How do you navigate socializing your puppy during a worldwide pandemic? How do you strategically meet all of your dog’s needs? Do you need to be worried about socialization?
These are the questions dog owners have been asking themselves over the last several months as they try to adapt to the ever-changing rules for attending school, work, and extracurricular activities. In order to answer these questions, we have to dive into how dogs’ bodies and brains work, and how we provide for them.
Every dog is unique
Every dog is a unique individual whose needs and wants will be influenced by their genetics, age, and learning history. That being said, let’s start off by defining the general needs of dogs and puppies. While each dog will have the basic needs of food, water and shelter, they will also require mental enrichment, physical exercise, and ideally, healthy social interactions with other members of their own species. Of course, rather than befriending unfamiliar dogs every time they visit the dog park, there are many adult dogs who prefer socializing with people (sometimes only their close family) or enjoy friendships with familiar dogs and, sometimes, non-canine animals. In any case, having all of these needs met is critical for a dog’s emotional and physical wellness.
Finding the right balance
There is a fine line between having a bored dog with plenty of energy to burn and having an over-stimulated, over-tired dog on your hands. The right balance and amount of time required to meet those needs is as unique as each individual dog. According to the National Sleep Foundation, and the American Kennel Club, adult dogs typically spend up to 14 hours a day sleeping, while puppies can spend up to 20 hours a day sleeping, both spending about 4 hours active during the day, with adult dogs spending the extra 6 hours awake usually lounging or self-entertaining with toys and chews, snuggling, or watching the world outside of their viewing window.
This means the average dog does not need 8 hours a day of non-stop exercise to have its needs met. The good news is that makes your life inherently easier because taking care of your dog or puppy does not need to be a full-time job but it will take some planning and thoughtful management to help set them up for long-term success. After all, what they practice in their adolescence and puppyhood is what will become more ingrained in their behavioral repertoire as adult dogs. That’s right, most puppies do not “grow out” of the behaviors you may not find particularly endearing.
Coming up with a strategy
Understanding that what you do with a puppy will help to shape their behavior as an adult is crucial for coming up with a strategy to support their healthy, well-rounded development. Using punitive methods of teaching can have an effect on how their brain develops. A puppy’s lack of physical confidence can lead to nervousness in new environments. A deficit of safe social interactions with other puppies and dogs can cause a puppy to reach maturity feeling uncomfortable sharing space with or engaging with other dogs or can set them up to practice inappropriate play behaviors that ultimately may lead to social conflicts. As mentioned earlier, genetics will absolutely be a large influencer for your puppy’s behavior as they reach adulthood, but there is a lot that can be done to support their growth and fulfill their needs.
We already know that rest is important, so now it’s time to fill the four hours of daily activity with some healthy stimulation. This should be a combination of several different approaches throughout the day and should not be four straight hours of one type of activity.
Feeding & mental enrichment
First, change the way you are feeding your pup their daily meals. Feeding your puppy or adult dog out of food puzzle toys, like Snuffle Mats, Slo-Bowls, and Kong Wobblers (or a combination of multiple puzzle toys) is a great way to engage their brains and keep them mentally active. This simple change can mean your dog is busy for up to 30 minutes at a time, which can be a substantial difference if your dog usually demolishes their meals in 30 seconds.
The wonderful thing about this form of mental enrichment is that it takes very little additional work on your part, it helps to create dogs who are critical thinkers, and it causes a release of dopamine and serotonin in your dog’s brain and body. This can help lead to more healthy rest and relaxation and is a great way to cool down after an engaging training session or bout of physical exercise.
The physical exercise component of dog and puppy care can be fairly self-regulated by our dogs as long as we give them a safe space to explore. Most dogs and puppies will sniff, run, and roll to their heart’s content, without overdoing it. However, puppies and adolescent dogs, in particular, can play beyond their body’s capacity and their lack of self-regulation can sometimes be expected as they become excited about certain repetitive behaviors like chasing a ball, playing with another dog, or swimming. Where some breeds of dog may just stop playing once they become tired, a retriever may continue to chase a ball well beyond their body’s limitations leading to potential injuries as they continue to push themselves to obsessively play fetch. This behavior is influenced by their genetics and would need to be thoughtfully paused after a short period of time.
A great way to provide physical exercise to your puppy or adult dog is to take them out for Decompression Walks. Simply put, a decompression walk is a walk where your dog is wearing a back-clip harness and walking on a long line that you hold onto. The long line can be anywhere from 20-40 feet, or longer, and these walks should only be done in safe spaces where your dog is not able to approach the road or unfamiliar people or dogs.
The wonderful aspect of these types of walks is that the focus is not on social interaction with other people or dogs but could take place in areas where other people and dogs can be seen at a safe distance. This allows you to practice appropriate social distancing and also allows you to socialize your young puppy to the sights and sounds of the world.
Socialization & novel objects
Know that a key element of socialization is your puppy seeing and sharing space with novelty and building positive associations but not necessarily interacting with said novelty. So, if your puppy sees people, children, other dogs, animals, cars, etc. at a distance while out on a decompression walk, you are simultaneously providing them with healthy physical exercise and socializing them.
You should incorporate treats, play, and praise so your puppy can begin to develop positive associations to the novelty from a distance. This type of socialization is actually ideal and means that the likelihood of your puppy becoming overwhelmed or startled is much lower by maintaining distance.
When it comes to novel objects, allow your puppy to approach things like flagpoles, garbage cans, fire hydrants, and other novel objects at their own pace. Allow them to sniff and step on all sorts of things that you may overlook as normal and that they may have never experienced before.
Building social behavior with other dogs can be particularly hard right now but is still incredibly important for healthy development. Ideally social interactions with non-familial dogs should happen on a weekly basis. That being said, the social interactions do not need to be with brand new dogs every single week. Regularly scheduled play dates or attending doggy day care with familiar dogs, outside of their own household, is a great way to build and maintain social skills with dogs. In fact, enlisting the help of pet care professionals can be a great way to support your puppy’s development and maintain your adolescent or adult dogs’ social skills.
Maintaining a puppy’s socialization and social skills is a lifelong process, it does not simply end once they reach maturity. From the moment puppies are born they begin to learn and once you bring them home their window of socialization ends at about 16 weeks of age. The period of time from 8-16 weeks is a formative time where puppies are more accepting of change, are naturally more curious, and are therefore less cautious of new places, people, animals, sights, sounds, feelings, tastes, and textures underfoot.
Thoroughly socializing a puppy until they’re 16 weeks old is fantastic but you can’t stop there! Once you’ve established a certain level of comfort in new environments, around new people, new dogs, and other animals, and have socialized all of their senses to the complexity of the world they live in, you have to consistently maintain those positive experiences throughout their lives.
Building social behavior and comfort in the world is like building a muscle, it must be regularly exercised to be sustained. This is easier than you would suspect, and most puppies who have had positive socialization experiences will go on to be fairly resilient as adults. An adult dog’s ability to absorb change and new situations strengthens if their socialization history reflects similar situations going well during their window of socialization.
Call us at Central Bark to learn more about the multitude of ways to socialize your puppy and meet your dog’s needs, particularly during these trying times.