Socialization in the time of COVID-19
Socialization is important
Back in the 1980s when Dr. Ian Dunbar started doing puppy classes, one of the things that he emphasized was getting puppies out to see the world, socializing them to things that they would experience later in their lives. And this remains important today. Puppies that are not taken out in public until they are older have a much higher likelihood of being afraid of all the new things they see, hear and smell because those new things were not part of their world during the critical socialization period - the point in a puppy's life when their brain is primed to accept things as normal.
And when is this window? It varies depending on which expert you talk to, with some saying that it ends at 12 weeks of age and others saying it lasts up to 16 weeks of age. Odds are good that it varies between puppy to puppy because they are individuals. And it doesn't mean that we can breath a sigh of relief and settle in at home once our puppy reaches 16 weeks of age, we should still maintain the puppy's exposure to things so they continue to view them as normal. It does mean that similar to how children's brains learn new languages faster than adult's brains, the brains of puppies under the age of 16 weeks are primed to accept things they see as normal parts of life. After 16 weeks of age, a new thing is much more likely to be greeted with suspicion.
More and more we are recognizing the importance of socialization, and balancing it with the need to protect our puppies from infectious diseases. It is always important to weigh the risks and benefits of going different places with your puppies. The greater the number of dogs of unknown vaccination status that frequent an area the higher the risk to your puppy. For that reason, high traffic areas such as dog parks are not recommended. However, if we go to the other extreme and keep our puppies on our own property until 16 weeks of age we are at a much higher risk of them becoming fearful so it is a matter of weighing the risks for your individual situation.
But it's not the whole story
Some of us know of dogs that led a very sheltered life as puppies, but accepted the world with ease or even excitement once taken out and about. We may also know of dogs that were socialized extensively as puppies but remain shy and fearful. What happened?
Puppies, just like people, come with genetic tendencies. Some people tend to be introverted, some extroverted. Some people tend to cope with change easily, others not so much. The same with puppies. Now, these genetic tendencies aren't written in stone, they are influenced by the experiences that puppies have, which takes us back to the importance of socialization. If you take a happy go lucky, fairly extroverted puppy and do a little bit of socialization, they may end up just fine. But if you have an introverted, cautious puppy you can help that puppy become more confident out and about through careful socialization. Not necessarily just more and more exposure as it will be critical not to overwhelm these puppies.
When we are socializing puppies, it is important to remember that we want the puppies to find the things that they are observing to be either background noise and harmless, or pleasant experiences to enjoy. There are quite a few things in life I just want my puppies to accept as "stuff that happens", dismissing those things without a second glance. Airplanes flying overhead, people walking past, cars driving by - all of that can be ignored during our daily activities. Then there are other things I do want my puppies to find enjoyable such as listening to me in public, going to the vet or the groomer and getting in the car. Those things will be happening in my dog's lives, and while I don't want them over the top excited out of their minds, I do want pleasant associations with those things.
With a puppy that is easy going and confident, just participating in outings is often a pleasant experience because they are curious and likely enjoy seeing new things. With a more concerned, reserved puppy I would make more of an effort to pair those things I really want them to enjoy with something enjoyable - treats at the vet's office for example. I would also be more cautious to go at the puppy's pace as I really don't want these puppies to have a negative experience, or feel overwhelmed. So we may watch kids play soccer on the other side of the field rather than on the sidelines to start. As my puppy appears comfortable at that distance over the course of several visits we would move closer. For a more cautious puppy, knowing that their person is looking out for them and has their back will increase their confidence.
Socialization does not equal Interaction
Socialization has become such a buzz word now, that most people are familiar with the idea, which is great! However, along with that has come the idea that to socialize a puppy they need to meet and interact with everything and everyone. In actuality, puppies need to see and experience their world. Some of that may include meeting other people and dogs, but a lot of it should also be observing and existing alongside.
We can see problems if a puppy that enjoys meeting other dogs or people always gets to interact with every dog or person they see. Because the puppy starts to expect that interaction. In their world, seeing a dog or person results in getting to meet them and this sets us up for problems when a situation occurs in which the puppy cannot interact with that dog or person they see. You may have seen this already if your puppy is older - when puppies are very young almost everyone stops to admire them. As they grow (especially the larger dogs) more people pass by without stopping, and the first few times the puppy may look after them slightly confused.
The same can happen with dogs. And it is no fun to have an older puppy throwing the equivalent of a temper-tantrum when they see a dog that they cannot go up and greet for whatever reason (owner said no, dog is old, sore, recovering from an injury, doesn't like puppies or doesn't appear to be likely to have a good interaction with your puppy). For this reason, I strongly recommend that in addition to arranging interaction opportunities with socially savvy adult dogs that they know, that owners also find opportunities to get their puppy out and about around other dogs that the puppy does not interact with. I find that this is even more important for those confident, extroverted puppies as they are more likely to be really excited to meet everyone!
The good news, especially as I'm writing this during the COVID-19 pandemic, is that there is still a lot of socializing that we can do with our puppies even though we need to maintain a physical distance from other people right now. Now is a great time to go out walking and see other dogs also out walking at a distance, because more people are home and walking dogs during the day. If you are not in isolation or quarantine, able to walk around while still following the most current restrictions and maintain a 6' distance from others then go and checkout different places where your puppy will walk on different surfaces, hear different noises and see different things. Just keep your physical distance from others and stay safe!
It is vital at this time to follow any guidelines or restrictions enacted to keep people safe, so you may find that you need to change your socialization plan should circumstances change.
If you cannot leave your home at this time, you need to get a bit more creative. You can often find some free sound effects online that you can expose your puppy to at low volumes. Look around your home, what else might your puppy not have seen yet? An umbrella? You wearing a hat, helmet, scarf or sunglasses? Use your imagination and play dress up. Some dogs actually watch TV - does your puppy? How about some nature shows? It requires more creativity, but you can get started with your puppy's socialization indoors.
And if you are looking for more guidance getting started with your puppy's training, I also teach an virtual puppy class online. You can find more information on my website or by contacting me.
Comments are closed.