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Socializing Your Puppy While Social Distancing

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With coronavirus requiring social distancing between humans, new puppy owners are finding it harder to make sure their puppy learns about the great big world. But it is possible to provide your puppy with much-needed experiences even while you're social distancing — and have fun while doing it!

During this coronavirus pandemic, you can take advantage of extra time at home and help your puppy grow into a well-adjusted and well-trained adult. 

According to the CDC, there is no current evidence that our pets can spread the coronavirus to humans and there have been no reported cases of pets becoming sick with COVID-19. However, it's important to not put yourself or others at risk while working on puppy socialization. Practice appropriate social distancing, wash your hands after interacting with pets, and sanitize often. (Check out the University of Illinois School of Veterinary Medicine's informative FAQ on pets and COVID-19 here for more information.)

Don't Wait Until It's Too Late to Socialize Your Puppy

Introducing your puppy to the world in a positive way while they're young is crucial for a happy, well-rounded dog in the future. Lack of socialization during the critical "imprint period" can lead to a higher chance of behavioral issues when the puppy becomes an adult, such as separation anxiety, noise phobia, or leash reactivity and fear aggression.

The imprint period lasts from about 7 weeks to about 16 weeks of age, so it's important to get lots of proactive exposure training done during this time.

For all socialization and proactive exposure training, take everything slow and follow your puppy's lead. Keep socialization practice short and sweet, and start new exposure low and slow.

Tips for Puppy Socialization During COVID-19

Socialization Isn't Just About Other Dogs and People

While you won't be able to attend group puppy classes like usual, there are other things to focus on besides dog-dog interactions. Socialization includes common experiences that your dog will have throughout their life, such as handling at the vet or groomer, getting their nails trimmed, the sound of thunderstorms or the vacuum, and different kinds of surfaces they'll need to walk on (like the bathtub). Luckily, you can practice most of these things from the comfort of your own home. Working on these things at home means less distractions, which will help your puppy learn better and faster!

Check out our Puppy Socialization Resources page for how-to videos and free audio to play for your pup. We've also created a helpful 100 Things in 100 Days Checklist to help you track your puppy's socialization journey.

Puppy Socialization Proactive Exposure Training Checklist

Play Dress Up!

Since your puppy can't meet lots of different people right now, that doesn't mean you can't expose them to different types of clothing or various ways people move. You or a family member can dress up and practice your acting skills. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

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  • Wearing a hat or sunglasses (or both at the same time!)
  • Walking with a cane or walker
  • Wigs of different hair colors and styles
  • Delivery person carrying a box or package
  • Bundled up in rain or winter gear (rubber boots, umbrella, jacket with hood up)
  • Riding a bicycle, scooter, or skateboard and wearing a helmet
  • Carrying lots of grocery bags
  • Wheeling around a suitcase
  • Wearing last year's halloween costume

Puppy-Only Playtime

Some dog training facilities are still able to offer puppy play and socialization classes by restricting human attendance. This means puppies are dropped off "curbside" for class and wiped down with veterinary-grade sanitizing wipes, and humans are asked to stay in their car to comply with social distancing. Some facilities are even able to video stream the puppy play so owners can watch remotely and learn about dog body language.

Contact your local certified dog trainer to see if they are offering this option and confirm that they are taking needed precautions. If your puppy attends these classes, sanitize their leash, collar, and harness before and after class time. And wash your hands thoroughly and often!

Schedule Virtual Dog Training Sessions

With more and more states initiating stay-at-home orders and requiring non-essential businesses to close, don't be surprised if puppy-only classes aren't an option in your area. If you find yourself with no class options like this, it is worth it to schedule a virtual training session with a certified dog trainer.

A trainer can walk you through basic puppy training and give you ideas on ways to practice at-home handling and socialization tailored to your puppy and lifestyle. They'll also be able to discuss common puppy behaviors like nipping or chewing, and help you prevent issues like resource guarding. Plus, you'll be supporting a small business during a tough time!Dog-on-computer

Socialize From a Distance

Getting outside is important, not just for your mental health, but also for your puppy to experience the great outdoors. For puppies younger than 16 weeks that shouldn't be exploring far and wide quite yet, I recommend just sitting in your driveway or on your porch with them to watch the world go by. Have your puppy on a leash for safety and set out a nice mat for them to settle on if they choose.

Any time they notice something new, like a loud truck driving by, a cat walking across the street, or your neighbor heading out for a walk, praise calmly and give them a treat. It's all about creating positive associations with different things.

It's also a fantastic opportunity to practice their name recognition and come-when-called cue!

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If your puppy is old enough and up-to-date on their required vaccinations, you can start exploring on leashed walks. Most regular dog leashes are at least six feet long, so that also gives you an easy way to make sure you're staying the recommended distance from other people.

While on walks, create positive associations with people and other dogs as they walk by at a distance. If your puppy notices them, give them a treat. This doesn't require any actual interaction, just their distant presence. You'll get a big future training bonus by doing this — your puppy will be better able to focus on you around distractions like other dogs or people!

It's tempting to let other people greet your adorable puppy while out and about, but I recommend avoiding it right now. Even if you are technically staying six feet apart from other people with your puppy at the end of their leash, there is the risk that coronavirus can be transmitted through touching a contaminated surface, like a dog's collar, harness, or even fur. For safety's sake, just wave hello and keep enjoying your socially distanced walk with your puppy. 

Taking your pup on sniffari is a great way to let them explore and learn about new smells, surfaces, and sounds. Watch PV dog, Sookie, show you how it's done in this video:

Provide Lots of Puppy Brain Games

Mental enrichment for your puppy is even more important now that we're spending more time at home. Not only do brain games like interactive toys and puzzles burn off some of that crazy puppy energy, they also build confidence! Confidence is essential for future resiliency of your dog's behavior when they encounter new things.

Encourage your puppy to explore new puzzles and solve different problems. Start with easy puzzles and interactive toys so your puppy is successful and doesn't give up. Slowly increase the difficulty of their puzzle as they get the hang of problem solving. Frustration is part of the game — you want your puppy to learn some frustration tolerance, but not get so frustrated that they give up! Give them a helping hand if they need it and always praise them for their efforts.

Using a clicker to shape behavior is a great confidence builder. Learn more about using the shaping method in dog training in this article "How to Teach Your Dog to do Anything in 4 Easy Steps."

While social distancing during this coronavirus pandemic is less than ideal, it doesn't mean that your puppy won't grow up to be a happy and confident adult dog. This predicament just requires some planning and continued commitment to a training and socialization plan. You've got this!

Let us know how your puppy's socialization is going in the comments below!

Related Articles:

101 Dog Behavior and Training Tips Book 

Topics: Puppy, Dog, Behavior

Please do not ask emergency or other specific medical questions about your pets in the blog comments. As an online informational resource, Preventive Vet is unable to and does not provide specific medical advice or counseling. A thorough physical exam, patient history, and an established veterinary-patient-client relationship is required to provide specific medical advice. If you are worried that your pet is having an emergency or if you have specific medical questions related to your pet’s current or chronic medical conditions, please contact or visit your veterinarian, an animal-specific poison control hotline, or your local emergency veterinary care center.

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