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COVID-19 and Socialization: How to Help Your Puppy During this Unprecedented Time

Updated: Mar 20, 2020

In part 1, I discussed the importance of good socialization during the critical stage of puppy development between (approximately) 4-16 weeks. A well-rounded socialization is about exposing a puppy to normal things that they will probably see in their normal day-to-day life in a way that creates a positive (or at least neutral) association. This helps puppies turn into adult dogs that approach novel situations with optimism.

We’re living an unprecedented time, with businesses (including dog training businesses) quickly closing their doors in the face of the COVID-19 epidemic. Quiet streets, lack of puppy classes, and no dog-friendly businesses to visit, makes puppy socialization a bit tricky to say the least. I have spoken to many concerned puppy owners who asked me how they can socialize their puppy before their critical socialization period closes.

While socialization will look different as we take a break from our puppy classes and our usual go-to strategies, I want to reassure puppy owners that there are lots of socialization activities they can still take advantage to help expose their puppies to the world .Although the approach may look different, the underlying principles remain the same: exposure with a positive spin.

As with all training, being prepared is key. Having stashes of cookies placed around the home or in a pocket will allow you make positive associations to their world.

Turn novelty into a game

In my experience, I find a lot of dogs struggle with sudden changes in their environment, whether it be a novel sound or sight. We can help our young puppies learn that novelty is a good thing by simple pairing a sudden change with a positive outcome.

  • Take advantage of “oops” moments at home. For example, your child drops a toy and it clatters loudly to the floor. Instead of ignoring the puppy (who might be worried about the noise), take that moment to say, “yay! Aren’t you brave?” and hand the puppy a tasty treat that you have either stashed away in a convenient, secret location or have in your pocket. Your dog will learn that loud, sudden noises aren’t the end of the world and no reason to startle.

  • Shape the puppy to love funny noises. When my younger Border Collie Zest was worried about the metallic noises from the dog walk and teeter moving I was concerned! They are seen in most courses and you definitely do not want a dog who is worried about the noise in competition. My coach suggested training her to knock over items to create a sense of control for her and to help desensitize her to the sound. We started easy with a couple of empty pop cans on the wood floor. We worked our way up to a pyramid of pop cans on the concrete basement floor, to empty tins of paint on the basement floor. Every time she knocked a can, I would mark “yes!” and toss cookies for her to chase. It created a fun game out of a potentially nervous situation.

  • Use YouTube. Again, sudden or weird sounds are a scary trigger for so many dogs. If we aren’t able to bring them out to see all the crazy things in the world, we can still let them hear it. Find videos of people at the park with the sounds of children, very low level fireworks, the sound of dogs playing and barking etc.. If you are planning on doing any dog sports with your dogs, find competition videos: dogs running courses, barking, and running on equipment. Play it at a low level in the background of their regular day activities to desensitize them to it.. If they are concerned, pair playing at a low level with their breakfast or dinner.

More deliveries? More training opportunities!

How many dogs do you know that bark up a storm when a package or the mail arrives? With more people doing online shopping, now is a great opportunity to teach your pup that the arrival of a package or the mail is time to relax. As with the first example, pairing something good with the arrival of the truck (when the pup/dog has noticed it but before they get a chance to react) will condition the dog to calmly enjoy the arrival of the Amazon delivery! Remember to keep your praise calm and down beat to encourage a calm and relaxed response from your dog. This is also a great time to work on the pup staying on their bed while you sign for a delivery.

Use social distancing to your advantage

We currently have been advised to keep a minimum of 6 feet away from each other and for some of us this is a major concern - how is a puppy supposed to get used to people at that distance? Look, here’s something dog trainers have been doing for a long time: while we want our pups to enjoy being out and about and to be happy with people around them, we don’t want the overa-roused social butterfly who is barking, lunging, pulling to go see every new best friend they pass on the street either. Use this time to teach your puppy that you are the most important thing in the world. Teaching your puppy to pass people and other dogs at a safe distance and to focus on you by heavily rewarding engagement and focus with you. This helps them to learn to still be desentized to other people and dogs.

Double down on handling.

One of the biggest issues I see is adolescent dogs who won’t accept handling or normal grooming (nails, teeth and ear exams, brushing) and are fearful, aggressive, or at least restless. As groomers and vets start to offer less and less non-essential services, it becomes more important that you expose your puppy to these things. Do not wait to do this-young puppies are ripe to learn these important lessons. When you first start this, use a one to one ratio of treat to grooming. For example, one clip of the nail, one cookie. One stroke of the brush, one cookie. Over time you can decrease the number of treats used if your puppy is relaxed, but don’t rush this stage!

Take advantage of quieter parks and streets. very often students want to take their pups out to train in busy streets and busy parks. While I like that they are training their pups, the pups often struggle with the amount of stimulation around them: joggers, cyclist, dogs playing frisbee! There’s so much to look at it, it makes for a less than ideal place for training a young puppy who is still learning to focus on you. With parks and street quieter, it allows for better training as the location is still new but with a more appropriate amount of distraction.

Make an easy puppy obstacle course

One thing we talk about with socialization is getting puppies used to weird surfaces under their paws. Teach your puppy that new surfaces are good by making a textile smorgusburg for your young puppy. Take a look around the house- old, low level cushions, bubble wrap, etc. Be creative! Every time your pup steps on the surface, praise and reward them for being brave. This exercise should serve to build confidence so do remember to keep the surfaces safe for your pup - nothing too slippery or too high.

Build in time alone

A common problem I see is people bring home a puppy and take time off work to spend all their time with puppy. When they go back to work, suddenly the puppy experiences a very abrupt change in their lifestyle and this can be quite upsetting for them. To prevent this make sure you are building in short periods of time that your pup is safety crated alone while you go run an errand. This helps prevents seperation anxiety in the future. Bonus points if you put them in the crate tired and with a Kong.

We want to help you during this time with your puppy. Stay tuned for more videos from us demonstrating these skills.

If you aren’t sure, reach out. We are happy to help you work with your puppy remotely until we can train in person.

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