Socializing your puppy during a time of social distancing may feel next to impossible, but NOW is the time to teach them about the world and people, animals, and obstacles in it. Puppies under 12 weeks of age are programmed to absorb a lot of information about their environment, which means they have a once-in-a-lifetime window of social opportunity.
If their early experiences are positive, puppies under 12 weeks of age are more likely to generalize a feeling of safety and contentment to other similar people, interactions, objects and animals as they grow up.
But if they don’t establish an early “social database” during this window, your pup may grow to be fearful of new people, other dogs, children, or objects. This fear can lead to devastating behavior problems, including aggression, panic, and phobias.
Ensuring your new puppy is getting the right social exposure can be difficult, and our culture’s current safety measures make it even more challenging. Here are a few tips from our board-certified Veterinary Behaviorist Dr. Meghan Herron to help socialize your puppy during a time of social distancing.
*Note: When a below activity involves interacting with people outside of your immediate household, please comply with the CDC’s recommendations of maintaining 6 feet of distance and wearing a cloth mask while in public. The most recent guidelines recommend that pets also do not directly interact with people or pets outside of their household. Pets should not wear masks.
Socializing with Objects and Obstacles
- Make a backyard or living room activity course using household items, including things that are big, shiny, move, and make noise. Sprinkle small treats around the objects to encourage your pup to explore the course. Swap out items each day for a new experience!
- Have one member of the family sit outside with the puppy and a few yummy treats, while another person tackles some yard work with rakes, lawn bags, or a wheelbarrow. Be sure to keep tools powered off at first and keep at least 25 feet of distance from items that make noise. If you don’t have access to lawn care tools at home, ask a neighbor if you and your pup can watch, while maintaining proper social distance, the next time they are tackling their outdoor chores.
- When out for a walk, carry small treats with you and give your puppy one when passing someone on a bike, walking, or mowing their lawn. This will help create a positive association with the experience.
- Borrow large objects with wheels such as a skateboard, bike, wagon, stroller, or wheelchair and introduce your puppy to the object while giving them a treat. Once they are comfortable with the object itself, have another person ride or push the object while you comfort and treat your pup. Early social exposure to things your puppy will likely encounter in public will help prevent future fears.
Socializing with Sounds
- Read a silly animal book, while making funny animal sounds.
- If you’re not able to get outside much, play sounds that a puppy might encounter in everyday life (birds, barking dogs, honking horns, motorcycles, human voices, etc.) on your computer or phone, while offering your puppy treats.
- If you don’t have young children in the home, watch TV shows or YouTube clips with children laughing, playing, and crying and offer your puppy treats during the loudest times.
Socializing with People and Dogs
- Carry yummy treats with you while walking your puppy so you can reward them every time you pass other people or dogs.
- Take your puppy for a ride to a local grocery store and reward them with treats from inside your car every time a new person walks by in the parking lot. Be sure to keep your windows closed to follow social distancing guidelines, especially as people approach.
- Dress up for a “meet” and greet with your puppy! Wear different hats, sunglasses, hoodies, and other clothes that change the look and shape of your body. Raid your closet for an old Halloween costume, open and close an umbrella, or even wear a wig or fake mustache!
- Wear your homemade mask in the house around your puppy so they get used to seeing people with facial coverings. Offer treats the first few times you put it on.
- If you’re expecting a package, keep an eye out for the delivery truck so you can sit with your puppy and reward them with a treat as the delivery person approaches your house. After they walk away, open the door, and then toss your puppy another treat as you bring the package inside.
- Taking your puppy for a walk in the park, while maintaining the recommended 6 feet of distance, is a great way to gain real-life social exposure! You’ll likely encounter runners, cyclists, strollers, other dogs, and plenty of kids as the weather gets nicer.
- If you have friends and family in the neighborhood, ask them to step outside or take a walk while you and your puppy walk around the block, so you will strategically pass them a few times. To make the most of the experience, they can toss a treat to your puppy as they say hello and chat from across the street. If they have a dog who is friendly around other dogs, ask them to bring their pal along for the increased social exposure. Just remember the dogs should keep their distance, too!
- Sit in your driveway, at least 6 feet from the road/sidewalk, and give your puppy a treat when others, especially children and other dogs, walk by.
- Have a friend or neighbor ring your doorbell (and then step back 6 feet) and reward your puppy with a treat after you’ve opened the door. Repeat, repeat, repeat!
- If you don’t have other pets, allow your puppy to interact with various stuffed animals in the house. You can even find life-like dog stuffed animals online for a more realistic effect.
Socializing Body Movement and Handling
- Practice conditioning your puppy to different forms of touch by lifting their paws and tail, extending their legs, and grasping their nails, while giving your puppy a treat or letting them lick cheese or peanut butter from a spoon.
- Provide novel textures for your puppy’s paws to feel (such as rocks, grass, dirt, carpet, etc.) and create treat trails on top of the surfaces for your puppy to explore.
- Set up uneven surfaces and balancing acts for your puppy, with a treat trail to encourage exploration, such as stairs (closely supervised), a board placed on top of a broomstick so it wobbles slightly, a slightly deflated air mattress, or a mini-trampoline.
The key is providing your puppy with as much social exposure to different objects, surfaces, people, and other dogs in a positive and fun way while complying with social distancing recommendations. During a socializing activity, if your puppy seems afraid or stops taking treats, step back from whatever is making them uncomfortable. Then try the introduction again from further away to give your puppy a chance to recover and end on a good note. Keep in mind that scary situations can have long-lasting effects, so keep your socialization activities fun and positive!
Dr. Meghan Herron is a board-certified Veterinary Behaviorist and is Improving the lives of shelter dogs™ by serving as Gigi’s Senior Director of Behavioral Medicine Education, Research and Outreach. As a diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (DACVB), she is one of 70 veterinarians in the country, and one of only a few in the animal welfare world, with this unique specialization in both the medical and behavioral care for animals.