Puppies need to be socialized to mature into confident and well-adjusted dogs. But how can we socialize a puppy, especially toward people, during a pandemic?
The good news is there is a silver lining to puppy socialization when social distance is required. Puppies do not need to interact directly with people to create good feelings. In fact, distance is helpful.
During the pandemic, puppies are less likely to be mobbed by people who run up uninvited and touch the puppy without the owner’s or puppy’s consent. That kind of experience can be frightening for puppies and it teaches them to be worried and nervous about people.
Let your puppy watch people go by at a safe distance. Have your puppy on a loose leash or in a contained space such as a crate or car. Talk to your puppy in a happy voice and feed him or her a treat every time he/she sees a person. Just feeding a treat does not in itself make it a good experience so make sure your puppy feels safe and comfortable overall. You are teaching your puppy that people are not scary.
When you use distance to create good feelings about people, the puppy is learning something else important. The puppy is learning to ignore people, to not greet them.
Dogs need to learn not to greet most of the people they see during their lifetime. They need to learn that they only greet when you give them permission to do so and otherwise they should ignore people.
Do you want your dog to be frantic and excited and pulling every time he or she sees a person? The pandemic is a perfect time to teach your dog not to be social. Social distancing works very well for puppies.
When safe, give your puppy permission to greet a person with a cue such as “Go say hi!” Don’t allow your puppy to pull you toward a person. Allow your puppy to greet when calm. And make sure your puppy wants to greet the person. Never force an interaction as that will create fear and uncertainty.
To greet or not to greet
Dogs need to learn two skills: greeting people politely and calmly, and not greeting people. Depending on your puppy’s personality, early experiences and natural sociability, one skill will be harder or easier. However, make sure you train both so your puppy has the skills needed to act appropriately, safely and comfortably around people throughout his or her life.
The same holds true for other dogs. Teach your puppy not to be frightened of other dogs by watching dogs go by at a distance and feeding a treat when your puppy sees the dog. Put meeting other dogs on cue and allow your puppy to greet other dogs when you give permission and the puppy is calm and not pulling you toward the dog. Make sure you let your puppy only greet dogs you know are friendly toward puppies.
Learning when and how to greet – and not greet - people and other dogs is an important life skill for every dog.
Sandy Middleton is a dog trainer and behaviour consultant based in Powell River. For more information, go to bestfriendsdogtraining.ca.