Written by: Megan Schommer, DVM
Many puppy owners have found themselves in the difficult position of having a puppy whose socialization window (approximately 6 to 16 weeks of age) has landed right in the midst of our stay-at-home order. Typically, we recommend exposing puppies to all of the people, animals, and experiences they should expect to come into contact with throughout their lives during this important developmental stage. But puppy kindergarten, group playtimes, doggy daycare, and visiting family and neighbors are all off-limits right now. How can we replicate those experiences when none of our usual options are available?
Socialization refers to teaching puppies to be calm and confident around the experiences they are likely to have throughout their lives. While we tend to think of socialization as simply getting puppies into a lot of different settings, remember that it isn’t just about exposure but also about watching your puppy’s response and recognizing when he is comfortable versus when he is nervous. If your puppy is fearful about something new, he isn’t learning to be calm or confident. The advantage to our current situation is that we are far less likely to rush our puppies into interacting with too many new people or animals before they feel comfortable. We can still do a great job teaching puppies about their world even if we have to approach socialization a little more intentionally than usual.
First, remember that you are always your puppy’s primary teacher, even when they are able to go to in-person classes. Utilize at-home resources, like Dr. Sophia Yin’s “Perfect Puppy in 7 Days”, Dr. Ian Dunbar’s “Before and After Getting Your Puppy”, or Dr. Patricia McConnell’s “Puppy Primer”. Several local training groups are offering online classes to help provide professional guidance for training as well. Short daily lessons at home are important for starting your puppy off right! At-home activities like handling your puppy’s feet, mouth, and ears, practicing baths, and walking on a leash are all essential parts of puppy socialization.
You can safely expose your puppy to other humans and animals while still observing social distancing. Find a trusted friend with a well-behaved adult dog and practice walking near each other. Your puppy can safely see, smell, and hear other animals from a distance, even if they cannot touch or play with each other. Work on teaching your puppy to focus on you in the face of fun distractions like another dog. Even sitting in your car with your puppy near a walking path allows your puppy to watch different people and animals go by. One benefit of distancing is that it will force you to resist the temptation to let your puppy rush up to greet new friends!
When it is difficult to find other people to safely interact with, change your own appearance or the appearance of your family members to allow your puppy to see different types of sounds and movements. Dress up in hats, outer wear, costumes, and other unusual clothing. Move differently or use mobility aids like crutches or canes. Make strange sounds like loud laughter. Reward your puppy when she responds calmly to meeting these “new” people. Everyone in the home should spend time interacting with your puppy. Practice entering your home in many different ways to simulate new people coming over. Tap into your inner actor!
Exposure to different sounds and textures is possible within your house with some creativity. Try to think about what your puppy might need to walk through in a walk around a park. Find novel materials like aluminum foil, a rimmed cookie sheet filled with water, or crinkly paper. Reward your puppy first for approaching, and then for touching these strange objects. Make a game out of walking over and through unusual surfaces! Think about the sounds your puppy might not hear soon but that will be common throughout his life, including thunderstorms, fireworks, airplane noises, car or train sounds, or the sounds of babies or children. Find YouTube videos or playlists (i.e. Calm Pet: Desensitizing Sounds for Animals). Play these sounds softly at first and slowly increase the volume as your puppy becomes accustomed to them.
The final, and possibly the most difficult, lesson to work on while we are all in quarantine is to teach your puppy to be calm and comfortable being alone. As tempting as it is to spend as much time as possible together, your puppy needs a chance to rest and also needs to learn that being by herself is not a scary or upsetting experience. Crate training, enforcing regular naptimes and solo times throughout the day, and not allowing your puppy to sleep with you in bed are all helpful ways to ensure that your puppy will be comfortable being away from you when our routines go back to normal.
If you’d like to dive deeper into learning how to socialize your puppy while maintaining social distancing, Emily Larhlam (also known as Kikopup) has a great in-depth lesson about distance socialization on her YouTube channel!
Dr. Megan Schommer