How to Socialize Pandemic Puppies

On Tuesday December 15th, 2020 I hosted and presented a webinar called Pandemic Puppies (you can watch the webinar here). The purpose of this webinar was to provide some information for prospective and new puppy owners, on how they could raise a happy, confident and well socialized puppy during a pandemic.

In order to register for the webinar, I asked participants to identify issues that they were struggling with currently. Over half of respondents indicated that they are dealing with fear issues. As a trainer, this was heartbreaking.

Working on typical puppy problems such as nipping, jumping, barking, and potty training is typically easy and straightforward. Working with fear can be complex, lengthy and frustrating for owners.

Truthfully, I should not have been surprised. Dog trainers have been talking about the looming pandemic puppy bubble that will burst. Puppies are in such high demand that poor breeding choices are being made en-masse and families are adopting puppies without realizing that their dog journey is about to look very different from what they pictured. This is due to everything from poor genetics, poor breeding, to puppies with no active socialization prior to the time they go home. Add in the reality that socializing a puppy during a pandemic takes significantly more effort than normal, and it’s a recipe for a lot of fearful puppies that are unfortunately being set up struggle.

So what can new puppy owners do?

Socialize! Socialize! Socialize! Your puppy needs to be socialized with other puppies, people, surfaces, noises and objects! It’s a lot, but let’s break down how to do this during a pandemic.

Socializing your puppy with other puppies is easy when you have group puppy classes to attend. But right now, a lot of these classes are online or not happening at all. So how can you socialize them with puppies? Most communities will have online Facebook groups for either dog owners, or the general community. Post there and see who else has a puppy! Try to target puppies that are close to the age of your puppy (1-2 months) and set up an outdoor meet up. You can always drop the leashes (as long as they are attached to a harness) and let them play together. Dropped leashes help with safety if it’s not a fenced in area. Ideally you should have 3 puppy playdates a week, but do the best you can! Remember that playtime should be fun, so if your puppy or another puppy is showing signs of fear, you might need to interrupt the play often to give them breaks, or find a different partner.

Your puppy should meet 100 people by 12 weeks of age. Yep, you read that right. How can you do that during a pandemic? Firstly, even if you cannot gather with people to socialize your puppy, you can still go outside! So head outside with your puppy, a treat pouch full of high value treats, and go somewhere you know where you will see people. Once you see someone, stop and let your puppy look. As soon as they see the person, give them a treat. If people want to come up to your puppy and they can pet your puppy (this is up to you and the current restrictions in your area), drop treats on the ground when they interact with the person or even just have the person talk to your puppy while you drop treats. We want our puppies to think that new people = delicious things. You also want to try and find people on bikes, skateboards, rollerblades, etc. You can definitely get to 100 people by 12 weeks even during a pandemic. You’ve just got to be creative!

To socialize your puppy with new surfaces and objects, capitalize on your time spent outside finding people and check out the environment for socialization opportunities. Empty playgrounds are a great source of surfaces and objects to introduce your puppy. When you are introducing a new surface or object, start slow and work at your puppy’s pace. That means you never force your puppy to interact, they decide if they are ready. Pair the surfaces and objects with treats by putting some treats on or near them. This helps to create that positive mental association.

Sounds are important to socialize your puppy with. Especially sounds like thunder and fireworks. Youtube is a fantastic source of sounds for socialization that you don’t have readily in your community. Make sure to work slowly with sounds. If you are playing them on speakers, start low and as the sound plays, give your puppy treats. Slowly work to increasing sound.

A special note on agency: Your puppy needs to have a choice during socialization. Socialization can backfire when we force a fearful puppy to interact with things that they are scared of. Your puppy will not just “get over it” and forcing them to interact with their fears typically increases their fear. So if your puppy isn’t running up to people and looks hesitant, work with that. Reward them at a distance where they will take treats and make them realize they have some control. This means it’s important to know what fear looks like. There are great resources out there to help you learn including Sophia Yin’s Signs of Fear and Anxiety, and Lili Chin’s Doggie Language book.

Finally, if your puppy is fearful and this isn’t improving, it’s time to reach out to a certified science-based trainer. Fear is not something that will typically just resolve itself nor is it something with a quick fix. But the sooner you get professional help for your puppy, the sooner you’ll be on your way to increasing your puppy’s confidence. Please reach out to me if you need some direction. We can either work together, or I can help you find someone to work with. But know you’re not alone and there is something you can do to work on this.

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