With many of us staying home these days, many people have considered getting a puppy. Of course, the very first question that comes to mind is, “How will I socialize them? Will they become shy or aggressive if they are unable to directly interact with strangers?”
I recently acquired a puppy and I have found some huge advantages to raising a puppy under quarantine! Not only do I have a new little buddy to keep me busy at home, but I have also discovered that I don’t have to worry about shielding him from overly enthusiastic people who are bound and determined to pet my puppy, regardless of his opinion (or mine!) on the matter.
Let’s start by re-defining socialization as exposure rather than interaction. People often think of socialization as being interactions with new dogs and people. Unfortunately, plenty of dogs end up so well socialized that they make a nuisance of themselves. They’re hyper greeters who cannot function if they are not allowed to interact with every dog and person they see. No greeting? They scream, whine, and pull frantically on their leashes towards the object of their desire – and show lots of frustration at being held back. And if you think about it, we taught them to do it by encouraging interactions with every dog and person they encountered!
However, they don’t typically do this with horses, cars, or loud noises, mostly because we don’t socialize our puppies to these things the way we do with people and dogs. Specifically, there is no expectation of interaction with the other. Instead, we use patience, and allow the dog’s natural curiosity and ability to gather information from a distance to allow them to habituate and feel safe at their own pace.
This is exactly how socialization should happen with everything – people and dogs included. Using this approach, think about exposing your young dog or puppy to a variety of confidence-building situations that will serve them well for life, but without a need for direct interaction.
As a guide to this plan, think about your dog’s senses: what does your dog see, hear, feel, smell, and taste?
What does your dog see? Take them places you need to go and sit in the car with your dog to watch the world go by! Watch the people entering the grocery store, the dogs walking around the block, the trees and birds and animals – whatever you know that your dog might encounter as an adult is fair game. Sitting in your car with your dog can be a fantastic way to experience the visual world.
What does your dog hear? The vacuum! The leaf blowers! The fan in the window! Be sure the sound is far enough away that the dog makes a positive association; we don’t want to scare them. It’s always okay to comfort your dog or move further away if they appear worried or distressed – same as you would with a toddler who was nervous of a sight or sound.
What does your dog feel? Consider surfaces that your dog might be exposed to. Put down towels, tarps, and empty boxes to let your dog explore! Hide treats in, on, and around those surfaces to add to the fun When you leave your house for exercise, make a point of walking over asphalt, cement, grass, and dirt. In all cases, you’ll want to make the experience fun and playful for your dog, so be generous with your personal play and praise as you navigate new surfaces.
What does your dog taste? Try out a variety of treats and foods for your dog! Give them interactive toys filled with their own food – not only does it keep them busy while you do other things, but it also exposes their mouth to both different textures of toys as well as the food itself.
As far as people and dogs, well, this is a great time to allow your dog to observe without interacting so they can gain confidence in the presence of other people and dogs without feeling the need to be petted by every random stranger. You may also find it quite helpful to cheerfully call out friendly greetings to people who pass you on the street. That allows your dog a chance to observe your comfort with the stranger and begin to use you as a source of information; if mom says it’s okay, then it must be okay!
Remember, exposure with a positive outcome is what matters, and that positive outcome can come from you. Simultaneously, you can set up simple puzzles and activities at home or in your garden to allow your dog to use all of their senses to get to know the world.
Your ultimate goal with socialization should be a dog who shows confidence in a variety of situations, and acceptance of the presence of random people without necessarily needing to visit. This approach to socialization emphasizes exposure over interaction, and may well work better for you now than at any other time! Your softer or more fragile dog will not be assaulted by overly enthusiastic friends and neighbors who often frighten much more than socialize, and your overly enthusiastic puppy won’t have that behavior reinforced by every random person encountered on the street.
On balance, this is a good time for many people to consider adding to their canine family, but a few adaptations are necessary with our current restrictions. Focus on exposing all of your dog’s senses to new possibilities to allow that growing brain as many positive experiences as possible.
When you have the occasional opportunity to allow your dog to interact with new people, go ahead and take it, but that does not need to be the focus of your socialization efforts. As long as your dog is able to observe the world, including the people within it, you’re likely to end up with a stable and well-adjusted adult who is comfortable in the world, but who has a strong preference for you as the primary playmate.