In 2020, with Americans suddenly isolated at home, dog adoption jumped by 15 percent from 2019 — with 23 million households adopting a dog or cat to keep them company. I was among them, along with the 17-pound Chorgweenie (Chihuahua-Corgi-Dachshund mix) I took home and named Doug.
I’d sworn off dog ownership after my 15-year-old pooch, Karl, died of an aggressive form of melanoma in 2019. But in March 2020, two weeks into the pandemic, as my sofa molded into the shape of my butt while I binged TV, white wine and pork rinds, I knew I had to find some company.
I first saw Doug on Petfinder.com: One ear up, one ear down, the painfully thin dog with white socks from Georgia was my guy. Although I technically rescued him, he promptly turned the tables and saved me. We went on six walks a day — helping me to not gain (too much) weight, easing my anxiety and maintaining socially-distanced friendships with neighbors. Without Doug, I’d be in a sanitarium.
But as the weather warmed up and the streets became more crowded, my savior became unsociable.
Doug’s intense dislikes included: skateboards, scooters, children on scooters, motorcycles, bicycles, delivery men, French bulldogs, Australian shepherds and any kind of intensely energetic “doodle” mix. Around these triggers, Doug would turn from a lovely, cuddly teddy bear into an implacable and snarling Tasmanian devil.
Nearby Washington Square Park, full of skateboarders and bikers, was a no-go zone, as were the piers along the West Side Highway during peak hours. I needed help — which wasn’t easy to find. Apparently, I wasn’t the only pandemic-puppy parent at wit’s end. Across the country, new pet owners were realizing that the animals who had kept them company through the worst global pandemic ever were also family members who needed help.
Courtney Zeifman, a NYC pet concierge who does in-home training with dogs, was booked solid throughout the summer and September. “My business has increased 100 percent since the vaccine came out” and people started returning to work, she told The Post.
Leigh Oblinger, who, along with her husband, Aaron Hill, owns and operates a dog boarding, training and walking company called Pets in the City in Los Angeles, told The Post this summer: “We are slammed due to COVID — everyone got a dog!”
Thankfully, friends directed me to the Biscuits & Bath boot camp on the Upper East Side, where Doug nabbed the last spot for the month. For a $3,000 he would go to the camp for two weeks and be taught by actual behavioralists how to co-exist in the city with everything he loathes. (And, afterwards, I would be trained how to continue Doug’s education).
“Training demand across the board has increased wildly,” said David Maher, Biscuits & Bath manager. He chalks it up to “a lot of people who’ve never been dog owners before now are,” but also those people wading back into the world — and leaving their canines home alone for the first time. “The issues that have arisen now are separation anxiety and a lot of problems with dogs not being properly socialized,” Maher said.
The boot camp’s head trainer Jonathan Ayala, who has a bachelor’s degree in canine behavior, stresses the “Three D’s: distance, duration and distraction” — all learned with rewards.
“I first teach response to name. So when they hear their name, look to me. When they look to me, they get a treat for it. And from there, build upon it,” Ayala said. “So start with name, go into ‘sit ‘and from ‘sit,’ go into ‘stay.’ And then once they’re performing ‘stay,’ we can hold that for an extended duration with a distraction coming by” – that where’s the scooters and doodles come in.
While my pooch was with Ayala, I followed Doug’s progress every day via the company’s Instagram and detailed daily emails. In the beginning, it didn’t look good.
Out on the sidewalk, a staffer would roll a skateboard about 50 feet away from Doug while Ayala whispered to him. Doug almost dislocated his neck several times going for the board, even though he knew the staffer. But, every day it got better. The lunges and snarling began to subside more quickly. After a few days, he wasn’t bothered by the skateboard as long as it was at least 10 feet away.
I almost cried when I saw a video of him ignoring a child on a scooter rolling by. And then, near the end of his training, my dog sat with Ayala as a skateboard rolled within five feet of them. Doug acknowledged it but just sat there, looking to Ayala for a treat.
Suddenly, Doug was doing what once seemed unthinkable: Not freak out at a skateboard. Ignore small children on scooters. Remain unfazed by a bicycle. He even made friends with a Frenchie!
Not that he’s perfect. Doug still has his moments, but unlike before boot camp, I know how to distract him and calm him down. And we practice daily, as Ayala recommended.
“This way, [the training] becomes consistent,” Ayala said. “Every day he’s like, ‘I’m going to see a skateboard. I’m going to get paid [in treats] for seeing the skateboard and not barking.’”
The training also taught me how to speak to Doug, understand his tells and triggers, and teach him to look to me for a reaction as opposed to just entering a red zone.
And the biggest miracle? Once a week, we brave Washington Square Park and I don’t have to take a Valium afterward.
Follow Doug’s progression on Instagram @dougthedorgi