All Our Dogs Are Socially Awkward Now

The pandemic has made dogs "out of practice" socially.

Posted Sep 10, 2020

Matt Phillips/Flickr
Source: Matt Phillips/Flickr

In a recent essay in The New York Times called “We’re All Socially Awkward Now,” journalist Kate Murphy suggests that over the course of this pandemic human social skills have begun to get rusty because we are all out of practice. She notes the widespread concern that social distancing or virtual schooling will negatively impact children’s development of social skills. But children are not the only ones whose social skills may suffer. Adult humans, too, can grow awkward in their social interactions “when deprived of consistent and varied peer contact.”

As Murphy notes, research on prisoners, hermits, astronauts, and arctic explorers suggests that people who, either by choice or circumstance, spend extended periods of time in isolation begin to lose the ability to interact seamlessly with those around them. “People separated from society,” she writes, “report feeling more socially anxious, impulsive, awkward and intolerant when they return to normal life.” Social skills are like muscles: without regular use, they begin to atrophy.

Interactions with peers form a core component of life for all social mammals, not just people. Although humans may be the most highly social of all mammals, dogs take a close second. And we might thus wonder: Could it be that companion dogs, who are experiencing many of the same pandemic-related social deprivations as their human guardians, are also becoming more socially awkward? Are our dogs getting “out of practice” socially? It seems quite likely that they are.

Our companion dogs have been subject to lockdown right alongside us. The range and number of social interactions for most dogs has been drastically reduced. As people spend less time out and about, so do their dogs. Even dogs who are still getting regular neighborhood walks or hikes in the forest or park may have fewer opportunities to meet other dogs and say hello, because people are generally doing what they can to avoid each other. Where I live, people regularly hike with their dogs, but instead of letting dogs say hello on the trail, we now give each other a wide berth. The human etiquette is to step at least six feet off the trail; our dogs are kept six feet apart, too. Dogs may be allowed a quick sniff of another dog, but their people are hurrying past each other and there is no opportunity to linger, to circle around and properly sniff butts, and far fewer chances to be off-leash, romping around.

Dogs have had far fewer interactions with humans other than their guardian. At least from what I’ve observed, the unspoken etiquette among dog guardians is not to touch another person’s dog. Dogs are kept socially distanced from people.  

Because they are relatively out of practice, dogs may feel more anxious and awkward on those occasions when they do have social encounters with their peers or with unfamiliar humans. Like humans, homed dogs may come out of this pandemic more socially awkward than before. Their interactions with other dogs may be rusty, as may their interactions with humans.

The pandemic could have particularly pronounced impacts on puppies, who are still developing socially. The pandemic has been hailed by the media as the perfect time to adopt a puppy because so many of us are stuck at home—and, indeed, rates of puppy acquisition both from shelters and breeders have spiked since March. Yet the pandemic may also be the worst possible time to raise a puppy because the possibilities for socialization are so truncated. Dog guardians are generally advised to expose a puppy to a wide range of experiences, including frequent and diverse interactions with people and other dogs. Providing these experiences is a whole lot more challenging now. (Here are a couple of resources for socializing pandemic puppies: Time is of the Essence: Puppy Socialization During a Pandemic, and Socializing your puppy during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

What can you do to help your dog adjust?

1.       Let your dog take it slow. Recognizing that dogs may feel increased anxiety and awkwardness in their social interactions, we can make sure to give them extra time and space to feel safe. Even a gregarious dog who hasn’t had any social interactions for six months might not feel comfortable if suddenly thrust into the middle of a very busy dog park. When this pandemic is over—if it ever ends—allow your dog to work back into social relationships and interactions gradually. Don’t force it. Make sure your dog feels comfortable (watch for signs of discomfort like ears down and back, tail down, yawning, lip licking).

2.       Provide small doses of social interaction with other dogs, if possible and as often as possible. If it is feasible, while maintaining social distance, allow your dog to sniff passing dogs—as long as both dogs are interested. Walking a dog with an extra-long leash can allow also us to give our dogs a chance to say hello to each other, while we humans maintain social distance. Now is an especially important time to give our dogs ample time to sniff when they are out on walks, including allowing dogs to sniff other dogs’ pee. Although it isn’t face to face, sniffing where other dogs have been and what messages these dogs have left behind is still a form of social interaction.

3.       Be patient with your dog if he or she seems awkward or clunky around other dogs or people. Remember that they are in this pandemic, too, and that we are all socially awkward now.