Socialising a Pandemic Puppy

Looking back at the year 2020 it was a very stressful year for a lot of people, and following the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions, many Australians sought the company of a pet. Sharing our lives with a pet during a lockdown was hugely beneficial to a lot of people's mental health by alleviating feelings of loneliness and boredom(1.) Although many people chose to adopt or foster a pet, dog breeders have also reported a sharp increase in the demand for puppies. This increase is likely due to people having more time to spend on raising and looking after a puppy while they are isolating at home(2). However, many puppy owners report concerns over how to socialise their pandemic puppy during the lockdown restrictions.

Most puppy owners know the importance of socialising their puppy during the critical socialisation period that occurs between 3 - 14 weeks of age. However, from speaking to puppy owners and trainers, there appears to be a growing focus on throwing our puppies into any situation without taking much care that the puppy feels comfortable. Even if intentions are good, putting our puppies into situations that frighten or make them feel uncomfortable can potentially backfire and create overly shy or reactive dogs.

With the social distancing restrictions that were in place, we had a better opportunity to take our puppy out without having to worry about them feeling too overwhelmed by attention from strangers or rowdy children. We also had the opportunity to instil in our puppy that not every person is a new best friend and not every dog is a playmate. What appears to be forgotten by many well-meaning puppy owners is that socialisation is not just about playing with other dogs and meeting lots of people. Being sociable is being able to politely walk past other dogs and people. A puppy who is allowed to play with every dog and interact with every person they meet will likely expect to do so as an adult too. The unintended consequence can be an adult dog who pulls to greet every dog or person they see during a walk, while the owner is desperately trying to restrain their dog. As the dog’s desire to greet the other dog or person is thwarted, they can become highly aroused and frustrated. This emotional state can easily turn into aggression, with the dog then being labelled as “leash reactive”(3.)

By thinking outside the box, we could still find ways to adequately and safely socialise a pandemic puppy even if we are required to undergo another lockdown. We could take our puppy out in our arms or in the car and find somewhere to sit and watch the world go by as the puppy eats treats. We could wear different hats, sunglasses, and odd clothing around the house so that our puppy can practice interacting with a “stranger” and different looks. Why not take advantage of the time in isolation and organise the shed or garage? We might find items that our puppy can safely explore, such as shovels, rakes, skateboards and bikes. Additionally, depending on the restrictions at the time, we could set up play dates with another well-mannered older dog who can teach our puppy how to interact politely.

It is important to remember that socialising is about enabling your puppy to experience different settings, situations and encounters that they are likely to experience throughout their lives without anything scary happening. They do not need to be in the thick of it to do so, and many puppies feel more comfortable watching from the sidelines. Provided that owners still take their pandemic puppies outside to explore their surroundings during a lockdown, we might even find that the pandemic puppies grow up to be more happy, confident, well-rounded dogs since they were allowed to experience new things from a safe distance and therefore had less scary encounters. Although living through this pandemic has been difficult, it's allowed us to see how we can socialise and get our puppies ready for adult life in a new way!

Written by Lena Logan, Veterinary Nurse.

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