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Socialization in a non-social time

At present many of our city’s residents are home much more than in the past due to social, or physical distancing. With several months of home-time, many of our clients have added a new puppy or adult dog to the family. While being available for most of the day makes for excellent house-training, care must be take to assure that you raise a well-adjusted and socially-amicable pup. Don’t let social distancing prevent you from having a social dog. Let’s dive in.

Don’t wait to socialize

Puppies learn how to play early in their lives. Lack of proper socialization during this early period may result in development of behavioral issues, including separation anxiety, aggression, leash reactivity, fears of objects and people, and other undesirable characteristics. For new adult dogs, the same applies: socialization is key to success.

Puppy playtime has been cancelled, and dog parks have been closed. But there are many other experiences you can work on aside from the regular dog-dog interactions (more later on introducing other dogs). Recall that the dog will go to the vet, be groomed, hear a thunderstorm, encounter a garbage truck, have their nails trimmed, and more. You can work on all of these stimuli right at home.

Introduction to our scary world inside your home

Dogs are naturally curious, but our built-up world is intimidating. Recall the first time you entered a big city and were surrounded by skyscrapers. Dogs feel the same way when rapidly introduced to new stimuli and uncertain scenarios. At home you can begin to show your dog objects and surfaces, which may be encountered in the outside world such as sheet metal or a baking sheet, different flooring surfaces, gravel in the back yard, grass, plastic bottles – you get the idea. The more objects and surfaces your dog interacts with in a positive manner, the better!

Sound phobia is a major behavioral problem with dogs, especially those that were sheltered in their youth or are from rural areas. The garbage truck is Satan. If you are not walking outside much, play audio of traffic sounds softly, slowly increasing the volume over time.

Discussed in prior articles in more detail, prepare your dog for a visit to the groomer or veterinarian’s office. Rub the nails and gently hold / pull on the feet 15 times per day for about five seconds at a time. Same with the ears, muzzle, and tail. Many dogs are head or foot-shy and by interacting with these areas routinely, you will desensitize him or her to nail trimming, grooming, application of ear medications, etc. This conditioning also helps prevent bites via making your dog not afraid of a child touching the feet or ears. Perform this type of desensitization until the dog is at least 6 months old.

Introduction to our scary world outside

Current recommendations by the CDC recommend physical distancing between people, but this does not mean that your dog should stay inside. Yes, maintain social distancing, but if you have friends with dogs who you feel safe interacting with, even at a moderate distance, arrange for puppy playtime.

Walking on the street is important for a dog to develop his or her nasal sensations. They sniff. A lot. This is normal dog behavior. If you are unable to go outside, you can use treats of different varieties to stimulate their brain. Hide them in different places and play scavenger hunt! You can even take treats outside to a field and hide them in the grass, encouraging your dog to sniff them out.

Introducing your dog to people

Here’s where it gets a bit tricky: you have been instructed to stay away from people. As unusual as this sounds, consider playing dress-up. Put on a pair of glasses, carry around a few boxes and enter as if you were a delivery person, pull a wheeling suitcase around inside and outside the house, ride a bicycle near the dog, show him or her a skateboard and ride it by their side, practice walks from the Ministry of Silly Walks. You get the idea.

Sitting outside on a porch or other safe area will allow your dog to see and hear the outside world. Granted everything is quiet now-a-days, but you cannot substitute for the real world.

The car

A car is a portal to a different dimension for many pups. Start by sitting in the car for a few minutes and once comfortable, go for short rides around the block. Increase the distance with time and go to areas where you can walk at a safe distance from others.

Simple training

Well you have the time, work on training and brain games. Sit. Stay. Down. use toys that stimulate the brain, such as food puzzles. The more the dog has to work with a toy, the more successful. Part of socialization involves thinking and problem-solving. Dogs that have confidence with such tasks are more apt to be better socially-rounded.

We are in a different world today, but we should not forget that we will resume our regular lives eventually. Working on setting your dog up to be social will lead to a more successful and comfortable relationship for everyone.

Dan Teich, DVM

Medical Director

District Veterinary Hospitals