It’s been tough, y’all. Really tough. In late March/ early April there was a meme circulating saying, “Check on your Extroverts. They are not ok.” It was funny then, but now it’s not. At this point, I think even a few of you introverts are getting a little stir crazy and missing the hum of what used to be our normal lives. I’m betting your dogs miss it, too.
Whether you have a new puppy that desperately needs to explore and investigate the world around him in order to be a well-adjusted adult (and trust me, he DOES), or an older dog that could just use a little extra stimulation now and again, like us, dogs need stuff to do. And finding stuff to do during a pandemic can be hard!
Where ever you and your dog are on your pandemic journey, I’m here to help. I’ve got tips for socializing your puppies, maintaining socialization in adult dogs, and the perfect opportunity to help dogs who’ve always been a little shy, fearful, or reactive.
Before I get into the meat of that though, I want to offer one very important piece of advice:
Spend some time wearing your mask at home while interacting with your dog.
I know. It sucks. But just like us, dogs need to get used to seeing people in masks- masks that make it virtually impossible to read your facial expressions. The best way to help your dog do that is to interact with your dog while wearing yours. Throw the ball. Do a short training session. Offer some lovin’s. And if you’re doing that training session, you may want to consider working on hand signals.
As we’ve all discovered, it can be hard to understand what masked people are saying. Henri knows hand signals for sit, come, leave-it, and scratchies. Teach your pup the basics. Seriously, he’ll thank you.
Socializing a New Puppy During A Pandemic
If you and your new puppy are strictly adhering to stay at home orders and social distancing guidelines, I’ve got some bad news for you.
Renowned dog trainer and puppy expert, Dr. Ian Dunbar says puppies need to meet 100 new people by the age of three months. If you got your puppy at six or eight weeks, you have less than one month to ensure that your fur baby grows up without being fearful or overly shy.
So, what’s a socially distanced pet parent to do?
Well, car rides for starters. Go to a drive-thru and grab yourself a puppaccino, or park in a parking lot and people watch. Take a walk around the neighborhood, and not just YOUR neighborhood, other neighborhoods, the park, or even a wooded trail.
If your vet has recommended that your pup NOT do that until an older age, then carry him.
I’ve seen the recycling bins in my neighborhood. I know y’all are all still going to the liquor store. Take your puppy with you. Many of the liquor stores in my area welcome dogs and even keep treats behind the counter. Did I say many? I mean, I’ve been told. For all of you who started gardens last spring, fall planting season is here. Take your tiny floof to the garden center.
Even if you aren’t interacting with strangers and have no intention of letting anybody pet your dog (which is a really bad idea from the ‘socializing a puppy’ perspective), you should take him to see, smell, and hear the variety of things that go on in this crazy world.
If you’re really short on puppy knowledge and unsure of what to do, then trying a puppy socialization class might be a good option for you.
A slow-down in travel and work has left me with a lot of free time to dream up wild things, and I’ve tried really hard to use my extra energy for good, not evil. My most recent good-not-evil brainstorm was a new kind of puppy class that would focus less on skills and more on temperament.
With a group of puppies under 16 weeks and parents willing to be my guinea pigs, Adventure Puppy class was born! The class includes agility, a creek adventure, a hike, and finally, an outdoor dining excursion on a dog-friendly patio.
What else would you expect from an extroverted dog trainer who loves traveling, exploring, and drinking with dogs?
Many of the things we did in class, you can recreate on your own. Class starts with some simple agility to teach the puppies confidence in trying new things and following human leadership. You can do this in your own backyard by creating obstacles with household objects. Got two cinder blocks and a broom stick? You have a jump!
With a little confidence under our belts, we introduce the puppies to new sounds, surfaces, and environments through a series of outings, and work to teach them to always focus on their person, even in distractions. Again, you can mimic this during your own outings by asking your puppy to look when you say his name, sit, or come in a variety of settings.
Of course, you won’t have me, or the other puppies, or the experience of herding cats, but we are in the middle of a pandemic. Just do your best!
Maintaining Social Skills in Your Adult Dog
Moving on from puppies, we have to ask ourselves, “What’s a poor Golden Retriever to do when they can’t greet every stranger on the street?” Well, it’s a good time to work on ‘leave-it’. So, there’s that. But to keep your adult dog engaged and interested when scratchies aren’t plentiful, mix it up and get creative.
Henri and I have really enjoyed movies on the lawn at one of our local bars, and I’ve seen lots of places doing it.
Like I suggested for the puppies, vary your walking routes, go for car rides, head to the garden center. You may even want to give doggie daycare a try. It will allow your pup to enjoy the company of other dogs, run off some energy, and interact with humans other than you without you having to interact.
One of our local daycares is offering no contact curbside drop-off and pick-up, and I’ve suggested it to A LOT of folks who are working from home. Think of it as Mother’s Day Out for your dog!
Socializing Your Reactive Dog During A Pandemic
Reactive dogs might be the only people- dogs are people, too- on the planet who can actually benefit from this pandemic! If you have a shy or fearful pooch, this could be the perfect time to begin trying to help him overcome his problems. With the exception of the local garden center, most places are much less crowded. So if you have a favorite place that you’re hoping to someday enjoy with your dog, introduce him to it now.
PT- pandemic time- is a great time to sit on a park bench and people watch, throw a socially distanced blanket down in the middle of the park, or take a weekday stroll in the spot where they hold your Saturday farmer’s market. When your dog can relax and enjoy these activities, you’ll be ready for the next step in his social journey.
Before heading out the door, the first thing I teach my reactive pups is ‘leave-it’. Leave-it means ‘that’s not yours.’ Don’t sniff it, don’t lick it, don’t bark it, don’t bite it. Walk away. That’s none of your business. Don’t you wish some people knew that?
If you’re wondering why I’d teach that command to a dog I’m trying to socialize, it’s because I want to know I can call them off before I send them in. I want to teach them that they don’t need to bark or alert to every little thing. “Say Hi” comes much later. Like, maybe in 2021, but I digress.
With everyone trying to stay six feet apart, it isn’t likely that anyone will encroach on your space. That’s helpful for teaching your dog that ‘leave-it’ works both ways. If your dog is reacting out of fear and barking to keep strangers at bay, learning that ‘leave-it’ means no interaction will occur can be helpful. You may also wish to order a yellow leash like this one from Amazon with the word “nervous” on it, or simply tie a yellow ribbon on your dog’s leash. For more information on the purpose of the yellow ribbon and to decide whether or not it’s right for you, visit the Yellow Dog Project.
When using ‘leave-it’ to indicate to your dog to ignore something, I encourage my clients to say the words preemptively- as soon as you see your dog see it, but before he has a chance to react- and loudly, so the other person knows you have no intention of interacting with them. Find your pup’s threshold distance and work below it, and always, always quit while you’re ahead.
I’ve thrown a lot of ideas at you in this post, and I’d love to answer any questions you might have about helping your pup during this time. In addition to continuing to offer in-person training, I’m available for virtual sessions. You can visit my training website at Love. Trust. Teach. for more information about scheduling a consult. In the meantime, here’s a quick recap.
Easy Ways To Socialize Your Dog While Social Distancing
- Go for a drive.
- People watch in a parking lot or park.
- Change your walking route or location.
- Introduce new sights, sounds, and surfaces.
- Create fun obstacles.
- Enroll in doggie daycare.