Puppies at work! How fun! …Or is it? Nowadays there are many articles and news programs about therapy puppies, often referring to school programs, puppies working full-time, and even rent-a-puppy programs in colleges and for birthday parties. In many cases, the puppies are just 8 or so weeks old, and some of them are being expected to work full-time! Not only are these practices a very bad idea, but dogs can be ruined for any future therapy work if negative things happen during the key periods of emotional development in the puppies’ brains.
It is a great idea to take pups to a future work environment off-hours to get them used to it, and also to expose them to a variety of people and situations, but this must be done carefully, and they just never should work until they are at least 1 year old, often a little older. We have child labor laws – we need puppy labor laws, too! While this blog is about puppies in animal-assisted therapy work, most of it applies to the young of other species, too, and in the preparation of animals for any type of work.
Think about what puppies typically do when we welcome them into our homes. They usually sleep, play, explore, eat, and exercise. With varying degrees of confidence, they check out their environment. Sometimes they are stressed by this big new world surrounding them, needing our attention to help them feel safe and comfortable. Other times, they boldly go where no pup has gone before, and they need us to keep them out of trouble. Puppies are growing in every conceivable way, and that is perhaps why they also need so much sleep.
The primary focus with young puppies should be socialization, where they are gently exposed to many aspects of the environment. There are many good resources on this, but I’ll mention just two of them here (more to come in future blog posts). Dr. Ian Dunbar offers two free pamphlets, BEFORE You Get Your Puppy and AFTER You Get Your Puppy. They are available at no cost in the Downloads section of www.dogstardaily.com. These provide information about this socialization process and how to negotiate it happily with puppies. Pam Dennison’s clear and practical book, You CAN Train Your Dog, also provides excellent information about the socialization for puppies.
The other major process that needs to happen as soon as youngsters, or even adult animals, join your family is for you to build your relationship with them. This takes time, lots of it. This is especially true for the mutually respectful, reciprocal, and fun relationship described in VanFleet & Faa-Thompson (2017) award-winning book, Animal Assisted Play Therapy, as well as in their forthcoming book on relationships with animals.
What this all means is that puppies have many developmental tasks to accomplish, and these require all of their puppy months. Most of the major therapy dog organizations (those that focus on visitation and support programs) set 1 year old as the minimum age for the approval of therapy dogs. As professionals, we need to do the same. Some dogs might need even more time! Adolescence stretches longer for some breeds, and dogs might need more time to develop their maturity and confidence. One of my therapy dogs, Murrie, was 7 months old when I adopted him from the rescue where I have volunteered for many years. He was a typical adolescent dog, enthralled with the big wide world around him, sniffing of everything. I timed him once as he spent 10 minutes sniffing a single blade of grass! He learned quickly during our training sessions, but he was easily distracted. I certainly didn’t want to infringe on his exploration and enjoyment of his world, nor was he ready to interact reliably with clients. He began his play therapy work with me when he was 2.
I can understand why many therapists want to take their puppies to work with them right away–the pups are cute, clients and staff often love them, and it’s hard to leave them at home. Even so, they need to be allowed to be puppies, to get their 20 hours of sleep, and to gradually learn without distractions the behaviors needed to live in the human world. Furthermore, one can work with puppies to help them feel comfortable being alone some of the time, a very important skill for them to acquire!
There are likely many reasons that puppies end up in the workforce, and it is beyond the scope of this post to explore them all. For now, I want to discuss why it is important to wait for puppies to grow up before we place any professional expectations on them. In addition to the items listed in the meme above that contribute to normal development, three of the most compelling reasons to have patience follow.
- The brain is still actively under construction throughout puppyhood, and there are some key periods when emotions are developing. It is during these periods that exposure to many different things is important, so the puppy becomes comfortable with them. Related to this are some short periods where the puppy can become more fearful, and exposure to unfamiliar items or environmental features might be scary. When this occurs for any individual is variable, so one cannot tell in advance for certain when these will occur. Whenever it happens, it is important to remember that what puppies experience during this time can result in long-term (maybe even lifelong) fears and anxieties. If one takes a puppy to work, it is very possible that clients can behave unpredictably, and that could then result in the dog becoming fearful of the location, the age or appearance of the client, or some other feature of that frightening environment. Why risk this?
- Puppies need to play, with other pups as well as their humans, for healthy socialization. If they are already working, their time for developmental tasks such as play becomes restricted. At this stage of life, socialization is even more important than training when it comes to the development of a stable dog. Play is very important to socialization and development in general. Some of the popular puppy programs have puppies in school or at work full-time, from 20-40 hours/week. They are often unable to sleep undisturbed for long. Ultimately, this practice of expecting puppies to work without a solid foundation of socialization, play, and training is detrimental for everyone, and especially the puppies.
- Puppies, like children, need time and life experience to develop coping skills. If they are working, they will undoubtedly be placed in situations that seem fine to their human handlers, but that are not fine at all for the puppies themselves. They don’t yet know how to cope with all the stimulation, the many strangers reaching to touch them, the hustle and bustle of the environment. They don’t have coping mechanisms. Couple that with being overly tired, and they might react in a self-protective way, such as nipping, unending barking, or trying to escape. These situations are the birthplace of behavior problems.
There is so much to do with puppies to ensure their healthy development and to build our own relationships with them that if we begin taking them to work too early, we risk their future health, stability, confidence, and well-being. We created child labor laws to ensure that children have the best chance to be educated and well-adjusted. When we stop to think about it (and resist the allure of taking our cute little canines to work) we might conclude that having puppy labor laws might be a good idea as well, and for the same reasons! Let puppies be puppies! There will be plenty of time later for their therapy careers.
Article and photos (c) 2020, International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy, www.iiaapt.org. All rights reserved.