Home Feature news It's not too late to socialize your pandemic puppy

It’s not too late to socialize your pandemic puppy

Along with separation anxiety, socialization is a behavioral challenge that many “pandemic puppies” are now facing. 

Introducing your puppy to new experiences is a critical part of their development. Simple things like having friends over to your house, taking your puppy out to a pet-friendly restaurant, or going to in-person puppy classes are all ways to socialize your pup — and all are experiences they may have missed out on when we sheltered in place.

Even for dogs raised before the pandemic, the same might be true. Just like you might be feeling awkward or overwhelmed after such a long period without much social interaction, your dog’s social skills might be rusty, too. 

Socializing your dog early on is very important, but it’s not a lost cause if you missed the socialization window or your dog needs a refresher. There are things you can do to curb or correct their behavior. 

Why is socialization important?

Socialization is exposing your puppy to other animals, people, places, and experiences. It’s animal instinct to fear the unknown — it’s a matter of survival! — so it’s important to teach puppies about new things so they learn not to fear them.

“Socialization is letting those animals know about as much stuff as they can in the society where we live,” explains Claudine Prud’homme, a certified canine behavior consultant who specializes in fear, phobias, and separation anxiety. “Stuff like a hat, a truck, being out at night, a different noise, a child, are not necessarily things that they come in with the software to be comfortable with.” 

As Debbie Martin, a veterinary technician who specializes in behavior, points out, socialization doesn’t always have to mean interaction; it could just be seeing or observing something new. “We think that we haven’t done the socialization if they haven’t interacted with people or dogs, and that’s not true,” she explains. “What we want them to learn is that things in the environment, whether it’s a duck or a bird or squirrel, or a person or a cat or a dog, are just nothing really to worry about.”

When puppies don’t have these experiences, they can grow up to become fearful and withdrawn. 

Without exposure to new experiences, puppies might become fearful.
Credit: Getty Images

What is happening with all of these pandemic puppies?

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 23 million pets (dogs and cats) were acquired during the pandemic. Of those that were puppies, sheltering in place with their owners is all they’ve ever known. Though many people saw getting outside with their dogs as a crucial way to destress, it is less likely for dogs to have gotten a ton of socialization like they would have in non-pandemic times. “This means they might have stayed in their own houses or yards, not getting out in the community to meet new people or experience new places,” wrote Dr. Mary Burch, an animal behaviorist and director of American Kennel Club’s biweekly magazine, Family Dog, in an email response. “Some have never met another adult dog.”  

Martin, who wrote Puppy Start Right: Foundation Training for the Companion Dog with her husband, veterinary behaviorist Kenneth Martin, tells clients that a three-month-old puppy is almost like a seven-year-old child. “If we never took them anywhere and the only people they were around were their human parents, maybe the things that are in the household, as well as going to maybe the pediatrician, if those are the only other experiences they had? By seven, getting those social skills would be challenging.”

Imagine how it feels to be thrown in with a group of people they don’t know, or suddenly going to a lot of different environments. “They would be overwhelmed, and we only can get so much of that back,” she continued.

What is the “socialization window”? 

When Martin says “we can only get so much of that back,” she’s referring to a period of time during a puppy’s life called the “socialization window.” The socialization window is a developmental phase from about three to 16 weeks (or up to 4 months old) when puppies are “more primed and open to new experiences,” says Martin. They’re also less fearful in general at this age.

During this period, puppies can “readily recover from frightening experiences. Something that startles them, they rebound pretty quickly,” she continues. “They are creating and forming memories and trying to determine what’s safe and unsafe in their life.” 

Proper socialization is one of the reasons breeders typically keep puppies for at least eight weeks before owners can take them home. Puppies learn critical socialization by being with their littermates and mother. By eight weeks, they have a strong foundation, and would typically continue to have new experiences when they are brought home — being in a new place, meeting children, going for walks, going to puppy classes, etc. Even if your puppy hasn’t been fully vaccinated, several leading veterinary organizations say that in a safe and controlled manner, socialization can be prioritized.

But during the pandemic, puppies were brought home to a socially-isolated world and possibly missed out on the final weeks of their socialization window. For puppies or adult dogs that were adopted, the issue becomes even more convoluted. They may not have ever been properly socialized, and might have an even harder time adjusting to new experiences. 

A Dalmatian poking its head from behind a chair
It might be harder for rescues to adapt to new experiences.
Credit: Getty Images

Can I still socialize my dog after that window?

The short answer is yes, but it will be harder. “It doesn’t mean it’s all doomed if you got your dog and they were five months old and didn’t have much socialization,” said Martin. “It’s just a lot easier when they’ve had some good experiences.”

The key to socializing or re-socializing your dog is to go slowly. “You have to go really gradually with your exposure, and address right away the fact that they’re going to be very scared of everything,” says Prud’homme. Every step needs to be a positive experience.

It is also important to remember that there might be limitations. Your dog might always be fearful of certain things. “But that really also becomes an individual case-by-case depending on the dog,” says Prud’homme. “Some dogs are very resilient; some are way more sensitive, so it’s a lot of factors.” 

Plus, dogs have different personalities and might simply be shy or reserved. “It’s important for us to realize that they can make specific friends, they can get comfortable with certain situations, ideally,” says Martin. “But it doesn’t mean that they’re going to be able to just do everything we want them to do.” Whether it’s a part of their personality or lack of socialization, forcing them to do something they don’t want to will only create negative associations, thus making them more resistant to change.

What should I do if my dog needs to be socialized or re-socialized?

Get to know your dog

Generally speaking, before you try any socialization, your dog needs to feel like they can trust you. “The very first step in socialization is for your puppy or newly acquired dog to be comfortable around you,” says Burch. She recommends practicing these things everyday: “Pet your dog, hold [them] in different positions, handle the ears, feet, and mouth, play with your dog, call the dog to come to you, teach your dog a basic skill.” Have other members of your family do the same. 

Once your dog is comfortable around you and the members of your household, it’s time to study. “The first thing owners need to be able to do is to identify when their dog is happy and relaxed and when it’s not,” says Martin. “So when it’s maybe a little bit nervous or anxious, what does that dog look like?” That’s valuable information for gauging new experiences.

Invite visitors 

Next, Burch recommends exposing your dog to new people by inviting visitors to the house. If you have a yard, start with a visitor just in the yard. Then move on to a visitor entering the house. 

A baby and dog meeting
Baby steps.
Credit: Getty Images

Plan some trips

“Social experiences” as Martin calls them, are little trips designed for controlled exposure. This could be taking the dog to a pet-friendly store like Lowes or Home Depot or a new place like a restaurant or lively park. Prud’homme recommends making a checklist of experiences so you can work through it methodically. 

The key is to associate each step of the process with something positive, like a really delicious treat. Start at the outskirts of a place and make sure you’re observing the dog’s body language. If they’re starting to get nervous, move back until they’re comfortable again. You might also notice they’re nervous if you ask for a behavior and they don’t do it, or you give them a treat and they don’t eat it. If that happens, get them to where they’re comfortable again. Your dog needs to feel like they have autonomy of the situation, so every step must be at their pace. 

Martin says to take lots of breaks and that some social experiences might only last five minutes. You want to create positive associations from the start rather than try to change your dog’s mind about a negative association. In other words, be proactive, not reactive: “If they’re showing signs of fear, or apprehension, they’re probably not going to take treats, and you’ve already lost the opportunity to create that positive association.”

Go slow and steady

“Gradually, gradually,” says Prud’homme. “Think, you have to walk before you run, go from kindergarten to university. You have to move gradually, to the rhythm of the animal. The thing with any kind of stress or fear is definitely not to push.” 

A girl giving a dog a treat
Make sure the treats you’re giving are delicious.
Credit: Getty Images

When to bring in the experts 

If your dog is acting aggressive out of fear or completely shutting down because they’re so scared, Prud’homme advises seeking out a trainer for everyone’s safety. An improperly socialized dog could bite another dog or person, or injure themselves. And the problem won’t go away on its own. There are several online directories for animal behaviorists, animal trainers, and animal behavior consultants, which is a good way to start your search.

Just know that if you address the issue and seek professional help, your dog can be helped. As Prud’homme tells her clients, “There’s a lot of work to do. I won’t lie to you, it’s not going to be settled in one week, but we can do it. It’s just a matter of going slowly and just hanging in there. We’ll make it happen.” 

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