If you were like many Americans, you may have added a puppy or new dog to your household during the COVID-19 pandemic. Who wouldn’t want a sweet, adorable puppy at home during a time of such uncertainty and stress? Research has shown that petting dogs can help reduce stress and lower blood pressure, so it makes perfect sense to adopt a new canine companion while we are stuck at home with not much else to do. The timing couldn’t be better… right?
It is likely that in preparation for your new furry friend, you did your research on which dog to get, what to feed her, the best ways to exercise her, and which toys come highly recommended. You made a plan about how to best integrate your life with the life of your new dog and found training solutions to help. One of the things that often gets overlooked, especially in a time of social distancing and Stay-at-Home orders, is socialization. You have probably heard the term “socialization” before, but what is it and how do we do it in the time of COVID-19?
What is Socialization?
Close your eyes and try to imagine what socialization looks likes. Is your puppy playing with a bunch of other puppies or dogs? Or maybe your puppy is greeting strangers and being pet? According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, socialization is a special period of time, typically within the first three months of a puppy’s life, where “puppies should be exposed to as many new people, animals, stimuli, and environments as can be achieved safely and without causing overstimulation, manifested as excessive fear, withdrawal, or avoidance behavior.” The important part about this definition is: without causing excessive fear, withdrawal, or avoidance behavior. Positive exposure to new things is essential for all dogs to gain confidence with potential encounters in the world around them. This is true especially for puppies and for new, timid and fearful dogs. The dog personalities that people tend to complain the least about are the ones who want to say “hi” to every creature they meet, but these types also need to learn that they cannot launch at every person they see.
Socialization and Social Distancing
Physical distancing and socialization may seem mutually exclusive, but it actually is the opposite and it can benefit all dog personality types. While observing the COVID-19 etiquette of staying six feet apart, you are able to reward your dog as the world goes by! When you reward your dog for remaining calm at your side, they learn to anticipate new encounters with calm instead of fear or frustration. When people encroach on a dog’s space and pet them without their permission, it can make for a fearful dog. On the flip side, a dog can become frustrated if they are allowed to drag their people over to say hi to strangers and then are not allowed to do so.
Additionally, socialization does not extend to just people and other dogs. It is vitally important that dogs experience a wide variety of novel items, objects, and scenarios, so that when they encounter them in the future, it is no big deal. For example, take a puppy who was raised in a house with wall-to-wall carpet (yes, this is a throwback to when people had carpeting in their bathrooms). Imagine this puppy was brought to a new house that was entirely wood floors and tile. It may seem trivial to us humans, but for a dog who has never experienced this type of flooring, it could be incredibly scary! Some personality types might be able to adapt and become comfortable with the new floor, but for some it could be a fear that they have a really difficult time overcoming.
Why Socialization Matters
The more low pressure, positive experiences your dog or puppy has with the world around them, the better they adapt to new, potentially scary situations in the future. While the personality of the dog absolutely matters, what we find is that dogs and puppies who are on the more timid side, can become more confident with low pressure, positive exposure. The important part is to go slow, at your dog’s pace and to not force them to interact with something they don’t want to. Through this low pressure exposure, we are teaching them that the world around them is full of good things and that novel experiences are something to look forward to, not to fear. By practicing this type of socialization, you are giving your dog skills that will last a lifetime and building a solid, trusting relationship between you and your dog. Your dog will learn to look to you for support in times of uncertainty and for us, that is worth it’s weight in gold.
Putting it into Practice
The following ideas are ways to socialize your dog and practice safety, first and foremost.
Around the house:
- At your main window, reward your dog for watching people go by.
- Have treats at your doorway ready for the increase of deliveries you have being shipped to your home. Mail delivery = Reward
- In your yard, reward for watching people go by and ask for a sit (and reward) when cars go by.
- If you live in a cul-de-sac, or if you have friends or neighbors who frequently drive or walk by your home, ask if you can give them treats to carry to toss to your dog
- For overly friendly dogs, have them sit for the treat to be tossed.
- For timid dogs, have them at a distance where they are comfortable watching for the treat to be tossed.
- Sprinkle treats in a cardboard box with the flaps tucked inside. As your dog is comfortable, you can untuck a flap, so that the box moves slightly when they try to get the treats. “Treat party” for making the box move!
- People: You and anyone who is safe to be in your household. Change your look by adding on different appendages: various Hats, scarves, carrying objects like boxes and brooms, puffy coats, if you have Halloween costumes kicking around this is the time to bring them out, one at a time.
- Objects: Your in home appliances like Dishwasher, washing machine, dryer, microwave, vacuum cleaner, box fan, your phone.
- Places: Use the above objects and place them in a room your dog normally frequents. When your dog walks in there is a novelty object making the place a new experience.
- Sensory (feel): Have your dog walk around on different surfaces. Most of the following can be moved to different rooms of your house to create a new experiences: A flattened cardboard box, a board, tarp or painters plastic, slippery, wooden, carpeted floors.
- Sensory Sounds: Many of your household appliances serve dual purpose as both object and sound. Following is an example of gradual exposure for a Metal Bowl: Pushed on the ground; Dropped (a couple inches) from the ground; Tapped with a wooden spoon; Lightly tapped with a metal spoon.
In your car:
- Go to an urban area, park in an empty parking lot and reward your dog for listening to the city sounds that you may not get in the country, like us here in New Boston, NH.
- Park at the back of the grocery store parking lot and reward your dog for watching people pushing carts and wearing masks.
- Park anywhere safe and appropriate to reward your dog for watching the world go by: think bicycles, canoes, runners, hikers, motorcycles.
- Take a 12x12ft blanket to the park and sit on the outskirts with your dog on a leash. Reward them for watching the activity taking place in the park. If comfortable and able to maintain physical distance, allow your dog to say hi with permission to novelty people.
If you have additional questions about socialization and how we can help, please email us.
Parts of this blog are from Ashley Clark’s article “Physical Distancing Can Help You and Your Dog!” published in the New Boston Beacon in June 2020.