Right now, during widespread stay-at-home orders, it’s probably the best time to adopt a dog. But, how can you effectively socialize a new puppy when you’re not supposed to leave the house? I reached out to a dog trainer who specializes in puppy socialization and training to find out.
Socialization is the process of introducing your new puppy to the wider world. From three weeks to about 16 weeks old, a puppy’s brain is like a sponge, soaking up everything it encounters and creating the associations that inform its lifelong relationship with those things. Because a puppy’s most sensitive socialization period runs from about eight to 12 weeks in age, it corresponds with the time that you typically bring a new puppy home. So, if you just adopted a puppy, you need to be out there socializing right now.
“This is probably the best time ever to socialize a puppy, too,” says Kalie Wiser, who runs Wiser Dog Training in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “I always say add distance and apply food,” she continues. “And right now, that distance is built in.” Wiser goes on to explain that it’s critical to stay below what she calls the “stress threshold” as you’re creating those new experiences. That’s the point where a dog begins to react to said experience. And her advice for doing that before the pandemic was already to maintain enough distance between the puppy and the chosen stimulus that you avoid a reaction.
So, rather than introducing a new puppy to strange children for the first time by allowing those kids to wrestle with the dog, Wiser instead recommends taking the puppy to a place it can see children playing, then giving it treats to begin building a positive association with the presence of children in the puppy’s mind. With social distancing orders instructing all of us to stay at least six feet apart, staying below your puppy’s stress threshold should be easier than ever.
Keeping with that example of human children, if your puppy becomes programmed to associate their noisy, invasive presence with positive reinforcements, it will be cool around kids for the rest of its life. The same goes for loud noises, car rides, and anything else you don’t want your dog to be afraid of.
Of course, there are things you may be unable to encounter during that four-week window at the best of times, let alone right now. People who look, sound, and smell differently than you may be hard to come by inside your house, so Wiser recommends playing YouTube videos of people talking in ways that may be unusual to your puppy. Different accents, shouting, stuff like that. She does the same for potentially stressful sounds like thunder and fireworks, but stays below the threshold by starting those sounds off at very low volumes. And the trainer also recommends using your home stereo or Bluetooth speakers, to make sure those unusual voices or strange sounds come from unexpected locations at unexpected times, not just from your computer while you’re sitting in front of it.
To recreate visual stimuli, wear hats and hoods around your house—anything you can do to expose your puppy to novel-looking people. And again, through all of this, be careful to make the experiences easy and positive by avoiding anything that might scare your puppy, and reinforcing those positive connections with treats.
In the U.S. right now, taking your dog for a walk remains a permitted activity as long as social distancing and other guidelines are appropriately followed. And while Wiser typically recommends visiting places like green areas adjacent to shopping centers to encounter people at an appropriate distance, it may be hard to find heavily trafficked areas. So, just go to places where people may still be present. If people are exercising at your local park, you could take your puppy there so they can watch that from a distance. If people are coming and going from your local grocery store, taking your puppy to the far side of the parking lot might be what works. With socialization, you have to try to seek out novel experiences even at the best of times. Right now, that may just involve a little more work.
And, with limited time out of the house, it’s important to bring your puppy along as you run your essential errands. Just be careful not to leave them unsupervised inside a car, or outside of a store—all this may need to involve two people.
The ways in which the coronavirus may impact dogs, or if and for how long the virus may be able to live on their fur and paws is currently unknown. So, allowing people from outside your personal quarantine program to touch your puppy is probably a bad idea, as is allowing their dogs to physically interact with yours. But using a leash to jerk a puppy away from other people or dogs could risk creating negative reinforcements with those interactions. Wiser says that this is a perfect illustration of how important it is to begin training your new puppy to respond to, and follow you, even in the presence of distractions.
“Start by using treats to train your puppy to focus on you, and follow you around in a distraction-free environment, then slowly scale into the presence of other stimuli,” she explains. “A leash should only ever be a backup,” not the primary way in which you direct your dog. Fortunately, good social distancing will help here, too.
A puppy’s inoculations against disease correspond with its socialization period, creating a conundrum for dog owners even during normal times. Your vet will tell you not to expose a puppy to potential infections until all of its vaccines are completed, which typically occurs at 16 weeks. Your trainer will tell you your puppy needs to be out in the world, gaining experiences during that time. Both Wiser and I fall into that latter school of thought, and she pointed to a paper by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior that reads: “Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.”
I ran my whole theory on including outdoor activities, like camping and nature experiences, in the socialization process past Wiser. She cautions that a puppy’s exercise should be limited to short periods to avoid damaging their joints as they’re growing quickly, but agrees that creating positive connections around stuff like sleeping outside and campfires is important if those are things you want your adult dog to enjoy. Camping out in your backyard should be just as fun for you as it is for your puppy right now.
As your puppy gains experience, its stress threshold should also increase. The key is to remain aware of where it lies, and to scale experiences over time as that threshold evolves. Getting started with socialization is the easy part, but scaled experiences will look different for every owner and every dog. Your relationship with the animal will also evolve during this time, hopefully giving you the judgement and feedback necessary to suit your individual circumstances. What will remain constant is the need for every puppy owner to take the need for socialization seriously, even during this pandemic. “Stay at home orders are no excuse not to socialize your puppy,” says Wiser.