Socializing Your Dog in a Changing World
March 9, 2021
By Steven Appelbaum, President, Animal Behavior College.
Since March 2020, our world has been transformed in numerous ways. Some people reading this may have experienced profound changes in their lives due to Covid, while others less so. Regardless, everyone has been impacted by lockdowns and social distancing requirements.
Believe it or not, some of the trends stimulated by Covid have proved to be positive. As millions of people spent more time at home, pet adoptions increased. Additional adoptions are a bright spot since more pets find forever homes. According to a Washington Post article of January 2021, “Some rescues have seen pet adoptions increase 30-40% over 2019.”
Adopting pets during the pandemic has led to many questions for new pet parents. Some of the popular questions include; how does one go about socializing a dog during a pandemic and how important is socialization?
How important is socialization?
Socialization is essential for all dogs. They are social beings, and most thrive with social contact. Is it as critical for older dogs who are already comfortable with human beings to be around many people during these difficult times? No, although some contact is beneficial. The real need for socialization is with puppies, particularly those between 8-16 weeks of age. During this period, a puppy can most easily learn to be comfortable around people. Pet parents with dogs of this age need to be mindful of this and do everything they can to positively introduce their new dogs to various people and circumstances safely and reasonably.
How do you socialize your dog during a pandemic?
The answer is positively and carefully in a variety of situations. Some pet parents use the term socialization to mean that their pets feel comfortable with people, other dogs and with a variety of things they are likely to experience in their environments. In other words, to be at ease in the world they live in. Some of this can be accomplished without any additional people at all. For example, start by getting your dog used to walking on different surfaces, everything from tile, carpet, wood, gravel, cement, grass, etc. When introducing a puppy to various surfaces, be sure to praise and give super special treats to them while they are exploring. The key is positive associations. The more positive experiences your puppy has when coming into contact with new things (including people), the more confident he/she is likely to be around them. Aside from surfaces, get your dog used to hearing and making positive connections to everyday things around the house. This can include TV, radio, vacuum cleaners, garbage disposals, etc. Praising and rewarding your puppy around these noises is something I highly recommend. One word of caution. Louder and more intense isn't better. Whenever you can control the volume of sounds the dog is exposed to, start low and gradually increase volume as the dog gets comfortable with the sounds.
Socialization with people starts at home and will be easiest for larger families. When introducing dogs, especially puppies, to children, it is best to encourage everyone to remain calm and ideally to let the puppy come to you. As a parent, I know how hard it can be to get younger children not to grab and try to pick the puppy up. My wife and I used to jokingly call this the "death grip of love". It's much better to have the puppy approach family members on their own and allow them to establish their comfort level. During these approaches, gentle petting, praise, and special treats will make the experience that much more enjoyable for the dog. I have seen dogs introduced to larger families that not only learn to be comfortable with them but, as a result, learn to be relaxed around most people. While this is ideal, it's not always easy for a single person or couple to socialize a puppy by themselves. That's because teaching a dog to be social around one or two people isn't usually enough to allow the puppy to generalize and be comfortable around most.
Socializing your dog with other people and dogs means getting around them, and that, at least as of this writing, takes us back to Covid. Dog parks are an excellent place for you to bring your dog around people and other dogs. First, speak with your veterinarian about which vaccinations they suggest your dog has before they are allowed to come into contact with other dogs. Assuming your pet is up to date on necessary vaccinations, scope out the dog park first.
Most parks aren't as crowded as they were pre-Covid, which is good. Taking your dog to a park to be around other dogs and people is a great way to get them used to both. Take the necessary precautions to wear a mask and practice proper social distancing. Then relax and let your dog have a good time running and playing with other dogs. If people at the park want to pet or say hello to your dog, if possible you should encourage it. Remember, the more the dog has positive experiences with people and other dogs, the more comfortable he/she will be around them.
If dog parks are either not available or not in your comfort level at this juncture, ask a friend to bring their friendly dog over and let them play in the yard or take them on walks together. Friends can be encouraged to greet your dog gently, and after half a dozen positive experiences with new people, most dogs will be comfortable around them. This can be accomplished while following safe social distancing and wearing masks.
I have had a great deal of success teaching dogs to be comfortable around people, other dogs, and the general distractions and noises that accompany civilization by finding a spot slightly off the beaten path on a busy or semi-busy street. Once there, I sit or stand with my dog, praising them when loud and potential scary distractions pass by us. Think motorcycles, trash trucks, cars playing loud music, etc. Do that for 15 or 20 minutes 3 times a week for a month, and almost nothing in a typical urban or suburban environment will phase or startle the dog. During these sessions, people will likely pass right by you. About 75% will acknowledge, wave, or say hello to a person with a dog.
Some passersby will stop and want to say hello to your dog. Be friendly and praise your dog for being comfortable and calm. Whether you allow them to pet the dog will depend on your comfort level, whether they are wearing a mask, etc. Having the dog on a 6-foot leash makes it easier to allow a stranger (or friend) to pet the dog without you having to get too close. This is much more awkward than it was in the days before Covid, but its' not impossible. Look at it this way. In a year or two, things will likely be back to normal or much closer to normal than they are currently. With a little luck, you might be blessed by having your well socialized dog for the next 10-15 years.
In my view, that makes the time you spend socializing your dog now absolutely worth doing. Hopefully, this article gives you some direction about how to do this properly.
Finally, this article is just an outline, a basic guide for getting started. All pet parents are encouraged to seek out and work with a professional dog trainer. Speak with your veterinarian for a referral, check out schools like mine (Animal Behavior College) or dog trainer organizations like the APDT.
Covid has been brought some unprecedented challenges for many, but don’t let it prevent you from giving a deserving dog a loving forever home if that’s what your heart is calling you to.