Every day, Katie Delp surrounds herself with puppies. She’s created her dream job training dogs at Pandemic Puppy School, a wellness program she launched last year.
As an avid dog foster parent, Delp noticed many puppies born during the COVID-19 pandemic are more afraid of new people, loud noises and other dogs — and experience intensified separation anxiety when left at home alone.
“A lot of people are seeking comfort from these animals,” Delp explained, calling the influx she’s noticed a “dog boom.”
In 2020, residents registered 1,199 dogs and, according to a city report regarding dog recreation in South Burlington, dog registration in the city has increased 29 percent between 2011 and 2019.
But with people’s routines so focused on social distancing, Delp worries puppies are not receiving enough exposure to the outside world.
“This felt like a perfect opportunity to launch the program again in a more expansive way,” Delp said. She first began the program in her South Burlington home, but seized the chance to expand her canine care business when the pandemic hit.
“I love working with puppies. I think a lot of people don’t realize how capable they are at such a young age. It’s really rewarding to see them investigate this human world and gain confidence,” she said.
Pandemic Puppy School is one of many programs offered at the Animal Collective, Delp’s training and wellness center in Williston. While not an official dog trainer, Delp has fostered more than 70 puppies and has worked with dogs since 2012.
Before launching her canine care business, she also spearheaded a small dog rescue organization, Rescue Me VT.
Every day at Pandemic Puppy School looks a little different, according to Delp, but she always starts the morning by picking up each enrolled puppy and working on training in the car. At school, Delp uses the help of her own dogs to socialize and train the puppies.
“My core socializing dogs are really amazing with puppies. An important aspect for puppies is to have well balanced adult dogs to look up to,” she said.
From there, they practice socializing, building confidence and critical thinking by using obstacles. A newly installed pool in the facility offers more training opportunities and physical exercise for puppies and older dogs alike.
Instead of pushing obedience, Delp focuses on building confidence and strong, positive relationships between trainer and dog. She argues that the skills build resiliency, rather than fear through negative reinforcement.
“From my experience, speaking of all different types of pet parents, there is a lack of knowledge in communication about setting the pet up from the start,” said Delp. “People get so excited to welcome a puppy into their life, they’re so cute and fun, but all of the more in-depth thought processes about who they are and how they’re developing as a unique soul is pushed away until they get older when they’re already developed and set in their ways.”
The issues she’s noticed and heard from fellow pet owners are not new, but they’ve intensified during the pandemic.
Jessica Gorham, a local dog trainer and leader of another program at the Animal Collective, noticed some similar problems after she adopted her puppy, Pippa.
“When we first got her, she was very weary of new things, very reserved and unsure about approaching things,” Gorham recalled. “The first time I took out my winter boots, she hid under the couch for 20 minutes.”
Gorham enrolled Pippa — an “oddly proportioned” dachshund chihuahua mix — at Pandemic Puppy School, where Gorham said she’s gained confidence and is more curious about other dogs.
“She jumps up on the couch now, she’s more curious about checking things out,” said Gorham. While Pippa is still a little skeptical, she’s better at socializing with other dogs since practicing at Pandemic Puppy School.
“There’s this glorified idea of getting a dog and having a perfect relationship from the get-go,” said Gorham, but the truth is “you have to build a strong reward history with them to have a strong relationship. It doesn’t just happen automatically.”
As a trainer, Gorham teaches a socialization class at the Animal Collective where she strives to provide a safe space for dogs to build social skills and for owners to learn as well.
The collective also offers exercise and training classes, pool rental and a membership option, which includes discounts and access to amenities.
While Delp loves surrounding herself with puppies, she never expected dogs to be her 9-to-5. The only pet she had growing up was a hide-and-seek playing parakeet named Gigi. It wasn’t until after college she adopted her first dog and “was hooked from there.” Now, she feels beyond lucky to be running a business in a pandemic and up to her ears in puppies.
“My absolute favorite part of my new business adventure through the Animal Collective is meeting some amazing dogs and people,” said Delp. “Each puppy has taught me so much. They’re all so unique and they’ve come with their own set of skills and challenges over the years.”
For more information visit vtanimalcollective.com