Using Dog Training Tools for Myself During a Pandemic

Written by Elizabeth H. "Kizz" Robinson, CDBC, CPDT-KA

It’s 10 p.m. on a Sunday night. I’m out on our block in Brooklyn with my dog, Eddie, for a final pee before bed. The fireworks started a few moments after we got to the sidewalk. They’re farther away than they were the night before but the booms are big and coming at almost (but not quite) regular intervals. Just as we begin to recover from one, the next one happens.

We’ve been out for 15 minutes. Eddie is shaking, lifting a front paw, and repeatedly checking with me for food or direction, and he hasn’t peed. I’m running through a checklist of training possibilities. He’s properly medicated and I have his enrichment items preset for our return home. I can stand here by a popular tree and wait for him to pee. I can run back inside with him. I can keep walking and feeding him for those check-ins, in hopes we’ll find a quiet enough moment for him to relieve himself. I am tired and sad for my dog, worried that he’ll be uncomfortable if he doesn’t eliminate, and I desperately don’t want to have to get dressed and put on my mask and go all the way out to the street again at 3 a.m.

I’m a certified professional dog trainer. This is a challenging situation, but it’s not beyond me. I have the skills to handle this. I talk clients through this sort of moment every day.

On the other hand, my dog and I have been sheltering in place together, just the two of us, for over three months. I’ve completely shifted my business from in-person sessions to work online and, in the past two weeks, have been fielding a surprising, to me, number of inquiries about when I will shift it back again. My parents are senior citizens and they are far away. My friends are close by and yet we are safely socially distanced. I live with a dog with complex behavior issues and have spent a lot of time, money, thought, and emotional energy adjusting his medications and training so that he is able to sleep at night and by association I will be able sleep, too. The news around the world changes from hour to hour. Everything seems uncertain.

I am human. We trainers are human. This year has been pretty hard on humans.

Which is not to say that this year hasn’t been hard on other species! Being in a service profession, it has felt easier to concentrate on what we can do to relieve stress for others — our human friends and family members, our companion animals, our clients of all species. I have read numerous articles about how to address common stressors for my clients. My colleagues have engaged in almost daily discussions about separation anxiety, puppy socialization, and, more recently, sound sensitivity. We have developed plans and given recommendations and continued to train, as we always do, like the dogs’ lives depend on it.

We’re liberal with self-care advice for each other, too, I suppose, but it has felt like the same advice we’ve followed forever. While setting strong boundaries, taking regular time off, reinforcing ourselves for doing the hard work, splitting our tasks and not lumping them are all still useful and important advice, it can feel inadequate for these unprecedented global challenges. It feels as though we are still holding ourselves to the same plans and systems and standards that we developed in “normal” times. The times we’re in are not normal.

I stood next to that tree, Eddie’s leash was loose, my hand was out of my treat pouch, I wasn’t making eye contact, and I wasn’t moving a muscle. I waited for him to make a move to pee on that disgustingly fragrant tree. Then a motorcycle roared by about a half a block away, and in my peripheral vision I saw Ed look up at me and raise his left front paw, and I started to cry. I’d given him all his meds at the right time. I’d gone out a little early to try and beat the worst of the fireworks. I brought high-value treats. I know my dog as well as anyone else, and I’m following all of the very best training advice, but he is still suffering. We are still suffering.

This sort of thing happens to my clients. I tell them all the time that we are human, and humans cannot be perfect 100% of the time. There were no good solutions to our situation that night. No amount of training or management or medication was going to change our immediate circumstances. If I were my own client, I would remind me that learning isn’t linear and when we change behavior, behavior changes. I would want client-me to know that this wasn’t a failure, it was a data point we’d gathered. While it wasn’t the kind of walk we hoped for, I’d done my best and that’s the most anyone could expect of me. One walk like this will not make or break our training journey. I would also want client-me to know that it’s okay to cry. This work can be frustrating and challenging, and we can’t say for sure what will happen next. We can only meet our dog where they are and use all the skills we’ve acquired to support them.

When I put it all like that, I begin to think that my tools as a dog trainer are the tools I need most in this year of a pandemic and protest. We don’t know what will happen next, and when we try to plan for something that’s even a week or two away we can be met with disappointment or frustration. Navigating these constant, sometimes drastic, changes is frustrating, uncomfortable, and often terrifying. We have tools to use here, though, so we can get through it.

That night on the sidewalk I stopped gutting it out and waiting for Eddie to pee. Even though it felt in my heart like giving up, I went back inside with him. We ran through the courtyard and hurried upstairs to our apartment. I washed my hands and face and mask while Ed searched the snuffle mat I’d set up for him in the living room with all the fans on for plenty of white noise. I went to bed and tried not to listen for him too hard.

We both slept.

All that fear and frustration and uncertainty, and yet we both slept. We survived a bad moment and came out safely on the other side. Our walk the next night was better, so much better.

I do not, and have never, had all the answers. I can only do my best, keep working, and keep learning. I have to believe that from that some good will surely come and sooner or later we will both feel better.

Elizabeth H. “Kizz” Robinson, CDBC, CPDT-KA, has been training dogs since 2014. She and her terrier mix, Eddie, are based in Brooklyn, N.Y. She serves private clients through her own business, 2B Dog Training, and teaches classes as part of the team at PumpkinPups Dog Training.