By Natalie Borgardt For many people, the unexpected time at home has been a good time for a new puppy! We all want dogs to grow up and be comfortable, welcomed, and confident among society. Early socialization teaches the appropriate social skills, rational thinking in new situations, and builds a strong foundation for lifelong learning. According to the ASPCA, 47% of dogs were rehomed due to behavior problems, and there can be unique challenges when trying to socialize a puppy during an outbreak and maintaining safe social distancing. It’s important to understand what your puppy’s body language is telling you so you can reinforce positive behavior before they become fearful and help your pup when fear does appear.
Here are some tips on socializing your new puppy.
- Body Language – It’s important to recognize common signs of fear, anxiety, and stress so you can provide the reassurance your puppy needs to feel confident. These signs include leaning away, lip licking, ears back, paw lift, tail tuck, freeze, yawn, or a crouched posture.
- Positive Reinforcement – Food is a great way to turn a potentially scary situation into a positive event. It also helps you know if your puppy is relaxed and enjoying themselves. If they stop taking treats, it’s a clue that they may be concerned or afraid – change what is happening and adjust the situation so they feel more comfortable.
- Give a treat reward when they’re calmly looking at anything new: could be the mailman or a bird.
- If they see someone walking by and are not tugging or pulling on their leash, give a reward.
- Use treats during desensitization activities.
- Inside the home: Create a novel room to help your puppy learn that change is normal. Every day bring your puppy into a designated room and close the door. Plan to have different smells, sounds, and new objects daily. Use scented lotions or candles, set up an ironing board or vacuum cleaner, have a family member inside wearing different seasonal clothes, costumes, wigs, etc. You can even practice coming into the home in costume or with crutches or a cane. There are inexpensive sound apps you can use such as Sound Proof Puppy to teach the importance of sounds.
- Outside the home: Once fully vaccinated, field trips to parks, trails, and outside stores can provide exposure and exploration opportunities while following local safety recommendations for social distancing. As an example, outside of a grocery store your puppy can observe the movements of people, cars and shopping carts.
- Alone Time – Setting a routine to prepare for life outside of pandemic restrictions is vital to learn that independent time is good. Your puppy needs to learn it will be ok when people leave the home. Be sure to make your puppy’s alone time fun!
- Use a playpen or crate with people present and also with people leaving the home. Add food enrichment such as a “Kong” with peanut butter inside.
- Use a schedule which will reflect life after restrictions are lifted to avoid future separation anxiety.
We know these are uncertain times and preparing your puppy emotionally for the physical world is vital to maintaining the strong bond which brought you together and will sustain you both for years to come.