Socializing Puppies in the Days of COVID
Right, so you brought home your gorgeous new pup, ready with your plan to train and socialize.... and then, the sh!t hit the fan!
First, some commiseration. This can't feel good for those of you with young pups right now, but I'd like to reassure you that it's really not a horrible thing. Socialization has become a really confused point in the dog world. Over-socialization often leads to over-stimulated dogs who lose their minds and are hard to control when they see other people and dogs. This will help a lot of dogs have better social skills through calculated exposure rather than interaction.
Now remember that we're humans - and we are VERY adaptable! Training is still available through online means and most of us have more time than usual. As for socialization, well - we can get through that too! This will be okay.
More good news - dogs are also adaptable. If you've ever had a dog before, you know that at some point, they've experienced a novel stimulus outside of puppyhood. You may remember your 7 year old golden seeing that big man in the hat and being concerned, or reacting to the new potted plant you brought home.... low body, light 'chuffing', stretching in to sniff, but ready to bolt away at a moment's notice. Life continued as it will when your now young dog sees novel stimulus as an adult. You don't need them to see EVERYTHING out there. That's impossible even during the best times, which these are far from.
Now, having said that - you still have work to do! Put your creative thinking cap on and go to it!
Exposure VS Interaction
I'll say it again because it's very important. The point of socialization is exposure, not interaction. Pups do not have to interact with a thing to learn from it and take it in as a safe part of life. Experiencing a person 6-feet or more away, observing through sight, smell and hearing is enough. We do not need to add touch. Petting is more for us, than it is for the dog.
This Will Help Your Greeting Manners
Seeing from a distance and not jumping all over the person will actually work in your favour to help create the manners you'll want. Dropping the rehearsal of your pup jumping all over every new person they meet in an effort to socialize will add points to the manners column! Take this opportunity to teach your dog to politely observe. Reinforce calmness and you'll start setting a solid foundation for better greeting behaviour as a side effect.
This Will Help with Manners Around Other Dogs
This will have a similar consequence for socialization with other dogs. We constantly help people who are frustrated with their dogs when they see another dog. "He becomes wild, up on two feet trying to get to the other dog", "he starts barking like he wants to kill them", "she dragged me over to get to another dog", "she's aggressive on leash."
Yup, you guessed it, all of these problems are exacerbated by allowing dogs to greet strange dogs. The frustration that is built when a dog is held back from interactions with other dogs when that's what they've become accustomed to can manifest itself in all sorts of behaviour problems you won't like. These problems, created by well-intentioned socialization, are much bigger than most anticipate. So, don't worry that your dog can't meet every dog on the street. That is far from a bad thing.
What About all of the Other 'Stuff'?
This is where you'll need to be creative. What do you have within your reach that can use to help your pup generalize exposure? The answer is, EVERYTHING!
Socialization is about creating positive or neutral associations with novel stimulus. Expose them to new and creative things. At first make them simple and build to the point where they are more complicated (bigger, bolder, louder). If the pup has an extreme reaction to something, you know it's too much too soon. Make it easier for the pup to be okay with that 'thing'. As an example, if they spook at a hat and have limited or no recovery, get a smaller hat and reinforce until they're fine with the small one, gradually make it bigger and keep looking for the same calm reaction. Remember, in this and every case - a hat can be a bowl turned upside down with 'stuff' attached. You don't need to sit this one out because you don't have 8 different hats. Be creative! It's all novel to your pup.
Wander around the house and find things to work with.
- pop the toaster
- put on a big outfit (make one if you don't have one)
- move furniture around
- make funny noises
- if you have kids, they are GREAT at this - and you can teach them all about proper ways to socialize in the process. That's a win-win!
- place objects that don't belong on the floor in the middle of the room
- roll an empty garbage can around the garage
- get Halloween and Christmas decorations out of storage
Use noise to your advantage
- turn up the TV
- change channels until you find weird noise
- hit YouTube and search for weird noise - there are a LOT of results....
- make strange noises (this should be easy with all of our sitting and snacking ;o)
Walk Them Over Novel Things
- put down a tarp
- break down a cardboard box
- walk them over sewer grates (assuming you can go out)
- put down placemats with different textures
- place broomsticks on the floor and walk your dog over them
If it jumps into your head as a novel thing for your dog, use it and add your ideas in comments to help other's expose their puppies.
And if you CAN Go Out
If you are in an area where it is safe to do so, take your pup to novel locations and work on your current training efforts. When our lives once again resemble what we are used to, all of this exposure without the rehearsal of bad behaviours will be of benefit and you may have even changed the way you think about socialization for the better.
Happy training and be well!