With social-distancing and self-isolation the new normal, we have had to put life as we knew it on hold but there is no pause button on puppy socialization. The critical window in which a puppy forms his or her impressions about his new world ends between 12 and 16 weeks. Puppies who don’t have a wide variety of positive new experiences during this extra-sensitive time will be more prone to having fear and aggression issues down the road. Understandable that many new puppy parents are concerned about how to ensure that their pup doesn’t miss out.
The Good News news is that interacting directly with people and other dogs is only a very small part of socialization and there is still so much we can do to help youngsters grow into happy and well-adjusted adult dogs!
The key is to create a positive experience for your pup, let them explore at their own pace – you can encourage them verbally but never push or force a puppy into an uncomfortable situation. We do this by playing the Happy Association Game: every time your puppy looks at something they aren’t sure about, praise them cheerfully and toss them a treat! Consider each Good Boy/Good Girl! and treat an investment in your pup’s behavioural wellness as an adult, like deposits in a piggy bank!
So what does a good socialization checklist look like during the pandemic? A while ago I wrote an article on Top 10 tips to socialize a puppy – these all still apply but here are some additional tips to getting it right given our restricted environment.
- Your pup may have spent the first 8 weeks with their littermates but they all looked more or less the same. Puppies need to learn that animals come in many different shapes and sizes, with different coat types (from hairless to superfloofy) and vocal range. But those interactions don’t have to be up close and personal! Play the Happy Associations Game – Porch Edition: sit on your porch/stoop/lawn – at a safe social distance – and praise and offer a treat every time a dog walks by.
- Look up videos online of different animal sounds: birds squawking, cats meowing, cows mooing, dogs barking, ducks quacking. Play the sound for a few seconds. Then praise and offer a treat to your pup.
- It’s actually going to serve you well in the long run if your puppy sees other animals but can stay focussed on you!
- When restrictions are lifted don’t rush to the dog park! Allow your pup to explore greetings with other friendly dogs one at a time, ideally off leash (indoors or in a fenced in yard) or at least with a loose leash.
- Same game, only now you will praise and treat when the people go by. Extra treats for tall or bearded men, noisy kids and people with canes/crutches/walkers.
- Play dress up. Bundle up in an oversized dark parka, pop a big hoodie over your head, wear big sunglasses. Dig out some halloween costumes and try wigs, funky hats, balaclavas, masks (if you’re not already wearing one!)
things with wheels
- Same game, only now praise and treats follow the sight of cars, motorcycles, bicycles, skateboards, scooters, etc.
- I might wait a few weeks for your pup to get the hang of this before trying buses and trucks so stay inside on garbage day but if something large and noisy does go by unexpectedly, immediately throw a Treat Party (drop 10-15 small treats on the ground around your pup and cheer them on!)
- Using the same approach as for the different animal sounds, introduce your puppy to noises one at a time: hairdryers, vacuums, coffee bean grinders, microwaves beeping, lawnmowers, blenders, nail guns, electric drills, power saws, thunder and lightening.
- If he is nervous, try having him much further away so that sound is muffled and start with just 12 seconds of noise to start.
- For easy access to a variety of these, check out the Puppy Sound Proofing app.
objects and surfaces
Good puppy proofing is wise but creates a fairly barren area for your pup. Introduce some interesting things every day for your pup to explore and walk on if they choose – do encourage them and reward them for being brave but never push a puppy and always supervise for safety.
- Leave out a vacuum cleaner/mop/ironing board/rolling suitcase (without using them),
- If you have an exercise stepper leave it out and encourage your pup to walk on it. This will also help prepare them for stepping on the scale at the vets! Try putting one end on a few books so that you have a very low incline ramp and repeat.
- Have a Bosu-type balance trainer for your home workouts? encourage your pup to interact and walk over that.
- For the smaller pups, order an inexpensive cat tunnel. For the larger pups, line dining chairs up to form a tunnel underneath and encourage your pup to walk through.
- Even something as simple as turning a chair over on its side or leaving a large knapsack on the floor can make the room a different experience.
- Other tactile experiences can include putting baking sheets and/or oven racks on the floor for your pup to investigate and walk over.
- Kiddies pools filled with balls are great too if you have one!
- Ok, this one may have to wait. But in the meantime don’t forget to teach your puppy that car rides are super fun too. With no where really to go these days you might not be driving much but make a point of taking your pup for a ride daily, even if you just go around the block. Talk to them in cheerful tones and offer a few treats..
- If staying at home 24/7 isn’t your usual routine, do prepare your puppy for spending time on their own while confined to a crate or puppy-proofed area.
- Establish a consistent daily routine including time in a confined area (pen or crate) with a stuffed Kong.
- Play some classical or calming music in the background and pick times when they are more likely to nap anyway (most puppies tend to conk out in the afternoon).
handling and grooming
- Place your pup in the bathtub (or wherever you might envision bathing them) and let them lick something yummy off a Bath Buddy before taking them out (no actual bath yet!). Do put a non-slip mat down for them first.
- When they are happily anticipating being placed in the tub (with Bath Buddy, every time) start running a little water to get their feet wet and as they get more comfortable, gradually work up to getting them wet all over and eventually adding a little shampoo.
- Make other grooming activities such as brushing or playing with feet and toes (in preparation for nail trims) a Happy Experience for both of you by providing a spoonful of something yummy such as peanut butter or cream cheese on a Lickimat as you do them.
teach your puppy to share
- To prevent possessive behaviour down the road, teach your puppy that bringing things to you is a Good Deal by offering him a treat in exchange for whatever might be in his mouth. Doesn’t matter if it’s his chew toy or your slipper – keep calm and offer him a trade.
You may not be able to prepare your puppy for everything they might encounter as an adult but if you teach him to view new experiences, people, sights, sounds and objects as pleasant he will be well-prepared with the confidence to deal with new experiences in general down the road.
You can use his meals instead of adding a lot of extra treats so that you can create more happy experiences daily without worrying about over-feeding! And feel free to use toys and games to build Happy Associations as well!
Do consider enrolling in a Virtual Puppy Socialization class with an accredited, force-free trainer to help ensure your puppy gets the best start possible. You’ll get the same expertise and individual coaching as in a traditional class, all in the comfort of your own home.