Puppy and Pandemic. Two words that are at odds with one another and create two very different pictures of daily life. Our lives are anything but typical right now, with new information in the media every day and great attention paid to the proximity of other people. As a species, we thrive on routine and we revel in social gatherings and events. Like everyone else, I’m doing my very best to maintain some semblance of normalcy. Video chatting groups of friends, going for walks in nature with my dog, making popcorn, and binge-watching the next season of… well, basically everything that’s on Netflix. So far, these small consistencies have kept me and my dogs sane, but I have to wonder how you’re doing out there with your young puppy.
I know from experience that puppy raising is no small undertaking. I also know that life right now is not lending a hand to the healthy social development of young dogs. My own puppy just hit 11 months of age and, as we look out my living room window together, I wonder… When is she going to be able to go to the dog park again? When is she going to be able to meet more new people? When are we going to be able to try competing in some sports? Everything might be on hold right now, but her growth isn’t. Her emotional and mental development doesn’t have a pause button. So how do I teach her the world is good? That strangers aren’t scary? Or, that new places are fun? I have some good news! We can’t do everything we usually would, but great socialization can still be achieved, all while practicing appropriate social distancing. Below are some tips for you to help your puppy continue to learn and develop during these trying times.
The world is good
While we can’t experience the world in the ways we’ve come to love, it’s still out there and our puppies are going to see, smell, and hear it. They’re going to continue to develop feelings about those things they can sense, and we can still do some work to increase the likelihood our puppies feel good about those things. One of the ways we can work with our puppies to continue socializing them and supporting their development during this time is by doing some sound conditioning. Safe sound conditioning happens at home and at incredibly low volumes. To practice sound conditioning means exposing your puppy to low levels of particular sounds while they eat food/treats or engage in play in order to try to protect them from experiencing noise traumas or developing noise phobias in the future.
For example: While your puppy is eating dinner or treats, you can play the sound of a garbage truck on your phone at the lowest possible volume. The goal is for your puppy to barely notice the noise and to continue eating their food as usual. Similarly, they may acknowledge the sound (you may see their ears prick, their head turn, or they may stop eating for a moment) then go on eating. The goal is to use a variety of sounds at a slowly increasing volume and for your puppy to go on as if nothing is happening at all. These will be sounds that your puppy is likely to encounter throughout their lifetime that may have a negative effect on them. Sounds like thunderstorms, fireworks, city noises (such as trucks, motorcycles, sirens), other dogs barking, etc. Any signs of stress mean the volume should be lowered, or the sound itself should be changed to something less startling.*
“Essentially what you’re doing is feeding your dog food they love when they hear a new, unfamiliar sound… This creates a predictive relationship between the noise and the food.” – Preparing for July 4th
Strangers aren’t scary
Even with puppies who are genetically inclined to be lovable and safe with unfamiliar people, we have to remember socialization is an important aspect of emotional development. We can’t rely on just genetics to teach a puppy what, or in this case who is safe.
“…you will have the most influence over your puppy’s socialization between 8-16 weeks of age. That’s because during this period they easily make strong associations with the world around them. These connections can be positive (what is safe, fun, or comfortable) or negative (what is scary, not fun, or uncomfortable).” – Socialization Do’s and Don’ts
Some breeds of dogs are predisposed to being more suspicious or fearful of strangers. For those breeds, continuing socialization while practicing appropriate social distancing and safety protocols will be extremely important.
One of the easiest ways to work on teaching your puppy strangers aren’t scary is actually a method that requires social distancing (with or without a pandemic). It might seem counter-intuitive to keep your puppy far away from other people, especially when you want them to feel good about those people, but it’s great training to allow your puppy to passively watch people from a distance while eating treats, rolling in the grass, playing with toys, or getting praise from you. If your puppy is already showing signs they’re nervous of strangers, use high-value food to create positive associations, just like you would when sound conditioning. When out on a walk or adventure, if your puppy sees a person at a distance, feed them those extra special treats. When that person disappears, stop feeding them treats. For puppies that are less concerned by unfamiliar people, this practice works just as well to teach them to give you attention when out in the world and reinforces how relaxed they feel around strangers.
You can also practice making positive associations by taking your pup out for a car ride. Park near a walking path (or similar space where people may be walking) and play the same game in your car. Stay in your vehicle and people watch. When your puppy spots a person, begin feeding treats to help them make those positive associations. When that person moves out of sight, stop feeding them treats. The plus side is hopefully your puppy will come to love car rides!
The third way you can practice socialization with strangers is by doing porch visits with friends and family members you can trust to listen to instruction. Take some chalk and mark a big “X” on the sidewalk at the end of your walkway or at the end of your driveway, this should be at least 6 feet away from where you and your puppy will be. However, since most leashes are 6 feet long a 12-foot buffer might make more sense. This “X marks the spot” where you want people to stand or sit. You could also use a cone, a lawn ornament, or a stake flag to mark this location. (Your place marker should be something that can stay outside so you don’t have to touch it or take it back in later.) They should be instructed to stay on the chalk “X” or by the object during their entire visit. You and your puppy will stay on the porch or down the driveway, also maintaining the 6ft-12ft distance at all times.
When your puppy first sees your guest, feed them some high-value treats. After they eat 5-10 treats, pause. If your puppy continues to stare or shows any signs of stress, get their attention with a handful of treats, then scatter those treats on the ground a few feet further away from the guests, always keeping the 6ft-12ft distance. After the initial treats have been given, you will have to continue supporting your puppy to help build those positive associations. You can have a blanket set up for them to lay on, some fun toys to play with, a bowl of water, and as you sit with them on your porch you can offer praise and petting if they enjoy it. As long as they seem comfortable, continue to scatter a few treats on their blanket every minute. Do no more than 5-10 minutes of this, then take your puppy back inside to rest (keep in mind, they might need to go potty after eating treats, playing, and drinking water). Once your puppy has gone potty and has been put away, you can either continue to converse with your guest while observing appropriate social distancing practices or go back inside to keep watching Netflix.
New places are fun
I’ve got to admit, right now I don’t think new places are very fun. With the world in its current state, many of us have a lot of anxiety surrounding the idea of being in novel public spaces where you don’t know exactly what to expect. I imagine that’s probably how some puppies feel when they go to new places, too. The bright side is, you can still help your puppy have good experiences in new places. It’s as simple as getting in the car, driving to an empty parking lot or field, getting out of the car to stretch your legs, giving your puppy some treats, playing with toys, then hopping back into the car. Short bursts of fun games, toys, and tasty treats in new spaces will be a perfect way to supplement your socialization plan.
You can get creative with the places you visit. Head to an empty baseball diamond, the parking lot of your vet clinic, adventure to an area where you can see a river or body of water, then head to a quiet country park and vice versa. Imagine all the places you’d like to go with your dog someday, and as long as it is safe to do so, go visit them. Then, sing the alphabet twice as you wash your hands and head home with your adorable puppy.
Remember, it’s imperative your puppy continues to receive socialization, enrichment, and exercise, and there are so many ways to accomplish this. It’s in your hands to decide how to best prepare your puppy for the world, for future life experiences, and for life after quarantine. In many cities, dog day care and boarding have been deemed essential, and we’re proud to provide care for the dogs of essential care workers and our Central Bark family of customers. For more tips on training, enrichment, socialization, and more follow us on Facebook and Instagram @CentralBarkUSA or call your local Central Bark for ideas.
See you next time, at Central Bark!
Carla is a Behavior & Operation Advisor for Central Bark and co-owns a dog training and behavior consulting business, Good Karma Canine. Carla has three dogs Karma, a seven-year-old American Staffordshire Terrier Mix; Gypsy, a five-year-old Bull Terrier/Lab Mix; and Newt, a two-year-old Chihuahua.