Socialising your puppy during Covid-19?
I have delayed writing this post, because I think it is a bit of a minefield and I don’t really feel like being blown up with everything else that is going on! However, I do think it is something that ne
eds to be talked about and there are people looking for this advice, so here goes.
Before I dive into how we should tackle socialisation during this time, I would like to clarify a few things:
• I DO take this pandemic extre
mely seriously: I have close family who are in the high-risk category and do not want to lose them to this virus. I strongly believe that we all have a responsibility to “flatten” the curve and avoid passing the virus on. • Every country has different restrictions and is at a different stage in dealing with what we are facing. Please note I would NEVER suggest ignoring any restriction your country may have imposed. If I am suggesting something which is still viable in South Africa, but is not viable in another country, please put your country’s law first!
We all know that socialisation is hugely important for puppies under the age of 16 weeks and socialisation, by d
efinition, entails getting your puppy out and about in the world, so that they can get used to seeing other people and animals. So how do we accomplish this when we are in an unprecedented situation where social distancing (maintaining 6 feet or 2 metres between people) is the new normal? How do we have our puppies encounter other people and animals when many parks are closed, and people are staying home as much as possible? Is it still safe to go to any form of puppy class?
I have encountered several people so far who seem to be taking the view that they will keep their puppy at home now and simply start socialising once the pandemic is over. This is not a sensible approach for two reasons:
1. We have no idea how long this situation will continue – especially in countries where we are using social distancing early on to flatten the curve, there is no clear indication how long we may need to continue like this before we “get out the other side”. 2. If you have a puppy who is currently between 10 and 16 weeks, it is highly unlikely that all will return to normal before they reach the end of their socialisation period. Waiting until then will be too late for your puppy. Every week of those 6 weeks is precious!
So, what can you do? Well, first of all, if you do have access to outdoor puppy classes, find out what measures they are taking to be responsible during this time. If classes are being run responsibly and are still legal, do try to attend. Measures which we are putting in place for all our classes are as follows:
1. We have spray bottles of disinfectant on our gate – everyone must spray their hands before they come in. 2. We are asking all clients to bring their own mats for their dogs to work on, as well as water bowls and toys. Basically, bring your own stuff and don’t touch anyone else’s stuff! 3. We are asking for all payments and paperwork to be done electronically to avoid passing around items. 4. We set out “stations” for each client keeping the required spacing 5. We spray the station markers (usually cones) with disinfectant between classes 6. Any small items such as targets or cones used by clients during class must be dropped into disinfectant buckets p
rovided at the end of class, so they are sanitized before someone else uses them. 7. Only the person training the dog may attend class – no friends or family for the moment. 8. No sick person (with the vaguest symptom) may attend class 9. No one who has been travelling in the last two weeks may attend class 10. We have hand sprays if any accidental or essential contact happens during an unforeseen situation.
Taking all this into account, attending classes outdoors is far less risky than going shopping or even visiting friends
or family, so do take advantage of this if it is an option in your area.
But what else can you do? I think we need to remember that socialisation does not simply equal playing with other dogs or having other people handle your puppy. Socialisation and habituation are about exposing your puppy to things they will encounter throughout their lives and creating positive associations with those things (people, places, animals, sounds, objects and surfaces). Simply seeing a perso
n pass by and being fed a treat afterwards creates good associations with seeing
people. Passing another dog a few metres away and getting a treat afterwards creates positive associations with other dogs. Most countries are still allowing people to walk their dogs, so if you can go out and about, you are very likely to still find others out with their dogs and you can use these opportunities for safe socialisation; Standing at a safe distance and watching people (including joggers, cyclists etc.) or dog walkers pass by occasionally and immediately praising and dropping a couple of treats for your puppy will help them to feel good in the future when they encounter other people and dogs and will actually teach them to remain calm during such sightings. We need to remember that many social problems arise as a result of puppies being allowed to run up to every person and dog, creating such excited anticipation at the sight of others, that not being allowed to go and say hello leads to frustration and reactivity. Learning to watch calmly from a distance and NOT engage is such a valuable skill for every dog to learn.
In Cape Town, we are lucky that we have mountains and beaches that are pretty remote and where we can walk freely, so these also offer opportunities for encountering others enjoying recreation, provided we stay a safe distance from each other and don’t get too friendly. It is normal to stand aside and give way to others on a mountain path, so no humans ever get too close for comfort, but dogs off lead do often get a chance for a sniff. Obviously, this does not mean that we should allow our dogs to run up to other dogs willy-nilly, but many of us know other mountain or beach walkers we have been meeting for years and whose dogs would be safe for a puppy to greet and so we can take advantage of this. Dogs cannot contract COVID-19, so dog interactions are pretty safe from this point of view. The main issue here is more to avoid allowing your pup to be bullied by dogs that are not safe for your pup to be around from a behavioural point of view, so just be wise in who you choose to let them meet and remember to ask other owners if it is okay too. If you have friends or family with socially healthy dogs you can meet for walks, this is also a great option.
If you are very limited as to what you can do, even taking your puppy for drives in the car can be helpful. I do a
huge amount of classical conditioning in the car with my dogs. Every time we pass a person, dog, cyclist or big truck, they get a treat. The result is calm dogs who anticipate good stuff when passing potential “triggers” outside the car, who even remain calm at the petrol station or when other dogs run around the car. Their exits from the car are also always calm, no matter what is around, and I am sure that the conditioning I have done in the car has helped greatly with this. So, there is something you can do in the isolation of your own vehicle.
Finally, there is also a lot you can do at home, in the garden or in deserted areas outside. Set up obstacle courses to create body awareness, build confidence and habituate your puppy to a variety of novel stimuli. Let your pup climb on a fallen log (lure them with treats to encourage them), let them walk through a puddle of water, crawl under a bush, sit on a bench, play in a pile of leaves. Let them explore, teach them to use their noses to find things and to problem solve with puzzle toys. All of this builds skills which will help your puppy to tackle whatever comes later in life with confidence and a large frame of reference with regards to good experiences. It is all worthwhile.
Life has thrown us a curve ball, but we need to face it and do our best for our puppies regardless. I was once thrown a curve ball (a lot smaller, but relevant to me at the time!), when Cruz was born. Unlike a “normal” puppy situation, Cruz was the only puppy Rosie had. As a behaviourist I was devastated and convinced he was going to have “singleton syndrome”, which basically meant he was going to be a disaster behaviourally and emotionally, as a result of not having the normal interactions with siblings which help to shape development. But I did not throw my hands up and go, oh well, that’s just how it is. I focused my energy on creating challenges and experiences for him which would encourage problems solving skills and build emotional resilience. I arranged for safe socialisation opportunities where possible and built a strong bond with him through positive reinforcement training. Cruz is not a basket case. He is an amazing dog – the most enthusiastic, sweetest and most tolerant dog we have ever had. So, please don’t sit back and do nothing. There are things you can do, and it WILL make a difference. Take advantage of every opportunity you do have. Do not turn this into an excuse to do nothing.