Puppy Socialization in a Pandemic World
I have to be honest, I considered writing this blog post back in April, and I decided not to because I had hope that we would be out of this mess by now (well that and the thought of writing a blog post was exhausting! 2020 pandemic fatigue is REAL, y'all). Oh how naive April 2020 me was!
Now that COVID-19 numbers are on the rise again I personally have had to shut down my group puppy classes when the church where I hold classes closed; group puppy classes are one of the greatest ways that we can help 'inoculate' our puppies against behavior problems related to fear and have been proven to help puppies be more trainable (see this link for more info). Group puppy classes provide a safe, structured way for puppies to meet different people and other puppies and learn age appropriate social skills; unfortunately as puppy classes begin to close due to statewide mandates and shut downs we will need to be more creative in our socialization efforts to make sure our puppies are not missing out!
First things first, a quick reminder of what socialization is: socialization is all about a puppy having GOOD experiences with novel people, things, and situations. Puppies have what is known as a 'critical window of socialization' it starts as early as 4 weeks of age (hey breeders and rescues, take note! You have to be doing this work too!) and the jury is out about how long it lasts but most behavior professionals estimate it starts closing around 16 weeks of age, unfortunately sometimes even earlier. It's VERY important (like, VERY VERY REALLY SUPER DUPER IMPORTANT) that your puppy is having a GOOD time during socialization outings. If your puppy is scared or worried during the outing and you try to push them to work through it, thinking "they'll get over it!", you may very well end up sensitizing your puppy and causing long term fear. Exposure alone does not equal socialization, we are looking for POSITIVE exposure. Use delicious treats generously during your socialization to insure that your puppy is indeed having a good time, and at any sign of discomfort give your puppy space and time to feel better about the situation!
This point is illustrated beautifully in the below drawing from Lili Chin:
If your puppy seems worried about the world or is unable to cope in new situations, please contact me and we can set up a zoom appointment to discuss how to handle this! Do not wait for your puppy to outgrow fear, it DOES NOT happen and can get much worse without proper intervention! (For more information about not waiting, please see this excellent blog)
So, bearing the above information in mind, we need to get creative about how we will safely socialize our puppies! In normal, pre-pandemic times, many puppies were socialized with little to no effort. You would have family parties, take your puppy to outdoor school picnics, the kids would have friends over. You could walk up to your neighbors on the street with your puppy and not have to worry about distancing or mask wearing. 2020 has changed that for all of us and socialization takes more planning and forethought now. Listed below are some of my pandemic time socialization tips:
If your puppy is comfortable in the car, get your puppy out and about several times a week. Daily is even better as long as puppy is having a good time! Now is a great time to work on getting your puppy comfortable with the car, and you can plan on driving to a new location each time and letting your puppy watch the world (see next tip).
Watching the world
Your puppy doesn't necessarily have to interact with everything for it to count as socialization. On days when the weather is nice put your pup in the car, drive to a new place, put out a blanket, and hang out with your puppy in a new location while they work on a bully stick or stuffed kong. Have them watch people and dogs passing at a distance, hear traffic passing nearby, see bikes and skateboards and any other 'new stuff' you can find! If it's too cold for your puppy to stay outside you can stay in the car and hold your puppy so that they can watch from your arms.
Pairing people and dogs with yummy treats
On walks with your puppy pair the sight of new people and dogs with yummy treats as your puppy watches them pass across the street. Even if your puppy isn't interacting directly with the other people and dogs they are developing a positive association with seeing them on walks, which will help them feel more comfortable if they actually do get to eventually meet.
Long line greetings and greetings in the yard
We've heard it from the beginning in regard to the pandemic: outside interaction with people outside your household is much safer than indoors, so if you have some people that would like to meet your puppy invite them over to your yard to say hello! If you don't have a fence? No worries! Purchase a long line like this one, and use that to allow your puppy to move back and forth safely between you and your friend. A word of caution, if your puppy is uncomfortable meeting the person let your puppy take as much time as they need, especially since you will need to be further away than you normally would be during these interactions. Have your friend toss treats to the puppy and allow them to move at their own pace! This rule applies for all interactions with new people, regardless of the setting.
Shopping cart excursions
Bring your puppy to a dog friendly store, put a blanket or towel down in a shopping cart, and wheel them through the store. Again, feed your puppy treats any time they notice something new and 'weird' and if someone in the store wants to say hi to your puppy and your pup seems comfortable let them meet (remember the rule about letting your puppy go at their own pace from the above tip!).
Socialization at home
One thing that we often forget is part of socialization is teaching your puppy to be comfortable with grooming and veterinary procedures, and with wearing new equipment. Make sure you put your puppy's harness on and pair it with lots of treats; many puppies think wearing harnesses is weird at first, so pairing the experience with yummy treats will help them feel better about the situation. Practice putting socks and boots on your puppy to prepare them for winter in January, and get them comfortable with coats and sweaters. Make it a goal, every day, to do some gentle restraint with your puppies, preparing them for their vet visits and getting them used to humans doing weird and invasive stuff to them. Again, always pair these experiences with treats! Try to trim one nail a day and give puppy lots of treats after the trim to help them be REALLY comfortable with nail trims as adult dogs!
Variety is the spice of life
The goal with socialization is to positively expose your puppy to so much novelty that novelty itself becomes a normal part of every day life; this will help create an adult dog that is unfazed when something new presents itself later on. Aim to get your puppy out of the house in a safe fashion several times a week, every day is even better, and choose new places to visit every time!
Whatever you do, do not WAIT to get started on your puppy's socialization until things get better with COVID-19. Everyone has a different level of comfort, so take from these tips whatever you feel safe doing, but do SOMETHING. Socialization is a time sensitive process and is critical to helping puppies become confident, well adjusted adult dogs. Complacency is not an option! You cannot get this time back, so even though it's not perfect (nothing ever is!) we still need to make our best effort to help our puppies grow up to be brave!