Time is of the Essence: Puppy Socialization During a Pandemic

Puppy chewing on toy

“What about the puppies!?!?”

Dog trainers everywhere are very concerned about puppies right now. We constantly stress the critical nature of puppy socialization and recommend a wealth of activities that involve close contact with a whole range of people and places, including group puppy class. And time is of the essence. The window for puppy socialization starts to close around 12–16 weeks of age. We simply cannot wait.

Information on the importance of puppy socialization:
Why You Need to Socialize Your Puppy by Companion Animal Psychology
AVSAB Position Statement of Puppy Socialization by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior
In Defense of Puppy Socialization by The Academy for Dog Trainers
Puppy Socialization Practices – And How They Are Lacking by Companion Animal Psychology

How can puppies receive proper socialization during this time of almost complete social isolation?

I reached out to some of my dog training colleagues for their ideas and suggestions. While it might currently be impossible to provide the ideal regimen of positive experiences with lots of new people, places, other puppies/dogs and situations, here are some great suggestions for what we can do.

Person and puppy at computer
Check with your local force-free, rewards-based trainer to see if they’re offering alternatives, such online/remote sessions or modified versions of puppy class or socials.

Situations, Surfaces & Objects

Metal kitchen utensils
Common household items can be used for socialization activities.

Kristi Benson, a dog trainer in Manitoba, Canada, reminds new puppy parents that puppies can learn to be confident and comfortable in many odd scenarios, if they’re attended to carefully during the socialization period.

  • Puppies can learn to find smooth flooring, stairs, hanging bridges, floor grates, and all types of surfaces to be no big deal. Put some time into thinking what your puppy will experience as an adult dog: are there scary metal stairs leading into your office, with a view of the road below? Load your hands up with treats and head there now, if it’s safe to do so. Allow your puppy to explore new scenarios on their own terms and with their natural curiousity, and provide treats after each new step. We want our puppies to learn that bridges and grates are both no big deal (not scary), and also, rewarding to explore!

Suzanne Bryner of Lucky Fido Dog Training gives the following suggestions.

  • In the kitchen pull out some pie tins and metal utensils and pots. You can put them in a plastic kiddie pool or one of those big plastic bins for storing wrapping paper, or in the bathtub! Strew treats and help your puppy navigate the clangy bangy world of metal. As always, never force, push or coerce, but instead encourage and support!
  • Put your puppy in another room. Move the furniture, and otherwise make changes by adding and removing things from the room you are in. Now bring puppy back to a completely different room! I got this one from R+ Marketing and Business for Dog Pros, I think it is really brilliant and can be done again and again in different rooms and by adding and subtracting new as well as familiar objects. 

Megan O’Hara of Fetch the Leash Dog Behavior and Training says “You can still do TONS of socialization and enrichment activities for your puppy from the comfort and safety of your home!” One example is objects in motion.

  • Ride bikes, skateboards, rollerblades up and down the driveway. Bounce around on a exercise ball. Use (or pretend to use) shovels, rakes, lawnmower, weed-whacker. Hang up laundry to blow in the wind. Use the vacuum cleaner and a broom.

Dogs and People

Children dressed up in costumes.
Play dress up to help your puppy get used to “weird pictures” and unusual silhouettes.

Suzanne Bryner offers some great ideas for socialization to dogs and people.

  • Take your puppy to the Dog Park for some Dog Park TV from the car or from a safe distance. “The sounds and movements of the bigger and rougher dogs at play is good exposure for puppies when kept at a safe distance and combined with yummy snacks. As always, let puppy choose how close is close enough by watching for nervous or anxious body language. We want to see our puppies show interest and curiosity, not nervousness.
  • Play Dress Up at home. Have your family members and yourself dress up in costumes for the day. Have a bunch of costumes that you could rotate through during the day while practicing veterinary handling skills and basic manners. 

Vanessa Charbonneau of Sit Pretty Pet Services emphasizes the importance of ample space during social encounters with people, following recommended guidelines to stay at a safe distance during the pandemic.

  • When socializing your puppy employ a “hands-off” greeting approach. Always maintain a minimum of 6-feet (2 metres) of space between yourself and the person but be careful to maintain this space between your puppy and the person as well. This is a great opportunity to practice cueing your puppy to sit to ‘greet’ and rewarding calm behavior and engagement with you, the handler, around people. The person can talk to your puppy as an added greeting challenge!

Resource Guarding

Vanessa Charbonneau also recommends working on exercises to prevent resource guarding. “Resource guarding is when your puppy guards or ‘protects’ items such as food, treats, toys, beds or resting places, and people. Resource guarding is normal dog behavior, one that has been retained (to varying degrees) from their wolf ancestors. It can be quite worrying to dog owners, but do not fear! There are many ways we can prevent resource guarding with proactive training exercises.

Disclaimer: these exercises should only be employed with a puppy who does not show signs of resource guarding. If your puppy freezes, increases its consumption rate, growls, snarls or snaps, or bites when it is in possession of a valuable item, please contact a certified positive reinforcement dog trainer.

  • Treat Toss: this exercise is a great way to teach your puppy that someone approaching their food dish is a really good thing! When your puppy is eating its normal meal, approach the dish and toss a piece of chicken or hotdog into the dish, then walk away. Super simple, right? If you do this several times during every meal, your puppy is going to want you to approach their food dish. Your approach is not a threat, but instead signals good things for the puppy.
  • Trade You: this exercise teaches your dog to be happy to have things taken away. Start using a low value toy (one the puppy has permission to chew on). When the puppy is in possession of the toy, approach and take the toy, then offer a trusty chunk o’ chicken. Let the puppy finishing chewing, and then immediately return the toy. Over time, your puppy will learn that having a toy taken away results in a pretty nice payout! This exercise can be employed when your puppy is chewing on illegal items (ahem, your dirty socks), except you will not be ‘returning’ the stolen goods after the trade is complete! Because you’ve been practicing this exercise regularly, your puppy should have no problem giving up the dirty laundry.

Body Handling

Photo of puppy having paw touched with nail clippers.
Teach your puppy to enjoy veterinary and grooming procedures. Photo: Wag the Dog and Company

Kelly Lee of Dogkind says “Many pets fear vet visits. With your young puppy, you have a golden opportunity to help him learn to love the vet and spare him a lifetime of vet-related anxiety… Animals aren’t born loving to be touched everywhere or restrained. These exercises will help your puppy learn that being handled, groomed and examined predict good things. If your puppy seems frightened at any point, back off and try something easier. If your puppy isn’t improving, or is getting worse, contact your trainer right away. This is an emergency!” Keep it fun and positive!

  1. FIRST start handling. Keep the treats hidden.
  2. THEN bring out the treats & start feeding.
  3. Stop handling, then stop feeding treats.
Kristi Benson demonstrates some body handling exercises in this video.
Julie Parker of Rocky Mountain Dog Training uses a cookie sheet to teach a puppy to get onto a scale. (Check out Rocky Mountain Dog Training’s Creative Socialization Series!)

Kelly Lee gives some additional examples, including brushing, toothbrushing, nail care and bathing. Here are some samples of how Kelly might break each procedure down into steps. Repeat each step until your puppy is completely comfortable before moving onto the next step. Watch your puppy’s body language, and go back to an easier step if you see signs of discomfort or worry.

  • Bathing:
    Step 1: Put your puppy in the (dry) bathtub, on a towel or mat. Have a treat party or play with favorite toys in the tub!
    Step 2: Add a little water to the tub and let your puppy explore.
    Step 3: Slowly introduce your puppy to bathing by pouring small amounts of water over him, followed by treats.
  • Nail Care:
    Step 1: Pick up your puppy’s paws, and look between toes as if checking for foxtails. Don’t forget the back paws!
    Step 1: Hold you puppy’s paw and touch the nail clipper or nail file to his toenails.
    Step 1: Clip or file toenails. Give a treat after each nail!
  • Toothbrushing:
    Step 1: Place a hand over your puppy’s muzzle and briefly lift your puppy’s lips to look at his teeth.
    Step 2: Rub your finger along your puppy’s teeth and gum line.
    Step 3: Start short bouts of toothbrushing (2–3 seconds) using pet tooth paste, followed by a special treat.

Sounds

Red vaccum
Help your puppy learn that loud noises aren’t so scary.

Nickala Squire of Carefree Canine suggests exercises geared toward the prevention of noise phobia. “Noise phobia is sadly a common occurrence in adult dogs. We can reduce the likelihood of it occurring or reduce the intensity by creating positive knee jerk emotional reactions to common problem noises. There are a lot of noises we can access for free to use in puppy socialization. I suggest hitting the ones that dogs often develop problems with first. We know adults are likely to develop fears of thunder or fireworks and blow driers, vacuums or rushing bath water, or worry about construction or raucous children on playgrounds.”

  • I recommend having treats close by. Play your chosen audio clip at a very low volume. For fearful puppies, it should be barely audible. Count “one fluffy puppy” after you hit play, then reach for and start giving your puppy a tiny treat every second. Just before your puppy finishes the food, stop the audio.
  • Act boring and vary the length of time between trials. Fiddle with or reach for the treats then bring your hands back to your sides, offering nothing. After anywhere between a few seconds and a few hours, start again! We want the audio to be the only possible prediction that food is on its way. I also suggest carrying treats around to offer your puppy any time you hear an especially “loud” boom.

Alone Time

Vanessa McDonald of Dog Fantastic says “Puppies aren’t born comfortable with being left alone, we need to teach them that it’s no big deal.”

  • To do this you’ll want to start by walking around the corner while your puppy is busy with a food toy in a crate or puppy pen. Then come right back so it’s not overwhelming. If your puppy is completely comfortable with this slowly increase the amount of time you’re out of the room. When they’re acing this game try a quick walk out the door to get the mail or quickly water your plants. Next, try leaving for 10-15 min while watching via home camera or Skype. Slowly increase the amount of time you’re gone as long as your puppy is not showing signs of stress. Once you’re able to come and go remember puppies need breaks, so if you’ll be gone for hours have a friend or pet sitter come over to give your puppy a potty break and some playtime.
  • Notes: If your puppy is in distress come right back. If your puppy is barking/whining but not stressed wait until they stop before you reappear so they don’t learn whining makes you come back. If you are unsure contact a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer right away.

Body Language

Jennifer Pratt of Wag the Dog and Company says “All the above suggestions PLUS bone up on your dog body language and communication! I always equate puppy socialization to driving in a car racing to the finish line with your partner sitting in the back seat. They say ‘Faster, faster!!’ and you reply, ‘We need to get there in one piece!’  Quantity and quality are at war during this time sensitive period and they must be met with a balancing act. Knowing dog body language will help ensure you are balancing the two. iSpeakDog is a fantastic resource to utilize as part of your socialization prep work.”

Resources

Check back periodically, as I’ll keep adding to the resources list in the coming weeks.

Videos

Resource Guarding Prevention by Carefree Canine

How to Handle a Puppy Who Starts Guarding Toys or Food by Kristi Benson

Petting Consent Tests by Dogkind

Dog-Dog Play Part 1 – MARS by Dog Knowledge

Dog-Dog Play Part 2 – Consent Testing by Dog Knowledge

Making Mealtime Mentally Stimulating Activity by Sit Pretty Pet Services

Enrichment (aka Boredom Busters) Blogs

Mom, I’m Bored! by Behavior Matters Academy

Frustrate Your Dog This Year by Behavior Matters Academy

Does Your Dog Secretly Hate His Walk? by Behavior Matters Academy

Tug Games by Kristi Benson

The Art of Kong Stuffing by I Love Your Dog

10 Ways to Make Your Dog Happier by Understanding Dog Training

The Quest for the Perfect Puzzle Toy by My Fantastic Friend

Hide and Seek Games for Indoor Fun by My Fantastic Friend

Enrichment Through Food Dispensing Toys by My Fantastic Friend

Summertime Blues? by My Fantastic Friend

When It Rains All Weekend by My Fantastic Friend

Live Canine Enrichment Facebook Group

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