If you have a young pup, you probably know how important socialization is. Early socialization can impact on your pup’s behavior later on. And even more importantly, it can have a big impact on how your puppy feels about the world around him. But, and this is huge during a time of social distancing—socialization doesn’t have to be about people petting your pup or giving her treats.
Instead, think about socialization as a three-part process.
- Helping puppies get used to the things they are going to see on a daily basis.
- Exposing puppies to enough novel experiences that they aren’t afraid of new things.
- Helping pups learn that the things people do to them are OK—things like grooming, touching, vet exams, taking things away, and putting on harnesses.
Notice that none of these involve strangers coming up to you or your puppy. Instead focus on the process of exposing your dog to new and novel things. Plus it will be much easier to say to well-meaning people who want to pet your puppy at inappropriate times, “Not now please. We are maintaining social distance.”
So let’s look at ways you can socialize your puppy. Keep in mind that all of these suggestions should be modified for your pup’s age and stage. A 12-week-old puppy and a 24-week-old puppy will have very different needs. We want to make sure that your puppy is first and foremost safe, calm, and enjoying the activity. Keep in mind that it is the quality of the exposure that counts (not the quantity!). We want your puppy to be aware of whatever you are exposing her to, but still able to focus on you. Incorporate play, treats, and cuddles.
Here are the categories of things for you to consider.
People out in the world. Our shelter in place order allows for outdoor activities such as walking, hiking, and biking as long as you maintain social distance of 6 feet or more.
Walk your puppy in your neighborhood so they will get used to normal neighborhood activities. Take your dog to an open space where others are walking or hiking or biking. Right now a lot of people are out and about. Play or train with your puppy at a distance from others. Most of all, make sure your puppy is enjoying your outing. Bring along toys, treats, and your playful spirit.
For example, having your puppy play with you while a child rides a bike a little ways away may be as good or better a social experience than having a child came over to pet your puppy. Your pup will be learning that children are just a normal part of life.
Other animals including dogs. As with the exposure to people, your puppy doesn’t have to interact with others to learn that they are a normal part of life and not scary. And right now in Santa Cruz, the opportunity is there while maintaining social distance. For example, today, I walked a route that I take several times a week with my dog. On a normal day, I would have seen a handful of other dogs. Today we saw dozens of dogs because people are home and out walking more. While maintaining good social distance, I was able to help my pup learn that other dogs are good. Each dog we saw triggered a yummy treat. And I was also able to work on leash manners with enough distance that we had some good success.
If you have a very young pup, you can take them out in a wagon or stroller to see the world for just a few minutes at a time. With a little bit older pup, walking or playing at a distance is a good strategy.
Car rides. Even if you aren’t going on big adventures, you can spend a little bit of time every day getting them in and out of the car and perhaps taking them for a ride around the block. When you get home from your car ride, play for a few minutes so that the car is associated with fun.
A variety of surfaces. Make sure that your pup is on a variety of surfaces such as grass, pavement, mulch, shiny floors, and carpet. This is something many of us can do without leaving our home!
Normal noises and sounds. Think about all of the odd sounds your puppy will hear. If a neighbor is mowing the lawn on the other side of the fence, take your pup outside to play with you. Is a fire truck going by? Start a fun find the treat game. Even though you aren’t going to work, use your blow dryer, and give your pup some yummy cheese while you do. Bring out your vacuum and turn it on and off quickly, then play tug. Play some music, watch a TV show or movie, put on a YouTube video.
Weird stuff and odds and ends. Think about things your dog will normally see—rakes, brooms, and dusters. Think about things your dog might only see now and again too such as umbrellas or Halloween ornaments. Consider things that are all around us such as bikes, skateboards, or surfboards. Each day think about one new thing to show your pup. In addition, each day bring out something for your pup to discover on their own. For example, you can put an empty box in your living room. You can leave your bike in the yard for your puppy to see when you take your pup out to pee. Be careful that you are not doing these things in a way that will scare your pup. Remember that the idea of socialization is exposure to a variety of things in a pleasant and enjoyable way.
People doing weird stuff. Think about the types of things that other people do that you don’t. Are you a quiet person? Then you might want to try singing or talking in a loud voice. Do you move around calmly? Dance or do jumping jacks. Talk in a higher-pitched voice if your normal voice is low and deep. Always sit in a chair? How about getting on the ground with your pup. Put on a crazy hat and big black coat and play a fun game or do some training. Take them out to play in the rain. You get the idea.
Touch, handling, and restraint. We are intrusive with our dogs. We touch them in ways they often would prefer we didn’t. Most puppies get used to us petting them, putting on their harnesses, and even brushing or grooming. But you can do more now to insure your pup is comfortable with the types of handling a vet or groomer might need to do in the future. Here is the basic formula: Touch your dog, give a treat, repeat. The most important thing in this practice is that your dog is enjoying it. Forcing your puppy to be handled (even if treats are involved) won’t help later. Let your pup move away if they want, but when they are happy about the touching, play the touch-treat game. (See the Handling and Touching under your class handouts for more details.)
Guarding prevention exercises. There are four types of guarding prevention exercises that everyone should do with their puppy. Most puppies don’t guard things (though a few do—and if they do, let me know so we can help). But adolescent dogs sometimes begin to experiment with guarding. These exercises will help prevent this future guarding. The four areas to work on are: Food bowl exercises, object exchanges, sleeping spots, and trade games for stolen items (like socks!). For each of these, practice by walking up to your dog, giving them something awesome like a piece of chicken, and walking away without taking whatever item they have. For example, walk up to their bowl while they eat, drop a piece of chicken in the bowl, and walk away. Repeat this until they are super excited to see you coming up to their item or into their space. Please note: If your puppy gets stiff, looks at you out of the corner of their eye, or growls when you come near, stop these exercises and call us! (See Behavior Vaccine #2—Sharing is Good under your class handouts.)
There are two areas that I think will be more challenging now.
People coming into your home. Some puppies and dogs are more concerned when an unfamiliar person comes into their home. You can help with this right now by practicing what you want your dog to do when people come over.
- Teach your dog what happens when the doorbell rings. Do you want your dog to go to their kennel, or to a bed, or to wait back a few feet from the door? Teach them this skill now. Then proof it with you and your immediate family members.
- How would you like your dog to greet guests? Would you like your dog to sit to greet? To say hi and then disengage? To go grab a toy to greet the guests with? Figure out a strategy that will fit your dog’s personality and practice it now with you and your immediate family members.
- Once the initial greets are complete, where will your dog be? Will your dog settle in the same room with you? On a bed? In a crate? On the couch next to you? Will your dog go to his crate or behind a baby gate with a wonderful chew? Practice this now too.
If you practice these things now, when we can once again have visitors to our house, your dog will have good foundation training which will help your dog’s confidence and overall behavior.
Dog to dog interactions and play. This is another area that may be impacted by social distancing. If your puppy has a pal at home he can play with, that will help. You may also be able to invite a puppy friend into your garden (with plenty of social distancing for the people) for a play session. Extra safety measures such as using hand sanitizer, gloving up, and wearing a mask may be good practices at this time. Whether you should try to do this will depend a lot on the overall risk in your area, your age and health status, and what safety measures your local community has enacted.
One last note: When we do a lot of socialization with our pups that involves greeting others and treats from other people, we get pups who like people, but who want to greet everyone—sometimes with a little more enthusiasm then we would like. One advantage to socializing your puppy during this time of social distancing is that they will be less likely to become compulsive about greeting everyone they see.
Have fun with your pup. And stay safe and well!