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How to Socialize Your Dog During COVID-19

What the pandemic has taught us about properly raising puppies.

How to Socialize Your Dog During COVID-19

The pandemic spawned a puppy buying and dog adopting frenzy, but it was also the perfect storm for not being able to socialize them properly. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

When COVID-19 hit the scene, the entire world was awash in uncertainty. We didn’t know where it came from, what it was going to do to us, and how to really fight it. Today, we have quite a bit of clarity on all of those things as well as the added benefit of being able to look in the rearview mirror at what we did right and what we did wrong. This goes for how we handled our dogs during the pandemic as well. 

Problems with Pandemic Puppies

It’s no secret that the demand for puppies shot up higher than the latest meme stock on Reddit as we responded to the coronavirus pandemic. People were stuck at home and the idea of spending a lot of time with a puppy seemed like a good thing. Shelters emptied out, and breeders experienced a depth to their client waiting lists that had never been seen before. While it’s generally a good thing for (some) people to get dogs, this canine gold rush shined a light on something that is essential to the development of all dogs—socialization. Without it, you’ll never have as good of a dog as you could have, and a lot of folks have learned this the hard way over the last year. Many of the dogs that people adopted with good intentions have now boomeranged right back to the shelters. 

Then there are the impulsive purchases of puppies from breeders which couldn’t be returned. They are now one-year old dogs that spent their formative months at home watching many of us slog through endless video chats and nearly finish Netflix. What they didn’t get then, was exposure to family get-togethers, hardware store trips, and all of those little confidence-building moments that allow a dog to be comfortable around other people and other dogs. 

Woman walking dog down road
Because of the pandemic, many pups now suffer from stranger danger or a lack of confidence in new situations. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

This, according to Susanna Love of Ronnie Smith Kennels, is troublesome. “Our recent training classes have reaffirmed the far-reaching effects of COVID,” Love said. “We as a society have become more homebound and so have our dogs. As a result, dogs across the country are leaning toward being more co-dependent and sheltered, making it harder for them to handle the stresses of new experiences or changes to their routine.” This is a real problem as we go back to our pre-pandemic daily lives and those dogs that have spent so much time at home with us are suddenly alone. 

Last year, during the height of the puppy boom, I interviewed a well-accomplished canine researcher named Jessica Hekman. During our hour-long podcast, she said that one of the biggest stressors in a dog’s life is separation anxiety, which obviously occurs when we leave them home alone. This, she emphasized, only gets magnified in dogs that aren’t prepared for it. 

Confidence, Confidence, Confidence 

What if you’ve got a new puppy at home and are concerned about it being a canine basket case? Or you picked up a puppy last March and are now seeing under-socialization issues manifest themselves in negative ways? There’s hope. Love says that we should all approach our young dogs with the idea that they need to be challenged in a safe way that ensures their success. “Whatever your puppy’s comfort zone is, expand that. Broaden their experiences, and their ability to adapt by doing new things.” 

Family playing with puppy
A confident puppy is one that will excel in life and in the field, which is partially accomplished through proper socialization at a young age. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

With all dogs this boils down to safe exposure to new places, new people, and very carefully, new dogs. With pups destined for the duck blind or the CRP covers, this can also involve new environments. From short grass in the neighborhood soccer field to overgrown riparian areas, walks in the woods, or wherever a change of scenery with you at its side will do a dog some good. This allows them to explore and develop a comfort level in strange places, kind of like what they’ll do when you drive from Ohio to South Dakota for your dog’s first wild pheasant hunt. 

Older Dogs, Slower Burn 

This is all well and good for a lot of pups, but what if you’re living with a dog that you brought home during the heart of the lockdown and now the effects are clearly evident? This is what professional dog trainer, Sara Carson, is currently addressing with one of her dogs. Carson, who nearly won the game show America’s Got Talent with her dogs, is no stranger to asking for big behavior out of her four-legged cohorts. But according to her, the process of socialization with a pandemic pup is a slow, intentional burn. 

People socializing with Labradors
A lot of pandemic pups are a year old now and while many of them show signs of not being properly socialized, this is something that can be undone with plenty of patience. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

“I have been tackling issues with my dog like stranger danger and an overall lack of confidence by taking him everywhere dogs are allowed to go, so he can learn about the world around him,” Carson said. Her strategy involves finding every department store, hardware store, or public place that allows leashed dogs, and then involving them as much as possible in her daily life. This, it should be noted, is no different with a “pandemic puppy” than it is with a well-bred Lab that you pick up at eight-weeks old after a year of careful bloodline research. The thing about any dog that missed the formative window is that you’re not only working toward proper socialization, but also undoing some of the damage that was done. Any trainer worth his or her salt will tell you that this task is orders of magnitude more difficult than preventing bad behavior in the first place. But bad behavior happens, and in the case of a lack of socialization, it can be remedied. It just takes a lot of time and a good plan. 

So don’t lose hope if your young dog shies away from strangers or refuses to leave your side as soon as you’re a few feet away from familiar ground. Instead, give your dog a safe, easy-to-succeed introduction to new and strange places and people, and allow those good experiences to level up its confidence in a slow-and-steady manner. Eventually, your dog will be well-socialized and a joy to be around. 

Two Labrador retrievers
If the pandemic taught us anything about our pups, it was that socialization at a young age is one of the key ingredients in developing dogs that are pleasant to own. (Tony J. Peterson photo)
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