Puppy Socialization During Covid-19

Katie contacted me and asked: “I have a socialization question. We have a 5 month old puppy. She was enrolled in puppy kindergarten, but wasn’t able to finish classes due to social distancing. Do you have any ideas on how to continue to socialize her safely? Or do you thinking focusing on obedience is enough for the time being?”

I am having this conversation with many clients as of recent. I do a lot of training online, via Zoom sessions, with clients here in the Lincoln/Omaha region of Nebraska, around the country and in other countries. This current state of social distancing, and in many areas, “shelter in place” has created a big concern over how to socialize puppies when we cannot get out and be social ourselves.

Socialization is my number one priority when working with clients who enroll in my Puppy Einstein – Right Start Program. You can always catch up on teaching obedience and manners, but instilling good social trust and comfort has time restrictions. Puppies need proper socialization to develop into confident and trusting adult dogs.

What is socialization? Socialization means learning to be part of society. When we talk about socializing puppies, it means helping them learn to be comfortable and feel safe within human society. Socialization training is all about building a positive, trusting and comfortable association with the world that they will encounter now and throughout their changing lives.

Whether in the middle of a global pandemic or not, puppy socialization should go far beyond the limits of a puppy socialization class, where puppies are exposed to only the same environment, same people, and same puppies week after week. Socialization should include the world and all the worldly interactions the puppy will encounter as an adult.

Puppies are new to this world, and everything in this world is new to them. Socialization training means exposing your puppy to the world around them, sights, smells, touch, surfaces, people, other dogs and animals, and so on, in the most positive manner.

Before I go further in how to succeed at socialization training given the present state of things, let me talk a moment, in brief, about what good socialization looks like.

The purpose of socialization is to build trust, confidence and comfort with the world around. This means it must be done on the individual puppy’s terms and rate of personal comfort. Some pups are bold and brassy and not bothered by much, others are a bit more subdued and cautious. NEVER force or coerce a puppy into a situation that creates caution or fear. This does not fit the goal of building trust, confidence and comfort, and can lead to fearful tendencies down the road.

Are you familiar with consent testing? If not, you should be. This is a simple way of asking your puppy if they are comfortable and if they want to interact, whether it be with a person, other dog, new environment or situation.  Consent testing lets the puppy make the choice to interact or not, depending on their own personal comfort level. This should always be applied when meeting people (children included) and other dogs/animals. Consent testing is all about watching your puppy and reading their body language, and their desire to engage and interact.

So we are learning, it’s not just important to socialize puppies … it is important to socialize puppies right!

Remember socialization means exposure to the world … sight, sounds … and so on. The best way to do this is to expose your puppy in small doses that are not overwhelming and pair the new stimuli (sound, sight, touch …) with something very pleasant like food or play.

At home you can work on sounds. There are numerous apps available that produce “worldly sounds” cars, trucks, tractors and trains to people screaming, children crying, to fireworks and thunderstorms. Whatever sound you cannot find on an app you can find on a YouTube video … trust me! One of my favorite apps is Pup School Sound Proof Puppy Training. The directions on how to systematically expose your puppy to the sounds is right in the app. Exposing to human sounds such as talking, talking in different accents, loud talking, yelling, screaming, children laughing, children crying, children giggling … sounds pared with happy treats and play. What about dogs barking? Well there are sound apps for that too. Elephants trumpeting, yup, that too. You name the sound and you can find it! The more sounds that you systematically expose your puppy to in the most positive way, the more confidence and comfort you will build.

You can work on visual socialization by presenting to your pup and then putting on “odd clothing” such as big hats, sun glasses, a scarf over your mouth, big cloves. All of this should be done systematically and only at your dog’s comfort level. What about other visual stimuli? Broom = treat, brooms in hand = treat, brooms being held over your head = treat. What other odd items can you let your puppy see and be exposed too in a safe and systematic way?

Surfaces can be introduced. Walking over plastic = treats, on a piece of board = treats, over PVC piping you laid on the floor = treats. You can introduce at home puppy agility equipment … tunes, wobble board, puppy teeter-totter … be creative.

What about handling? Systematically get your puppy used to touch, picking up paws, looking in ears and mouth, brushing and nail clipping, systematically get your puppy used to hands moving towards him, over his head, petty nicely, or tapping at. You can systematically get your puppy used to being held such as a vet tech might do for medical procedures.

But what about exposure to people? Well this can be done too. Can you go outside where you live? Good. Go out to local parks or hang out in your yard and wait for neighbors to come out or people to walk by. Whenever your puppy sees a person, start to play or train, or just start giving a favorite treat. This is classical conditioning. I see that, I get this scrumptious treat, I really like seeing that. Can this work? You bet it can. If every time I saw a person I got a bite of pizza, I would be over the moon about seeing people. You can engage people in a short conversation “hello, nice day…” as you give your pup treats. Let’s face it, you have a puppy!!!!! People are going to want to walk closer to you, stop and chat and help if you ask them.

– I have a friend who is presently raising a young puppy. Every day she takes the puppy out for socialization walks, giving her pup exposure to traffic sounds (at a distant), horses (at a distant) people biking, jogging and walking (at a distant). She is making every exposure fun and exciting … only getting closer as her puppy is comfortable and shows greater interest. This puppy is being exposed to big wooden or cardboard boxes he can explore, children’s playgrounds and walking in the woods were he can climb over or under downed trees, hear birds, seeing deer. He is seeing and hearing tractors and trains, at a great distance. With careful guidance and attention from his person, this puppy is getting out and meeting the world.

As you can see there is no end to all the many ways you can continually expose your puppy to sights, sounds, handling and all the many new and evolving situations he/she might encounter as they continue to mature into adulthood.

The more you expose your puppy to in a positive, safe, trusting and comfortable manner the more confident he/she will be in general.

Can engaging in training help socialize a puppy? Absolutely! Training should be presented in a positive and motivational manner that builds ability and confidence. Whether teaching tricks, basic obedience exercises or manners related behaviors, it’s all about how you teach. Make it fun, build on engagement and always focus on teaching your puppy how to succeed!

To learn more about online or in-home Puppy Einstein-Right Start training programs for your puppy contact us today!  

Happy Training!

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