I am a breeder. I am a dog trainer. I am a dog trainer coming off of months spent working with training clients seven days a week to meet the needs of however many families that acquired dogs during the Pandemic. Many were inexperienced. Many were lonely and desperate for a canine friend. Many took whatever was available in the depleted inventory created by like-minded neighbors—and the rest of the world.
The lucky ones planned ahead and were able to actually choose a breed and, in some cases, even a breeder. Others took whatever was offered by rescues, shelters, pet shops, puppy farms, puppy websites, Facebook, Craig’s List, and fancy websites. Whether these puppies came from a master breeder or an Amish puppy farm, one common denominator that I have seen across the board has been a consistent lack of social confidence towards strangers. The remarkable consistency was that almost every puppy/adolescent struggled with this, no matter the breed. The breeds that we might generalize about, with an expectation of being gregarious, socially forward, and indiscriminately friendly, were worrying about social contact almost as much as their selective or aloof and anti-social cousins. Lab puppies were standing behind their owners’ legs when offered the chance to greet a new person. Goldens moved away rather than rushed up to joyfully say hello. Cockers submissively urinated and avoided contact. All [reactions] were a result of our society’s self-imposed social isolation. Breeds that I would have expected to be unscathed by a lack of social contact with strangers displayed worries akin to their naturally selective cousins.
Coming from a breed with high needs for novel socialization, I began to panic about our own approaching litter. My breed, even in “ normal” times, needs devoted efforts for constant social contact and new situations. We instruct puppy people that they cannot afford to skimp on socialization, out and about and away from home. We interview new potential homes about their lifestyle, their own social tendencies, their time availability. (It takes commitment to produce a well-raised Briard.) We coach our puppy people on specific techniques for the best results.
The wise raising of any and all puppies includes an early life full of variation, interaction, novel situations, social experiences, challenges,and positive stimulation. Puppies derive the most benefit from this exposure during the first year of life, from puppyhood through adolescence.
The puppies that are most in need, ie., individuals of breeds or profiles with a tendency toward avoidance, suspicion, or little interest in new people or experiences, are potentially harmed by missing out on the constant exposure opportunities of pre-COVID times. The word “novel” looms large in the pursuit of enough experiences to stimulate and pattern the social confidence sought.
These needs are universally critical in most all walks of life for dogs, but are most essential in urban settings. Whether the dog will be a working animal, service animal, family companion or show dog, the dog’s life (and humans who interact with him/her) is enhanced tremendously by thorough and varied exposure to life experiences.
Average intensive socialization should incorporate meeting, greeting, and being drawn into the personal space of strangers in novel locations. This should be in repetitions of 50 new people in 50 new locations per month, from 2-14 months old. It is especially needed in the many Working and Herding breeds whose default settings are to be selective, watchful, and aloof in the unfamiliar. But now, with the social void of isolation and distancing (and with most people wearing masks), it becomes a useful tool for all developing puppies.
So I asked myself, what creative solutions can I develop for my own puppies? For my puppy peoples’ puppies? For my training clients’ puppies? How does one make that happen in a pandemic?
First, creativity. If the primary goal is the word “novel,” the implication is that one has to provide lots of change and newness. If the other goal is the word “frequent,” the implication is that one has to come up with enough options to not be stuck visiting the same locations. And lastly, the goal is for the puppy to spend time in the personal space of each new person and, if possible, long enough to relax and drink in the attention and lavished positive physical contact. Sometimes, luring in the puppy with food to the personal space of a stranger is an excellent solution to squelch avoidance. The stranger keeps the dog near, engulfed in their personal space, holding onto the leash (so you can social distance), and feeding multiple treats one at a time until the puppy accepts the treats, eats them and, therefore, relaxes. The source of the treats needs to be the stranger’s hand, not yours.
Why not throw in the patronage of animal establishments that have a feel for the challenges at hand, and would benefit from some business? I have found myself suggesting sources that I usually recommended avoiding before. Here is a limited list to consider:
- Take your puppy to doggie daycare businesses—not for the dog interaction (which can be of limited benefit), but more for the human handling opportunities that a new group of strangers provides. Make it clear that the goals are for the puppy to reap rewards from the puppy/human contact most of all. Request handling and physical contact with every one of the humans at the business. Novel is the governing factor, so going back to the same familiar daycare defeats the purpose. Change is good. Change is challenging. Challenge is good.
- Call grooming shops and ask for these same things. Pay for a bath or a 15-minute cursory dog massage, and ask if there are multiple employees so that the puppy may be exposed, held, and connected with each one. Make appointments with as many grooming shops as you can visit. Explain the goals in your request to the shop. Might the groomer tether your puppy to them for a few minutes while answering the phone or brushing another dog? Perhaps the puppy can be brushed by one, then trimmed by another, and petted by yet another? “Change” and “novel” are the words of the day. Hanging in the personal space of a new person is a necessity.
- Call your vet. Ask if they might, for a small fee, babysit your puppy for 15-30 minutes just for the positive impact it will have on the puppy. Perhaps the puppy can sit with the people at the front desk answering the phone and doing paperwork. Once again, the puppy should be on a leash so that the personal space of the socializer is the “no escape” option.
- There are lots of sources for active chaos, which adds to the positive impact of socialization. Get creative and come up with your own list: Saturday in front of the grocery store; inside stores that do not serve food; hardware and home improvement stores; some department stores; electronics stores; the dry cleaners…
Keep in mind, this is about novel experiences practiced frequently. There is no such thing as too much socialization.