We’re going through a frightening time in history with the current pandemic and the ensuing panic. One of the many challenges that today’s world presents from a dog owner’s perspective is socialization. I have a separate blog post all about socialization (what it is and some detailed strategies), but for the purposes of this post the definition we’ll be using is that of the critical socialization period for puppies is “the time between 3 weeks and 12-16 weeks where puppies are more receptive to building positive associations with novel experiences.” If you would like to read more about socialization in general, you can do so here: https://dogdefined.com/blog/puppy-socialization/
A few notes about the transference of disease: the WHO has stated that dogs cannot contract or spread Covid-19, but that they may still act as vectors if an infected person touches a dog, and then a healthy person touches the same dog. As such, it is more critical than ever to wash your hands, as well as to limit physical contact by strangers (or people in general).
On the puppy side of things, parvovirus, distemper, adenovirus, and parainfluenza (the illnesses most commonly vaccinated against in the “puppy shots”) are transmitted through ingestion of infected feces, which can happen even if the pup steps in residue and then licks his paw. It still remains important to keep your pup away from areas where he may be at risk for coming into contact with unknown dog feces or residue, like dog parks, pet stores, or outdoor areas with heavy dog traffic.
As things are getting more serious with the Covid-19 situation, more and more areas are going into lockdown, with many stores and dog training facilities where normal socialization opportunities would’ve taken place closing down for the time being. That leaves those with young puppies with fewer socialization opportunities, but not none. Below are some examples of socialization games that you can play with your pup even with limited contact with other people and dogs.
- Parking garages: These tend to be full of odd floor textures, weird lighting, different stairs than your pup will see in a home, elevators, strange smells, and echoing sounds. They’re also not frequented by dog owners looking to take a nice stroll quite as much as a neighborhood park would be.
- Banks: Since banks are considered an essential business like grocery stores, they are remaining open at this time. Most of the banks that I’ve been in have been dog friendly, and all the ones I’ve been in lately have been loaded with hand sanitizer. This makes them a spectacular opportunity to have your pup greet new people. Note: if you have a dog that’s an excited pee-er, work on that before having people greet your pup indoors on business carpets.
- Outside of grocery stores: With all the hustle and bustle to stockpile hand sanitizer and toilet paper, grocery stores are very high traffic areas right now. You can work on getting your pup used to seeing and being near foot traffic by standing or sitting off to the side of the entrance to a grocery store or other busy business. Don’t forget to maintain social distancing guidelines.
- Pet stores: Wait, didn’t I just say earlier that pet stores are a no-go? In most cases, yes I avoid them with puppies before all vaccines are completed. However, the world isn’t running like usual right now. Many pet stores are implementing curbside pickup programs, which means you can get treats or toys delivered out to your car, then bring your pup out in the parking lot (away from areas where dogs would commonly poop like planters or grass) and ask if he can greet the employee who delivers your purchases.
- Other dogs: If you have friends with puppy-appropriate, vaccinated adult dogs or same-age puppies on a correct vaccine schedule, contact them for a playdate in the yard. If you don’t, you can reach out to a local trainer who does puppy classes and see if they know of anyone who fits the bill who would be willing to do a few meetups.
- DIY novel item exploration: Gather some “weird” everyday items from your house (vacuum cleaner, folding chair, baking sheets, bubble wrap, cardboard boxes, large stuffed animals, open umbrella, etc.) and bring them to a place your pup has never been (empty yard, park with little dog traffic, parking lot). Set the items out in the environment and then bring your pup out to explore the items. Give lots of treats as he checks them out!
- Master of disguise: If you can’t bring different people to your dog, become different people! Wear a towel like a cape, a boot like a hat, swing a scarf around, get out some sunglasses, get creative! If you have kids this is a great time to see who can come up with the silliest costume, but make sure you participate too.
I’ll delve into this further in the full socialization post, but a couple things to note: first, if your puppy is scared of any of the things you are exposing him to, take a step back (literally and figuratively), and make the experience easier for him. Don’t drag your puppy into an experience he is not comfortable with. Going slow in the short run makes progress much easier in the long run.
Second, socialization does not always mean interacting with or greeting everything they encounter. If I ran up to and said hi to every person in the grocery store, people would think I was nuts! We want to teach our puppies that yes, people and dogs exist in the world, and sometimes they’ll interact with you, but also sometimes not.
Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions, and happy socializing! Let me know in the comments below if you have other ideas for puppy socialization right now.