So you got a new puppy and now you are in a panic about how you are going to socialize them when you have to stay away from everyone. All of these puppies are going to turn into unsocialized monsters, right?
No, not necessarily.
Most people have an exaggerated view of puppy socialization. They have been told they need to introduce their pups to 900 different people, dogs and environments in the first couple weeks they have them home, or else! This, however, isn’t the best way to go about socializing and can actually cause more harm than good. When pups are forced to interact with every person, dog and situation they come across it can cause them to be afraid of or worried about meeting new people, etc. Why is this? Puppies are new to the world and they don’t all come pre programmed to want to meet every living being they see. Sometimes a puppy may act afraid of a person or dog and yet their owner, with the best of intentions, makes the puppy interact with this object of its fear. “See, there’s nothing to be afraid of! It’s a nice doggie”, man, child, etc. This may happen over and over again, causing the puppy to feel that it has no power to keep itself safe. Over time, this can lead to anxiety with the puppy barking at people or dogs, growling or, worst case, biting someone. Puppies need to know that their owner is looking out for them and can be counted on to keep them safe. This helps the pup become more confident and develops a better foundation for the puppy to build on in the future.
As the guardian of a new puppy it is our responsibility to keep them as happy and healthy as possible. This means physically, emotionally and mentally. Proper socialization is critical for this to happen. How do we do this? By keeping all introductions positive and giving the puppies the choice to interact on their own time. If they don’t want to visit someone you come across, that’s fine! Keep your distance and let the puppy approach if they want to. Ask the person to turn sideways, not to stare at the puppy and not to reach out to them. They can gently toss treats away for the pup to go get but don’t reach out to hand them one. Bottom line, let the pup approach if they want to or let them walk away if they want to. Once the puppy realizes they can approach or walk away and it’s ok to do so, their confidence will improve and they will very likely begin to approach people more readily. Also, this interaction has not become negative because the puppy wasn’t forced into a situation they were afraid of.
So, how does this translate to socialization when socializing isn’t allowed? Puppies need to see other people, dogs and new places but they don’t have to interact closely with them. Watching from a distance is great and keeps the pup from becoming overwhelmed by the fear of forced interactions. Taking them to new places, allowing them to explore new objects – in their own time, and seeing people, children, cars, dogs and other animals at a safe distance is actually a better way to socialize our pups. Plus there is the additional bonus of training that can take place in sight of these potential distractions with the pup learning to pay attention to its human in their presence.
Worried about your puppy being unable to play properly with other dogs because of this? Don’t. Dogs can learn proper dog-dog etiquette even when they are older. The way to do this is to have controlled play sessions with one dog at a time that is an appropriate age, size, temperament for your pup. Play groups are not the best way to socialize your puppy. They can become fearful very quickly if they are pounced on by a group of rambunctious “big dog” puppies all at once. One on one play times, carefully supervised and controlled by observant humans is the best, safest way to go.
Setting up novel object situations is also a good tool to help pups become more confident in the world. Rearrange the furniture in a room, turn a chair upside-down, lay an open umbrella in the middle of the floor and then watch your puppy as they walk into the room. If they are fine and walk around sniffing the new arrangement, great! If they are worried let them investigate on their own time. Don’t try and lure them closer with treats or toys. You can walk into the room and rub your hands on the “scary” objects to leave your scent on them and then wait. It can take a puppy 5 minutes or longer to assimilate an item that is new to them. Let them have that time. You can feed them if they approach on their own but don’t lure them. This could backfire if the object you were luring the puppy to suddenly fell over and scared them. This could lead them to having issues trusting you to keep them safe from scary things in the future.
There are also sound desensitizing Apps that are available to introduce your puppy to strange noises. One I have used is called “Pup School”. It has many different sounds as well as the ability for you to record sounds to introduce to the pup. I’m not going to go into detail about desensitization at this time, but it starts with the sound at such a low volume that it barely registers with the puppy. Feed some yummy treats or play a favorite game at the same time. You don’t want to turn up the volume so much that they immediately react. They can notice the sound but shouldn’t be startled or become frightened by it. Keep things happy and safe for your pup.
Don’t worry that your puppy is going to be ruined by this social isolation. There are plenty of things you can do to keep them developing into a happy, healthy, and well balanced individual. Also remember to always have fun with your puppy!