How do you teach your puppy about the world outside when many of us are staying isolated in our homes? Your puppy’s first year—and the first four months in particular—are incredibly important in shaping how they will cope with new sights, sounds, and situations throughout their life. One of the most common questions we’ve received from new puppy owners during this Covid crisis is how to approach socialization while maintaining social distancing. Today we’ll discuss ways to take advantage of the extra time you might have at home, and how to socialize while social distancing in order to help your puppy grow into a well-adjusted adult.
What is Socialization?
Socialization is key to raising a confident, happy, well-adjusted dog. For the first four months of your puppy’s life, they are primed for learning. During this critical period your puppy’s brain is like a sponge—soaking up every new experience and creating associations that will last a lifetime. New sights, sounds, smells, and surfaces, as well as new people and animals, can all be a learning opportunity. The key with socialization is to build a positive reaction to new things. Essentially, by introducing your puppy to as many new things as possible during this time, you are both building positive reaction to things they will experience frequently as well as building confidence for them to react positively to new experiences in general. Try as we might, it is impossible to expose your puppy to every sight, sound, and situation they might experience—especially in this busy urban environment. The key here is confidence and positive associations, and while we work to socialize puppies during this difficult time, those two life skills will be our primary focus.
Socialization Isn’t Just People and Dogs
One of the most common misconceptions is that puppies cannot be socialized without the traditional group puppy classes. While proper dog/dog interactions are important for puppies to learn, direct contact with other dogs is not always a requirement. It is common for new puppy parents to overzealously expose their puppies to new people and dogs in an attempt to socialize them. This can result in puppies being forced into situations that are above their stress threshold. In a time where social interactions were more “normal”, you might be tempted to introduce your puppy to groups of humans or other dogs all at once. Instead of creating t
he positive association that you were hoping for, this might have resulted in an unintentionally stressful experience for your puppy.
While it may seem counter-intuitive, the new normal of social distancing might actually be beneficial in socializing your puppy. Moderation, distance, and rewards are key to keeping puppies below their stress threshold and creating positive associations with a new experience. With new social protocols in place, distance is built in!
New Experiences Without New People
There’s a huge world of new experiences waiting for your puppy! Set them up to succeed in the future by introducing them to new objects, people, surfaces, sounds, and smells.
Let’s take a walk. While you are taking in the sights and sounds, your puppy will be using all of their senses to experience the world around them—including their sense of touch. Unlike you, your puppy will probably not be wearing shoes. Building positive associations to new surfaces is an important part of building confidence in your puppy. Be sure to introduce your puppy to:
· Different floor surfaces, such as wood, carpet, and tile in your house.
· Multiple outside surfaces such as grass, gravel, dirt, and bark.
· Common walking surfaces and transitions: Grass to concrete, concrete to asphalt, concrete to metal.
· Bath tubs—your own tub or a plastic pool.
· Water and wet grass. You don’t want your puppy to protest pottying when it’s rainy!
Training Tip! Metal surfaces: Be it a veterinary exam table, scale, or a manhole or metal grate on the sidewalk, it is important to introduce your puppy to metal surfaces. Placing treats on a flat, metal baking tray is a great way to introduce your puppy to this new surface. As they are rewarded for standing on the metal, they will build a positive association to the feel of the new surface as well as the sound it makes when it is stepped on.
Objects and Sounds
The sounds of the city are common to most of us, but will be unfamiliar, and even frightening, to your puppy’s keen ears. Socializing your puppy to new objects and sounds is critical to their success in the city.
In the home, work to build positive reactions to:
· Vacuums and brooms.
· Doorbells, knocking, doors shutting.
· Appliances: Washer, Dryer, Blender, Coffee Maker, Hair Dryer, etc.
· Sounds of pots and pans clanging, dishes being washed, dog bowls being dropped.
In the outside world, use moderation, distance, and rewards to introduce common sounds and objects:
· Large objects such as parked cars, garbage cans, signs, drains.
· Moving objects: cars, bikes, garbage trucks, etc.
· Sounds of honking horns, machinery, crosswalk alerts.
Training Tip! Sound socialization: Playing different sounds in the background can help your dog get used to noise. If your street is typically busy, you might want to introduce your puppy to traffic noise. Introduce these new noises at a low volume to create a neutral or positive association. Many common sounds can be found online for free or through some applications, such as the Sound Proof Puppy Training app available on iOS and Android.
New People, New Dogs
Socialization isn’t all about introducing your puppy to new people and dogs, but these new experiences are certainly a part of setting your puppy up for success. Many of us are staying at home more than usual, but there are safe, socially distant activities we can engage in outdoors. Armed with a six-foot or more distance and your puppy’s favorite treats, you’re ready to introduce them to living creatures that inhabit your world.
New People. It is important for your puppy to understand that people come in many shapes, sizes, appearances, ages, and clothes styles. One Covid perk is that your puppy is probably already a pro at recognizing that people are still people when they’re wearing masks! As you walk through your neighborhood, introduce your puppy to new people while maintaining distance from the stimulus so that their reaction is neutral. For example, a puppy can be introduced to children playing by observing them from a distance in the park. Your goal is to be close enough that your puppy might be interested in the sudden movements, shouts, and laughter of children playing, but not so close that a reaction is given. Rewarding for no reaction aside from that passive interest is a great way to build a positive association to the presence of children.
New Dogs. It’s adorable when dogs play together. An older dog meeting and gently playing with a new puppy is a heartwarming experience, but introducing puppies to new dogs can be a stressful experience. If your puppy is scared or stressed during introduction to new dogs, you could be setting them up for leash aggression or fear of other dogs later in life. Before throwing your puppy into a new, full-contact dog introduction situation, begin by introducing them to new dogs from afar. Observe dogs playing with their owners at the park, or set yourself up to have a dog pass at a distance and reward for a neutral reaction.
Safe Training, Play Dates, and Walks
Once your puppy is old enough and up-to-date on required vaccinations, leashed walks are a valuable tool for socialization. At this time, walking outdoors is still a permitted activity in the US. If you are able to get out and maintain the prescribed social distance, take your puppy and their favorite treats on a walk around the neighborhood. You can use this training opportunity to practice leash skills while building your puppy’s positive associations to the world around them. Most leashes are six feet long, so you have a built in social distancing tool!
If you’re unable to go outside or are isolating in your home, consider using a service similar to the . With this zero-contact service, your dog will be picked up at
your front door and taken on a training walk around your neighborhood. This allows our professional trainer to safely introduce your puppy to the sights and sounds of your local environment in a safe, methodical, and positive way. Personal protection equipment is used for each training session, and all dog equipment is sanitized after each use.
A friend or neighbor with a trusted dog who is known to be safe and well-mannered with your puppy
can be an excellent play date. It is important that you know the other dog and their owner well. You
can arrange a play date in a yard or park while maintaining a safe distance from the other owner.
Maintain at least six feet of space from the nearest human, and be sure to wash your hands after every encounter.
With an understanding of the important sights, sounds, surfaces, and smells that your puppy should get to know, you can begin to develop an early socialization and training plan. You can follow our
Checklist for Socialization, linked below, to be sure that your puppy is introduced to new experiences in a positive way.
Virtual classes are a fantastic way of making sure that you stay on track with your puppy’s training and development. Dogs in Harmony offers to help dogs of all ages
achieve their training goals. In our Virtual Puppy Class you can work with a trainer to develop a
socialization plan, including how to introduce your puppy to a new experience, assess their reaction, and reward them for maximum positive associations. In addition to a socialization plan, your trainer will begin working with you on the foundation skills needed to grow your puppy into a well-rounded, and well-behaved, adult dog that is willing and able to adapt to the challenges of urban living.