Everyone has puppy fever right now! With the arrival of spring and the extra time we have on our hands, it seems like a great time to bring home your next furry family member. All those adorable puppy pictures on Facebook don’t help much either!
If you recently brought home a cute ball of fluff, or perhaps you’re preparing to bring home your new canine friend in the coming weeks, it’s important that you think through the best ways to raise a well-socialized stable dog during this challenging time. There is so much we can do to socialize our puppies, even without meeting many other people and dogs! And dare I even say that your puppy will be better off socializing during this time of social distancing.
It seems that our culture has become almost obsessed with puppy socialization. Everyone wants their puppies to play with as many other dogs as possible, meet all kinds of people, and have a million new experiences. Every person the puppy sees must give the puppy a treat, and the pup is allowed to say hello to every dog that he comes across. Fast forward a few months, and your once-adorable little puppy now loses his mind when he sees a dog, barking and lunging out of frustration from not being able to say hello. When a person approaches, the much-larger puppy is now jumping and whining and is unable to settle down, despite the owner pleading with the dog to “get down, get down, sit!” Our socialization methods of the past few years are creating dogs that have a strong desire to interact with every person and dog that they see, and not being able to interact can lead to frustration.
I always tell my clients, “socialization is exposure, not interaction.” I firmly believe that puppies need to be exposed to many different environments, sounds, sights, people, dogs, and situations. But just as strongly, I feel that the puppy needs to see people and dogs as neutral; nothing to worry about, but nothing to get excited about either.
Which leads me into some thoughts about socializing our puppies during this pandemic. Right now, we are not allowed to gather in groups or get closer than 6 feet to any other person. As hard as it is for us humans, it’s really perfect for our puppies! From a very early age, we’re teaching our pups that they will see other humans and dogs out on walks, and that while we might say “hello” as we are passing by, we are not going to stop and play with the other dog, or interact with the other person. We’re teaching our pups that there is no reason to get excited about other people and dogs, and (hopefully) that these people and dogs are going to ignore us as well. What a great lesson for our puppies! Walk along, stay with mom or dad, see all these things, but keep walking. Nothing to get excited about, nothing to get nervous about.
Important Things to Consider and How to Address Them
Socialization is about exposure, yes, but it’s about having POSITIVE experiences. During the socialization period, (also called the sensitive period, usually starting around 3 weeks until 12-16 weeks) one negative experience with something can have life-long consequences. Thankfully, one positive experience will benefit the puppy. This means that you need to make sure you are setting up positive experiences! When you are taking your pup to new environments, really pay attention to be sure your dog is happy and confident. If you live in the country, take your puppy to town and walk near traffic and city noises, but don’t take your pup to a super busy place the first day. If you live in town, find a country road to walk down with pastures and farm animals. If your puppy is exhibiting signs of stress, then cut your outing short or end in a place with which your puppy is familiar and comfortable.
Fear Periods (which happen while we are trying to socialize our puppies!)
It’s normal for puppies to go through periods of time where they are nervous or even a bit fearful about novel experiences. Trying to force interaction with something (or someone) with which the puppy is not comfortable can definitely do more harm than good. If you notice that your puppy is fearful about something, even something the pup has previously been comfortable with, don’t worry! Allow the pup to check it out however he wants, but don’t try to convince the pup to get any closer. If the pup wants to walk away, that’s fine. Listen to your puppy and do not force him past his comfort zone.
Many people try to use treats to help a fearful puppy but how you do so matters.
For example, you have a puppy who is scared of men with hats. When you come across a man with a hat, it is a common strategy to hand him treats and ask him to feed your puppy. The well-meaning man tries to coax him closer as he stares straight at the puppy, leans over, and entices him with a treat. Your puppy really wants the treat, so he tries so hard to get the treat by stretching his neck as far as possible without moving his feet. When the puppy finally snatches the treat, he realizes that he’s way too close and is overwhelmed with negative emotions about the situation, all centering around that man with a hat.
Instead, listen to your puppy. If he’s fearful about the man with the hat, praise him for just looking at him. Feed the treat away from him to help release the pressure the puppy feels. Don’t make a big deal out of it, but rather just keep moving.
Reactive dogs will have a negative effect on your puppy, so try to minimize this exposure as much as possible. This includes barking dogs in fences.
If you are out walking and come across a reactive dog (one that barks and lunges at you and your puppy), what should you do?
- Stay as far away as possible while you feed your puppy treats.
- You can do a 180 degree turn to walk away from the other dog while praising your puppy.
- You can cross the street.
- If you have a problem dog in your neighborhood, avoid that house.
- If you find yourself in a situation where another dog is barking at you, do your best to show the puppy that there isn’t anything to be concerned with. Feed the puppy treats and leave the situation as quickly as possible. Please don’t listen to the owner of the dog when he or she says things like “Oh he’s friendly” or “He just wants to say hi!”
Remember that your priority is your puppy and making sure he has positive experiences.
Crating and Alone Time
If you are at home more often than normal during this pandemic, you need to help your puppy adjust with what will eventually be your normal schedule. Part of a puppy’s life is spending time away from his owners, relaxing in a crate or ex-pen. Even if you are home the majority of the time, there will be times when you need to leave your dog at home, so it’s important to prepare the puppy for that when he is young. I recommend using a crate for the puppy’s safety. There are many ways to positively introduce your dog to a crate, and it’s definitely something that every dog should be taught to be comfortable with. If you choose not to use a crate at home or in the car, consider the fact that your dog must be crated when left with a groomer, a boarding kennel or the veterinarian. You don’t want being crated to add stress to any of those situations. Crate acclimation is an essential part of preparing any puppy for the realities of life.
How Do You Start?
Start by having a crate near where you will be sitting or working. Make sure your puppy has been fed, pottied, and exercised before crate time. It’s best to do this with a tired puppy. Stuff a kong with canned food or use some other safe enticing chew toy, and put it in the kennel. I usually will attach the chew toy to the crate with a zip tie or something similar so I don’t have to shut the door. This way the puppy can choose to stay in the crate or come out. If the dog wants the kong or other chew toy, he will have to stay in the kennel. After a few days, when the puppy is comfortable being in the kennel and chewing the toy, you can start shutting the door for short periods of time. During this time you are just going about your business as normal. Keep your sessions short and successful. You want the pup to be happy and comfortable.
Eventually you will progress to leaving your puppy for short periods of time. The sooner you begin this training the easier it will be for everyone involved, including the puppy! Be systematic and thoughtful about crate training and it will pay off.
Here is an excellent blog post on crate training. This is Part 1 of a four part post.
Having a puppy is a fun and exciting time, but remember that your job is to raise the best dog that you can. You aren’t going to be home forever, so teach your puppy that he will have to be apart from you sometimes. Get your puppy out to socialize with other people and dogs at a distance. Introduce your pup to many new experiences and situations. Wear a mask around the house to teach him that people in masks aren’t scary. Don’t forget to keep training the puppy even though you can’t attend classes!
If you need some help with training your puppy, Golden Paws Dog Training is here for you! We are set up to do virtual private lessons. We can show you demos with our own dogs and watch you train your puppy and offer advice in real time. All you need is a smart phone or tablet with a camera or a laptop. Remember that your puppy’s socialization periods ends somewhere in between 12 and 16 weeks and there’s much to be done before that period closes, so let us help you! Contact us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about our online training options.