Since Covid-19 struck here in the UK in early 2020, we have been living in what feels like a whole new world. Terms like ‘pandemic’, ‘social distancing’, ‘self-isolating’ and ‘lockdown’ have become everyday terms, and many peoples’ lives have been turned upside down.
However, the world keeps turning and we have to find a way to negotiate through this new normality. Humans have found new ways to connect with friends and family… but how do our pets cope with this? Specifically, how can we introduce puppies to this new world? Keep them (and us) safe, and yet still socialise them?
What is socialisation?
Widely considered by pet behaviour experts to be one of the most important stages in a dog’s life, socialisation is the period where you introduce your puppy to the wider world. These interactions and experiences leave a lasting impression and allow your pup to decide what is normal and what is potentially a threat to them.
A puppy’s brain is rapidly developing in the period around 4-16 weeks and they learn very quickly from their experiences at this time. Lots of positive interactions with all sorts of people, dogs and other animals, outdoors experiences and household items will lead to a confident puppy and a secure, independent adult dog. These early engagements are vitally important: a puppy who has no interactions with other dogs at this time will struggle to adjust in later life without a lot of behavioural help.
Most behaviourists recommend that in these early months, puppies are exposed to various scenarios, but especially to lots of friendly dogs and people, so that they learn vital social skills and communication behaviours.
Help! How can I do that now?
Don’t panic! This all might sound completely unfeasible right now, but there are ways to still give your puppy an excellent start to life.
Let’s look at some little ‘cheats’ to maximise socialisation without compromising safety.
Get creative at home
There are plenty of socialisation opportunities to take up without ever leaving your own house! Some are easily achieved, some require some creativity, but all are fun and excellent learning opportunities for your puppy.
It is important your pup learns that noisy, odd-looking things like hairdryers, vacuum cleaners and washing machines are non-threatening and a normal part of life. Give plenty of reassurance and treats when these things are first experienced. Make sure any lesser-used appliances get an outing whilst your pup is still young.
You may not have visitors currently, but you can still acclimatise your puppy to being handled. Build sessions up slowly, and accustom your puppy to gentle handling all over their body. Include their mouth, ears and paws. Remember to praise and give treats. This is not only an excellent way to ensure vet visits go more smoothly, but also help your puppy to be confident at being handled by friends, family and strangers alike.
You may not be out and about as much. The world may be quieter, so don’t forget to introduce sounds to your puppy. Use videos, home sound devices or similar. Traffic noise, emergency service sirens, thunder, fireworks, doors slamming… start these on a low volume whilst giving your pet some reassurance and gradually build up their tolerance.
No, I’m not telling you to break lockdown! Now’s your moment to get creative! Ask people in your household to dress up (think big hats, fluffy scarves, sunglasses, noisy boots!). Allow your puppy to explore these strange new sights. Having family members come and ring the doorbell/knock will also help to prevent your pup turning into an adult dog who goes crazy when the doorbell goes.
Don’t worry, no need to leave your driveway! Get your puppy used to getting in and out of the car. Use whatever method of restraint you have planned for car trips and even to the sound and feel of the engine running.
Being left alone
Puppies purchased during lockdown and the surrounding time may have had the lovely benefit of their owner being with them more than usual. Perhaps furloughed, or working from home. As brilliant as this is, there may be a time when they have to be more used to being left alone. Preparation for this key for this. Accustom them to a crate or some kind of safe place and gradually trial leaving them alone. Start small – think less than a minute! This process takes time and patience but will pay dividends in the end.
The big outdoors
“But what about meeting other dogs??” I hear you ask. Yes, I know, it’s a tricky one, although it’s not as bad as you might be thinking.
When it comes to socialisation, a little bit of distance is actually no bad thing! Taking your new puppy out and introducing them to all and sundry is always done with the best of intentions. However this can easily backfire! A negative encounter with a grumpy dog can leave a lasting impression. Too much excitement can equally turn what should be a positive experience into a negative. This enforced distancing can actually reduce stress for you and your puppy.
Depending on where you are and what your current lockdown guidance is, most people are allowed out for exercise. Take full advantage of this: take your puppy out and about as much as you can (carrying, if their vaccinations are not finished). Allow them to experience the outdoor world from the safety of being close to you. Spend time sitting in parks or near roads, letting your puppy observe everything: traffic, farm animals, kids playing and more. Continue your basic training outdoors so that your pup learns to respond to you even when distracted.
As guidelines relax and our social bubbles slowly expand, it may become safe for you to meet with other people and their dogs. By this time you should have laid such a strong basic foundation that your puppy will navigate these new experiences with ease.
So, some hope in a somewhat gloomy world.
This new way of living has impacted many aspects of our lives. Hopefully by following these tips you can still have a puppy who will grow into adulthood accepting social interactions and new experiences with confidence and positivity.