Pandemic Puppy Pandemonium Requires Lots of Time and Love

Pandemic puppies are all the rage, but adopting a dog is a huge game-changer.

Posted Jul 26, 2020

The other day, while at a small, socially-distanced gathering at a local park, someone told me that he’d be adopting a puppy soon and asked the most important thing on what he should focus. Without hesitation, I said, “Socialization. 100%.” He said, “Really?” Really!*

Pandemic puppies are all the rage. What better time to get a puppy than while you’re home quarantining, right? In theory, yes! But there are caveats. A lot of thought should go into choosing to bring any companion animal into your home. Homing a companion animal (“pet”) will not necessarily be a good way to pass the pandemic or decrease your stress, and it's essential to do research to learn about what an animal actually needs and to pay close attention to their individual personality. Our society is already insular, so it’s important not to bypass taking the time to learn about what it really means to open your home to a companion animal.

With puppies, there’s an added responsibility: they need a lot of socialization. And, giving them "more than they need" can be very beneficial for them and for you. Unfortunately, the pandemic has actually made it more difficult to access opportunities to socialize puppies; not only are we in an age of social distancing, but many options for well-run, certified, instructor-led group classes–cornerstones for finding lots of positive socialization opportunities–are limited or non-existent right now. The internet, while a valuable resource, also disseminates misinformation. So let’s start with the science.

As Psychology Today writer and dog expert Dr. Zazie Todd notes, “In puppies, the sensitive period begins at 3 weeks and goes on until about 12 or 14 weeks. Our knowledge of this period comes from classic experiments that involved isolating puppies during this time. We don’t know exactly when the sensitive period ends, and it may end at slightly different times depending on the breed." This means that there is a limited period of time during which to create purposeful, positive experiences for a puppy to prepare them for life in the world.

What happens to a puppy during this most important stage of development will have a direct impact on their behavior as an adult. Proper socialization leads to a resilient adult dog that can cope with new things and bounce back from bad experiences, while improper or inadequate socialization can create a dog who is socially fearful and anxious. Instead of placing manners and skills expectations on puppies at such a young age, we should be focused on helping them learn to be comfortable and safe in the world. The upside? Manners and skills can be taught at any time!

Expanding on my previous post, “Teach the Puppies Well: Let Them Enjoy Their Childhood,” I’d like to further add that while the quantity of socialization and exposure is important, quality is as essential, if not more so. When socializing a puppy, many guardians think they just have to go down a checklist, but that is insufficient. Time must be taken to teach positive associations to various stimuli (people, places, surfaces, other animals, leaving them alone, etc.) and to give a puppy choice and agency to decide what their comfort level is with these given stimuli. They also need to play and have fun and enjoy a lot of enrichment

Here are some difficult real-world stories, but they are important examples of the incorrect way to socialize a puppy. I recently received an email from a puppy guardian asking me for a second opinion about training for her puppy–let’s call him Spot–who is afraid of unfamiliar people. She told me that the trainer she originally hired had minimal information on their website, but had five stars on Google, so she decided to try them out. When the trainer arrived for the session, Spot started barking, backing up, and growling (Spot’s behavior and body language indicated that he was obviously scared). Nonchalant, the trainer cornered Spot, attached a leash to Spot’s collar, and proceeded to use the leash to lift him off of his front legs (effectively choking him) or hit him on the nose anytime he barked or growled. The trainer then instructed the guardian to do the same, making sure Spot was always behind her and “never in charge.” Spot was reportedly shaking and he urinated while all this was happening (though he had stopped barking) and the trainer left the session, satisfied that Spot was learning “his place.”

Along these same lines, a friend recently shared a video (that has since been removed) posted by a veterinary clinic in Maryland and asked me what I thought about it. In this video, a 12-week-old puppy, Bubba, is physically restrained while he struggles, growls, snaps, and snarls (Bubba, like Spot, was also clearly indicating that he was uncomfortable and worried) while the staff handled his paws. Meanwhile, the narrator of the video says they are desensitizing Bubba and that as a dog owner in these situations, you should not tell your dog they’re being good, don’t use treats, and that you “just have to kind of get through it.”

If you’re feeling uncomfortable, heartbroken, or outraged about what you just read, you’re on the mark. Not only are these methods of so-called “training” never acceptable for a puppy (or for an adult dog), it’s even more concerning that these instances were one of these puppies’ major formative experiences during the critical sensitive period of socialization and development.

Were these puppies given a choice to participate in the above situations? No. Were these puppies given the opportunity to form positive associations in these scenarios? Absolutely not. Think about yourself. How would you feel if you were afraid of spiders and someone held you down against your will and forced you to “deal with it” while they dumped a bucket of spiders on you? Lack of choice and flooding can cause irreversible psychological damage, especially when a dog is still a puppy. This is no different for humans.

Let’s return to Spot’s and Bubba’s stories. What should have been done? If Spot is afraid of strangers, time should carefully be spent teaching him that strangers are not only safe–that they will not corner him, force him to be near them, or choke him–but that they can offer good experiences, for example, food, happy talk, and other motivators, such as toys. If Bubba is worried about having his paws touched, time should be spent teaching him that good stuff (again, food, happy talk, etc.) happens when his paws are touched. Dr. Ilana Reisner of Reisner Veterinary Behavior Services, LLC, hits the nail on the head with her public response to Bubba’s video.

In both of these scenarios, we must pay close attention to the puppies’ body language to know how they are faring and never move beyond a pace at which they are comfortable. And it’s important to remember that different things motivate different dogs, because dogs are individuals, although delicious food tends to be a universal way to form good associations. It's perfectly okay to use food to help puppies and other dogs along. They won't love you less, and they're not using you. 

There is much more to this training, of course, and if you are experiencing any of these issues with your puppy or adult dog, don’t go it alone! Seek out a certified, force-free dog trainer to help you devise a training plan to work on your dog’s sensitivities. Be sure the person you pick is a practitioner of modern behavioral science, because in the United States, a dirty little secret about which many people are unaware is that anyone can call themselves a dog trainer. 

I’m happy to report that Spot and I became good friends after just a few minutes of my tossing him some delicious treats and giving him his space, no choking necessary, and he is quickly learning that unknown humans are actually nothing to worry about! As for Bubba, I’m hopeful that the public response to their video has given the veterinary clinic and Bubba’s guardian more insight. I’m further hopeful to see a burgeoning movement of low-stress handling techniques being used in the veterinary world and I have optimism that this will only continue.

“But what about a puppy who is not fully vaccinated?” This is a common question among well-meaning, and understandably concerned puppy guardians. Unfortunately, a puppy is not fully vaccinated until after they’re out of their sensitive period for socialization, so what to do? According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, “Behavioral problems are the greatest threat to the owner-dog bond. In fact, behavioral problems are the number one cause of relinquishment to shelters. Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.” So socialize your puppy, but do it smartly.1

Time is of the essence. And please be kind to your puppies! They're just babies after all. If we treat our companion animals and each other with kindness, we will dignify not only them but also ourselves.

References

Notes

*This timely essay was written with Boulder, Colorado force-free certified dog trainer Mary Angilly. First-person references are to Mary. 

1) If you’re in need of additional puppy socialization resources from science-based, force-free dog training practitioners, go to the Pet Professional Guild and their webinar Puppy Socialization in COVID Times and my colleague Jessica Ring’s webinar Puppy Socialization During a Pandemic.

Bekoff, Marc. Do Pets Really Unconditionally Love and Unwind Us? (Pets are choosy about who they love and don't always reduce stress.)

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_____. Why Do Some Dogs Fear Strange Dogs and Unfamiliar Humans? ("Inadequate socialisation, inactivity, and urban living" make dogs fearful.)

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_____. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. University of Chicago Press, 2018. 

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Bekoff, Marc and Jessica Pierce. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. New World Library, 2019. 

DeMartini, Malena. Avoiding Separation Anxiety When You Go Back to Work: Start Now! June 11, 2020. 

Dog Decoder. What Does Flooding Have To Do With Aggression In Dogs?

Fukuzawa, Megumi and NaomiHayashi. Comparison of 3 different reinforcements of learning in dogs (Canis familiars). Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 8 (4), 2013. (The results of study show that food was the best reward compared to stroking and praising.