By Sara Reusche, CBCC-KA CPDT-KSA CVT
Trainer Lindsay Kinney, CPDT-KA, is an advocate for puppies. And she saw a problem.
“In running weekly puppy classes, I would have students attend with 10-week-old puppies they had just adopted who were already showing concerning behaviors. Not everyone realizes that socialization begins the moment the puppy is able to interact with their environment and receive input.
“These puppies [who were struggling in class] had spent their entire weaning process in a single room with no enrichment or positive socialization experiences. Fortunately, they were still able to make progress with their families, but they were given a developmental disadvantage at the start of their life.”
Paws Abilities’ Project Puppy provides free education to foster homes in order to place better socialized, trained, and stable puppies in our community.
Kassidy McMann, Project Puppy head, says that the people make the program. “Every foster home I have met has wanted nothing but the best for their puppies. They put in countless hours to … whelp, care for, train, and find the right home for [every] puppy in the litter.”
Paws Abilities’ volunteer trainers teach foster homes about interventions that can start right away, even before a litter is born. Some of the exercises include:
• Early neurological stimulation (ENS)
• Early scent introduction
• Substrate preferences
• Startle/recovery exercises
• Food bowl protocols
• Clicker training
• Potty training
Puppies who have this start are better equipped to handle lives as pets, because they are more confident, social and resilient.
Easier foster experience too
Many of these exercises also make the foster home’s life easier. Baby puppies are hard work!
For example, starting litterbox training at three weeks means that puppies are easier to keep clean. And because the puppies are started on litter that smells like the outside (sod, alfalfa pellets, and wheat pellets), they learn to seek out those nature scents right from the start.
Diane Sandstrom, a foster parent through Secondhand Hounds, can attest to the difference. Her foster Rozzie had a litter of adorable Pit Bull crosses.
“Lindsay’s weekly visits gave my foster puppies a new and great experience every time. They were so well socialized and trained at the time of adoption. The training methods worked for the little pups, and I received feedback from the adopters that their puppies had not had one accident in the house since they brought them into their homes.”
Skye Priesz of Seven Swans Farm raised a litter of herding breed mixes for Heart of a Border Collie rescue. Skye is an experienced foster mama but still enjoyed her experiences as a Project Puppy partner.
“The program … is an absolutely brilliant and generous act of loving kindness. When in the midst of feeling worried if everyone is healthy, eating enough, warm enough and safe, it was so reassuring to [have] a knowledgeable mentor.
“Most everyone knows puppies need to be socialized to be the best versions of themselves, but it’s hard to know what that actually means if you’re not already fluent in developmental stages of behavior.”
How it works
Kinney says that the program is different for each foster.
“A whelping foster is paired with a Project Puppy volunteer from Paws Abilities. Weekly meetings in person or virtually provide advice and assistance. Volunteers discuss the puppies’ developmental stage, current concerns, set up [age-appropriate] socialization goals, and even introduce early training games when the puppies are old enough.”
They show fosters hands-on skills like ENS, assist in setting up whelping rooms, and go over handling exercises like nail trims. “For extra credit the puppies might have a pool party (with treats, toys, and ¼” or less of water and a dry “dock” to stand on) in the bathtub.”
Baseball hats and grooming tools
Jane Stier of New Leash Rescue was impressed by how easy socialization could be with her litter of Shepherd crosses.
“Kassidy came to my house to teach me some techniques on how to introduce novel items to my litter of seven-week-old foster pups. She brought over some very common household items like a cutting board, a baseball hat and a box. As she introduced each item to the pups, she rewarded them with treats. They had a blast! Her tips gave me the inspiration to use my own everyday items to help desensitize the pups to things they may encounter in their forever homes.”
Kinney adjusts her socialization to the future needs of each puppy. “For a litter of Morkie puppies [through Secondhand Hounds], we spent extra attention on getting them comfortable with grooming tools, being handled, and being comfortable playing on wet grass/rain showers.
“For [Sandstrom’s litter of Pitties], more focus was spent on polite greetings. Once they were walking, we started teaching them to sit for pets and that jumping didn’t get them attention.”
Priesz is excited to apply her puppy-raising experience with future litters and encourages others to consider this rewarding experience.
“By the time they were ready to be adopted, these pups were really well prepared to bond with their new families and explore their worlds with confidence. If more fosters knew how important the first 10 weeks can be to the entire life of a dog, and had a resource to help them each step of the way, I’m sure many people would be inspired to raise awesome foster puppies of their own. Knowing you’ve given a puppy the best possible start in life to becoming a well-adjusted, happy doggo is worth all of the extra laundry and some lost sleep!”
Sara Reusche, CBCC-KA CPDT-KSA CVT, is owner of Paws Abilities Dog Training.