How to socialise your puppy with people and dogs during the UK lockdown
Early socialisation is so important to your puppy’s development that it absolutely must not be delayed. Waiting until lockdown is over would mean losing irretrievably valuable time, which could make the difference between your puppy developing into a relaxed, confident, friendly and adaptable adult, or one who for the rest of their life is anxious, uncertain, fearful and has difficulty coping with change.
For puppies up to 12 to 16 weeks of age, it is crucial that they spend plenty of time in safe environments experiencing positive social interactions with both unfamiliar people and unfamiliar dogs, and avoiding frightening experiences with them.
As puppies get older, they start to approach anything unfamiliar with more caution. Your puppy has an increased likelihood of becoming fearful of unfamiliar people and dogs not only if they have negative experiences with them, but also if they have insufficient, or no, positive exposure to them during the first 3 to 4 months of their life.
So what do we do when our new puppy has arrived in the midst of a global pandemic when we’re required to maintain social distance from others?
There is no doubt that socialising your puppy during a lockdown does present some challenges, however the good news is that there are a lot of things you can still do, it just means getting a little creative!
You want your puppy to view people of all types as good and safe, therefore your puppy needs exposure to a variety of people, including:
People of all ages (babies, young children, teenagers, adults)
Women and men
Tall people, short people
Loud people, quiet people
People with long hair, short hair, no hair and facial hair
People wearing accessories such as glasses and hats
People carrying items such as bags and umbrellas
People using mobility aids (e.g. walking sticks or frames, wheelchairs, prams or buggies)
People dressed in high-visibility clothing (e.g. construction workers, emergency service workers)
Strangers outside of the home and unfamiliar visitors at the door
Your puppy can’t be in close proximity to, or handled by, people outside of your household at the moment, but they can still see, hear and smell unfamiliar people from a distance. If you live somewhere isolated where you rarely see anyone, you will need to travel (within the lockdown rules) to places where there will be more people for your puppy to experience, from a distance.
From your home
You can sit with your puppy watching for strangers from your doorstep, the windows of your home, or from a balcony or garden if you have one.
Obviously your puppy mustn't go on the ground outdoors until their primary vaccination course is complete, but until then you can carry them or push them in a dog buggy when you go out for your daily walks.
When your puppy is allowed on their own four paws, remember that whilst you want them to have regular social exposures, you need to be careful not to over-exercise them. The rule of thumb is ‘5 minutes of exercise per month of age twice a day’.
From the car
You will need to work on making sure that your puppy is relaxed about travelling in the car first, but once you are confident that they are, you can then drive them to different locations (within the lockdown rules), and when you’ve parked up, people-watch from the car (your puppy should be securely restrained by a dog safety belt car harness or in a crate whilst the vehicle is in motion).
You can also work with your puppy at home to get them used to things which could potentially make different people seem scary. Family members can dress up in different types of outfits, change the way they walk, change the sound of their voice, put on an accessory such as a hat, sun-glasses or face covering, or carry something like a bag, umbrella or bucket.
Occasionally step outdoors and ring the doorbell before coming into the house dressed as someone new, so that your puppy gets used to the idea of visitors arriving at the house.
In all of the scenarios above, it is important for you to do the following things:
Stay relaxed yourself at all times If you demonstrate through your own behaviour that there is no reason to be worried, this will help your puppy learn to be confident too. Avoid repeated reassurance such as saying ‘it’s ok, it’s ok’ or fussing your puppy more when you see that they are unsure. Your puppy will not know what you are trying to communicate, and may interpret your behaviour as agitation on your part, which could make them feel more anxious.
Behave normally In these less than normal times, try to make a point of saying ‘hello’ to people who pass by, and if it is possible to keep at least 2 metres away, stop and exchange a few friendly words with strangers so that your puppy learns that nothing bad happens when unfamiliar people stop to chat.
Start easy It is not unusual for puppies to be unsure of new things at first, so build up exposures to new people (or dressed-up people they already know) gradually, so that your puppy doesn’t get frightened. Let your puppy see, hear and smell people from a good distance away to begin with, and only move closer if your puppy is relaxed. Stop to talk to just one or two people together initially - fewer people will be easier for your puppy to adjust to than a large group. If you are doing family dress-up, make small changes to appearance, movements and sounds to begin with.
Be guided by your puppy’s reactions If your puppy starts showing signs of anxiety in the presence of a stranger or dressed-up family member (for example, shaking, turning away / hiding, whimpering, growling etc), make the exposure easier for them e.g. move your puppy a little further away from the stranger / ask the family member to make themselves less intimidating, and see if your puppy relaxes. If they’re still showing signs that they are worried, just say ‘goodbye’ to the stranger and move on / ask the family member to go and change back into themselves. Make the exposure less intense next time.
Make unfamiliar people a rewarding experience for your puppy Pair exposures to strangers / family members pretending to be strangers with good things happening for your puppy. Wait for your puppy to look at the stranger / dressed-up family member, then if your puppy remains relaxed, give them a treat. Every time they look at the unfamiliar person and stay relaxed, give them a treat, then when the person disappears, stop giving the treats, Make sure the sequence is correct, so that you are positively reinforcing your puppy’s calm reaction to unfamiliar people, and your puppy is learning that unfamiliar people predict good things happening. If your puppy is not relaxed in the presence of the unfamiliar person, move further away from the stranger / ask the family member to make themselves less intimidating, and when your puppy is relaxed again, try the pairing once more.
Some owners may already have one or more other dogs in the home, but it’s important to understand that just because a puppy develops good relationships with dogs that they live with, this doesn’t translate into being sociable with unfamiliar dogs, therefore it is essential for new puppies to gain exposure to other dogs outside of their home environment.
As with unfamiliar people, you want your puppy to view sociable dogs of all types as good and safe, therefore your puppy needs exposure to a range of dogs, including:
Dogs of different ages (puppies, adolescents, adults)
Male and female dogs
Quiet dogs and lively dogs
Large breed dogs and small breed dogs
Hairy dogs and those with short coats
Dark-coloured dogs and light-coloured dogs
Dogs with short muzzles (e.g. Boxers, Pugs, Bulldogs) and those with pointy noses
Dogs with dangling ears and dogs with upright ears
Dogs with long mobile tails and those whose tails curl tightly over their back
Dogs with different play styles
IMPORTANT: If an unfamiliar dog is demonstrating any antisocial behaviours such as hard-staring, holding their body stiffly, facing your puppy head-on, showing teeth, barking, growling and / or making any attempt to try and move towards your puppy whilst showing other anti-social behaviours, walk away immediately. Avoid exposing your puppy to dogs that show these behaviours, they can seriously frighten, and may also physically hurt, your puppy.
You can dog-watch with your puppy in the same way as you people-watched with them, although of course you might need to pick slightly different environments to increase the likelihood of seeing dogs.
In the same way as you do with unfamiliar people: stay relaxed yourself; behave normally; start easy; be guided by your puppy’s reactions, and; pair exposures of sightings of unfamiliar dogs with good things happening. Every time your puppy looks at an unfamiliar dog and stays relaxed, give them a treat, then when the dog disappears, stop giving the treats - in this way you positively reinforce your puppy’s calm reaction to unfamiliar dogs and your puppy learns that unfamiliar dogs predict good things happening. If your puppy is not relaxed in the presence of the unfamiliar dog, move further away from the other dog, and when your puppy is relaxed again, try the pairing once more.
Be aware of the possibility that your puppy may become frustrated watching other dogs play e.g. if another owner with multiple dogs is out walking and their dogs are playing together, or someone is playing ball retrieve with their dog. If your puppy starts to scramble in your arms, pull on their lead, or whine or bark in the direction of the playing dogs, then it is time to leave.
The key thing that our puppies can’t do at the moment is to have free-play with other puppies and adult dogs outside of any other canines that they live with. Puppies learn a lot during play with other dogs, for example bite inhibition, that surprises happen, and how to have a conversation with the other dog about speeding up, slowing down, stopping or changing the game. All is not lost here though, you can still play with your puppy and incorporate these kind of learning experiences into the games you play with them.
For example, you can play a game of tug with your puppy which includes the following:
Start and stop cues Train your puppy to wait calmly to be offered the toy, and to relinquish it gently when you give a ‘drop’ cue – this helps your puppy to learn greater impulse control and how to play politely.
Changes of pace During the game you can make excited voices and move the toy a little more vigorously (although be careful not to play too hard and fast with a puppy, their body, including their jaw, is still developing and is more susceptible to injury than that of an adult dog), then slow the toy down and make your voice more gentle – this helps your puppy to learn that changing the pace of the game alters the arousal level of both participants, and therefore how they can encourage more activity or more calm from a playmate, and respond appropriately to the same kinds of requests.
Surprises When your puppy is pulling keenly, let go of the toy with one hand and give them a quick scratch them on the shoulder whilst still tugging the toy with your other hand – the idea is to give your puppy a mild surprise which they do not overreact to – this helps your puppy to develop confidence in response to changes which naturally occur during an interaction between different individuals, but which do not represent a threat to your puppy’s well-being. If, however, your puppy does react fearfully to your action (e.g. they suddenly let go of the toy, make a big movement away from you, clamp their jaw more tightly around the toy, hard stare at you, growl), then do not repeat this ‘surprise action’ and seek advice from an experienced positive reinforcement trainer / behaviourist.
Bite inhibition If at any point during the tug game your puppy adjusts their mouth on the toy and mouths your hand hard, let go of the toy and quietly turn away from your puppy – this helps your puppy to learn when they have used their mouth too hard. When you start to play with them again, your puppy should be more gentle with their mouth because they don’t want the game to stop again.
Something else which can be used to help your puppy become accustomed to unfamiliar people and dogs is sound therapy.
This is something which can be done without leaving your home, and basically it involves playing sound recordings to your puppy, starting with the volume very low so it doesn’t frighten them, then in the same way as you did with seeing strangers and unfamiliar dogs, pairing the sounds with your puppy receiving something great. For example, you would play the sounds of people talking, children screeching about whilst playing, a baby crying, dogs barking etc, and as long as your puppy is not reacting anxiously, feed them treats or play with them whilst the sound is playing, and when the sound stops, the food or toy stops. As long as your puppy is remaining calm and engaged with you, you can turn the sound up a little bit and continue, however if at any point your puppy starts to show signs of anxiety, turn the sound down or off as appropriate.
Dogs Trust, the dog welfare charity, have a great Sound Therapy section on their website with lots of free downloadable sounds at www.dogstrust.org.uk/help-advice/dog-behaviour-health/sound-therapy-for-pets It is also possible to order canine Sound Therapy CDs online.
In addition, you can play talk radio stations during the daytime so that your puppy becomes more accustomed to hearing a range of different voices.
Television for Dogs
There is a YouTube channel called DOGTV which has lots of visual and sound content specifically designed to be appropriate for, and beneficial to, our dogs’ healthy development and well-being. This is another method you can use to give your puppy exposure to seeing and hearing unfamiliar people and dogs.
DOGTV has been created by canine experts to deliver a positive experience for dogs, however you should assess your individual puppy’s response to it carefully to begin with. Sit with them, and when people or dogs appear on the screen, if your puppy remains relaxed, give them a treat. If, however, your puppy starts to show any signs of worry or frustration in response to seeing / hearing people or dogs on-screen, turn the television sound down a bit and move further away from it. If your puppy still can’t relax, turn the television off, and try again another day starting further away from the television with the sound down low.
You can find out more about DOGTV at https://www.dogtv.com/
Finally, while less direct contact with unfamiliar people and dogs during these times of social distancing is not ideal for all aspects of socialising our puppies, it does actually offer some potential upsides too.
For more confident, social puppies, not learning to expect to be fussed by every person or to play with every dog, can help to avoid issues such as jumping up at people and on-lead frustration, and improve things like handler focus which can help strengthen your bond with your puppy, and make building skills such as loose-lead walking and recall easier.
For shyer puppies, it is much easier to give them exposure to unfamiliar people and dogs in a gradual way so they can gain confidence at their own pace, rather than having strangers approaching and fussing them when they’re not ready, or having other dogs rushing in on them before they’ve had time to assess them from a distance.
We hope that you find our tips for socialising your puppy with unfamiliar people and dogs during the UK lockdown helpful, and if you would like some further support, please do not hesitate to get in touch with us.
Complete Canine Dog Training is run by Sara Alan-Smith, a positive reinforcement trainer based in Henley-on-Thames, South Oxfordshire. During lockdown, Sara is providing virtual home visits and one-to-one training via video or telephone call to owners anywhere in the UK, and is working towards running some new online group training classes. To find out how we can help with your puppy / dog training needs, contact us by telephone 07833 662417, email firstname.lastname@example.org or submit the contact form on our website at https://www.completecaninedogtraining.co.uk/contact
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