Puppy or Rescue Dog Socialization During COVID-19

You can still help your new puppy or dog to navigate the world during COVID-19.

Posted Apr 11, 2020

Ilana Reisner, DVM, PhD, DACVB
Source: Ilana Reisner, DVM, PhD, DACVB

During the unprecedented quarantine and relative isolation of the coronavirus pandemic, dog and cat adoptions and applications for foster homes are surging. In many ways it seems to be the ideal time to welcome a new family member, since most of us are compelled to #stayhome. But it is also a time of social distancing: If we cannot invite every Tom, Dick, and Harry to pet our puppies or new rescues, are we inadvertently creating an entire generation of fearful and unsocialized dogs? Not necessarily.

First, what is socialization? It is a well-recognized developmental stage in puppies, at approximately 3-14 (or 16) weeks of age, when they are especially receptive to new social relationships and attachments. However, socialization is not a one-size-fits-all path to normal behavior in dogs, and it certainly doesn’t end with a slammed door at 14-16 weeks. In fact, all dogs continue to learn, for better or for worse, as they mature and for the rest of their lives. This is important for new puppies under 16 weeks of age, but equally important for newly adopted adult dogs. Furthermore, the socialization process itself is often misunderstood. Forcing a worried puppy into a stranger’s arms can backfire and teach him that strangers are to be feared, regardless of whether he is still within the sensitive period. 

Remember, also, that some dogs, young or old, are anxious, worried, leery, or “reserved” due to innate behaviors (genetically linked) or as a result of earlier experience. Shy puppies may be fearful, and forcing them to accept petting, approach, lifting and other interactions can worsen their fear even more. Successful socialization means more than just ticking off a downloaded list of stimuli without monitoring and managing the puppy’s response to each. 

So, having said all that, now that we are all staying away from each other, here are some tips for socialization: 

Household humans. If you live with others, take advantage of the variety of people in your household. Everyone should spend individual, quality time by playing, feeding, grooming, cuddling and gently handling the new family member. The differences between big and small people, adults and children, bearded and nonbearded, men and women, right under your own roof can be significant. 

Household sounds. There are many sources of sound stimuli in your home. Watch your puppy or dog to see how he reacts to the doorbell, microwave, TV sounds (and images), phone ring tones, a piano, and electronic toys. A typical puppy alerts to the sound and shows some curiosity, but then recovers. Reassure and feed him if he seems worried, then reintroduce the sound at a lower volume (or from a greater distance), gradually building up to the original intensity.

Learning to be alone. The quarantine “honeymoon period” will soon be over, and you won’t have as much time to spend together. Because learning to be without people is as important as learning to be with them, now is the time to teach your puppy to stay by herself in a crate or a gated area. (For adult rescues, acclimation to a crate should be slower, taking care to recognize distress.) Place your crate in a nested area, such as a corner of the family room or in your bedroom. Provide a chew or food-stuffed toy in the crate, and cover if it helps. Go for some neighborhood walks (practicing social distancing) without your puppy, or spend time in another room, cooking or reading. Learning to be without you will be a useful skill for the rest of her life.

Environmental stimuli. Socialization can apply to environmental as well as social stimuli. There are limitless examples outdoors to which you can introduce your puppy or new adult safely. Remember to allow him to take his time in approaching, stepping on, or passing the stimulus. Reassure, feed, bounce a ball, and cajole, but never force. Consider:

  • Different textures – asphalt, grass, uneven trails, wet and dry conditions.

  • Traffic and traffic sounds.

  • Bicycles, skateboards, and other wheels – from a safe distance.

  • A variety of weather, including light rain and wind in addition to sunny days; darkness as well as daylight.

Social stimuli. Even while we have to maintain a safe distance from each other, there are safe ways to introduce your puppy or adult dog to the people and animals around her. 

  • If you live in an area where people walk and exercise nearby, briefly stop and talk to others while staying at least 6 feet away. Point those people out to your puppy, and tell them about her. Be sure she is aware of them.

  • Watch your puppy’s or dog's body language. You have the luxury of time and distance (from others) to allow identification of fear or overexuberance. This is a great opportunity to learn about her social boundaries in a safe (for her) way. Use plenty of food, and reassuring and happy words. Sit on the ground with her while you regale your neighbors about how perfect she is.

  • This is also a good opportunity to expose her, at a safe distance, to other dogs. In fact, it is better for all new puppies or rescue dogs to meet others from a distance rather than to have close encounters with dogs who might be aggressive. You might also walk past dogs in fenced yards who bark or run along with you. Again, this is an opportunity to watch your puppy’s reactions and respond accordingly. Always use a happy voice and give bits of food to reassure her. This is a type of “counter-conditioning” – teaching her to have consistently good associations with the dogs in her world. 

Training. There is so much more to your puppy's or new dog's education than simply “obedience training." Now is the time to introduce a vocabulary between you. Shower him with positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior. Take advantage of the amazing resources available on the internet, such as Kikopup on Youtube. Read the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists' Decoding Your Dog and other books emphasizing science-based, humane training and care. Learn about clicker (marker) training, and use it to help shape useful behaviors in your puppy. While military-level obedience isn’t necessarily the goal (nor is it a great deal of fun), there are practical behaviors you can start to train, such as hand-targeting, making eye contact and checking in with you, dropping toys on cue and other “tricks." For your puppy, training is school – it can enrich and help him prepare for a complicated world.  

Socialization does not follow a universal recipe. Each puppy is an individual, of course, and you are dealing with genetic predispositions regardless of breed or mix, as well as the “baggage” of prior experiences before adoption. But healthy and adequate socialization during the time of COVID-19 can take you farther than “bad” socialization would if no social distancing were in place. The trick is to use what you have, and to help your puppy feel safe in the world. 

Ilana Reisner, DVM, PhD, DACVB

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