three months out, they are often desperate. At that point, most are unable or unwilling to wait until her next available appointment. And sometimes, by the time she’s freed up time for a new client, they’ve already gone to another dog trainer who used a lot of punishment, making the problem worse, or the dog was given away or put down. 

“Most of these reactivity issues and separation anxiety issues come from lack of structure, boundaries, rules, and communication—the dogs are more confused than anything else,” Murphy said. Easter noted that it’s also often a matter of the owner not knowing how to best help their dog or giving up after their initial approach doesn’t work. 

Easter stresses that achieving desirable dog behavior takes time. In a society where we generally have become accustomed to quick answers and fast fixes for our problems, many new clients—particularly the first-time dog owners that are making up the bulk of her clientele right now—seem to think having a trainer work with their dog will be akin to downloading a software update on a computer.

“Clients will come to you and say, ‘Okay, I have to go back to work starting September 1, so we have got to get this fixed,’” Easter said. “It’s like, not a car, you know? I’ll give you everything I’ve got, but I can’t promise. But you do feel that burden, because you know that if you can’t meet that date, then there is a good chance the dog may get surrendered.” 

Each of the trainers said they wished they weren’t so busy. If business was slow, it would mean more dogs were in a good place physically and mentally. And Murphy said this backlog for trainers is just “the tip of the iceberg,” and that it’s likely going to be hard to find a qualified dog trainer for a while. 

“You feel so guilty all the time,” Easter said. “You think about and try to rationalize taking on more clients, because maybe that’ll be the difference in some getting surrendered. That’s the part that eats at me the most: Can I see more dogs, can I find another way to do more? It is something I struggle with.” 

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