There are many ways that you can make sure that your puppy has lots of different and positive experiences that will help them grow into a happy and confident adult dog, despite the current COVID-19 pandemic.
There is a ‘critical socialisation period’ for puppies between approximately 4 -16 weeks of age. A puppy’s experiences during this time are critical for their learning and development and can influence and shape their behaviour for the rest of their lives. So, it is vitally important to socialise puppies from a young age; this means exposing them to lots of different experiences in a safe and positive way so that they cope with different situations and know how to interact with and relate to other dogs, other animals, and people.
Socialisation is not just introducing your puppy to people and other puppies/dogs. This is important, but there are many experiences to which we can introduce our puppies to help them cope well with situations they will encounter during their lives, including introducing them to different sights, objects, surfaces, sounds, experiences, and skills.
Everything new needs to be paired with something good (e.g. a delicious treat, a fun game and praise/petting) so that the puppy forms positive associations with the experience. Socialisation and training should only ever use reward-based methods, whereby the puppy is set up to succeed and is then rewarded for performing the ‘good’ behaviour (positive reinforcement). The following will help to do this:
- When socialising your puppy, it is important to make sure they are calm when you start and that you have plenty of treats to use as rewards.
- Make sure your puppy has the choice to investigate whatever you are introducing them to or move away if they want to.
- It is important that your puppy is never forced to do anything, but rather that you reward them for investigating a new experience, whether that is just looking calmly or approaching/interacting.
- If your puppy is concerned by the new experience you can reassure them, but if they are still worried, just remove the puppy from the situation and try again another day. You might have to go back a couple of steps to something they are comfortable with and then build up again.
- Always make socialisation sessions short and positive and only introduce one to two new things at a time to avoid overwhelming your puppy.
Socialisation with people and other puppies/dogs
Unfortunately, the current COVID-19 pandemic and the necessary social distancing and movement/gathering restrictions means you are likely not able to socialise your puppy to other puppies and dogs or people as you traditionally would; for example, by going to puppy preschool classes or organising play dates with other people and dogs.
However, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, you should be able to go out for walks, as long as you are not sick or in a situation where you must not leave your home, such as being quarantined.
If you are allowed to go out for walks, you can still take your puppy. You can do this by carrying your puppy if they have not been fully vaccinated, or by walking with them if they are fully vaccinated. You will need to practice social distancing and stay at least 1.5m away from other people and dogs. So while you will not be able to take your puppy to meet other people and dogs close up, you can still create positive associations with other people and dogs. Every time you come across another dog or a person, you can reward your puppy with treats they really enjoy and verbal praise.
Once your puppy has completed their initial vaccination course you can take then for short local walks (if this is allowed in your area at the moment). Just practice social distancing, avoid areas where people and dogs congregate, shared areas, grassy areas and other areas where other animals may have toileted.
Other forms of socialisation
It is important that you also introduce your puppy to a range of different sights, objects, surfaces, sounds, experiences, and skills during their critical socialisation period. This is something you can easily do at home, even during the current situation. You just need to get a bit creative! Here are some ideas to get you started.
Your puppy is likely to come across a range of different objects and sights in their lifetime, such as people who are wearing different clothes and doing different things. You can get your puppy used to these things just by showing them lots of objects and by playing dress ups! Remember, always pair the new sight/object with a positive reward.
For example, you and the rest of the family could dress up with winter gear (such as gumboots and an overcoat), sunglasses and wide brimmed hats, scrubs like a veterinarian, or high-vis gear and heavy work boots. You can use fancy dress costumes, masks, beards, wigs, umbrellas, helmets – anything you have on hand – to familiarise your puppy to different outfits and objects they might see. You can play act and simulate different situations, like a delivery person bringing a big box, packages or bags to your door; someone riding a bicycle; a person using a walking frame or walking stick; or a traveller with a big backpack or rolling a suitcase. Always give your puppy a treat and praise when they behave calmly and investigate a new object or a ‘new’ (dressed up!) person.
When your dog gets the chance to be out and about they will come across a range of surfaces like concrete, sidewalk curbs, metal (such as a manholes), grass, leaves, tiles, pavement, wood, ramps, and many more.
You can create an ‘experience walk’ at home to get your puppy used to as many of these things as possible. You can make this in your backyard with a little bit of creativity, using wood blocks, concrete, tiles, ramps, stairs, grass, carpet and even expand it with other experiences like flapping flags, plastic bottles or bags waving in the wind.
Things might be a bit quieter than normal at the moment but you can still accustom your puppy to the sounds of ‘normal’ life while they are at home with you.
Look for videos or sound tracks online of everyday sounds to play to your puppy; for example, sounds of appliances, cars, trains, whistles, barking dogs, motorbikes, birds, and many more sounds. Just keep the volume low so you do not startle your puppy and reward them for calm behaviour.
Once your puppy is calm and used to hearing new noises paired with positive experiences like treats or games, you can introduce some potentially scary noises like thunder, fireworks, and vacuum cleaners to get them used to those noises too. Just for a short period at a time, at low volume, and paired with treats and praise.
You should also get your puppy comfortable with being handled through regular sessions of gentle touching of areas like their ears, feet, mouth, eye area and tail. This will help you checking your dog and doing routine care and also with future visits to and examinations by your puppy’s veterinarian. You can also get your puppy used to grooming and having their nails clipped which will make everyone’s life easier in the long run. These sessions should be relaxed and always paired with a reward to keep the associations positive.
You can get your puppy used to the car, even without going anywhere! Teach your puppy to be comfortable getting in and out of the car, when you turn on the engine, and even do a few trips up and down your driveway to get them used to a bit of movement. One great way to help your puppy enjoy spending time in the car is to feed them their meals there for a few times in a row.
Enrichment toys are a great way to keep your puppy entertained and to keep them mentally and physically stimulated; for example treat dispensing toys or games that encourage a puppy to explore and be rewarded for self-initiated play. Rotate the toys every day so your puppy doesn’t get bored with them. You can make many toys yourself, which can be a good project for this time at home.
Learning life skills for when social distancing ends
It is important to teach your puppy to be happy when they are alone. This will help your puppy cope better when you all return to work or school and a more normal life.
A good way to do this is to set your puppy up alone in a safe space with a delicious treat, something to chew, and an enrichment toy like a puzzle feeder. A puppy crate is an ideal secure place where your puppy can sleep safely and be left alone. You can then leave them alone for short periods of time, starting for a very short time like a minute and slowly building up to longer periods as your puppy gets used to this.
You can also start teaching your puppy good leash skills and to be comfortable wearing a harness.
You can also use this time to build a strong relationship with your puppy and teach them basic skills like sit, stay, down, come, leave it, tug and give, prevention of resource guarding, etc.
Further information and resources
There are also online resources available and even some online puppy school and dog training courses, such as those offered by RSPCA QLD, RSPCA ACT, and RSPCA WA. Remember, only ever use a reward based trainer or school; training with force or aversive training techniques and equipment should never be used.
For more information on puppy socialisation, dog training, low-stress handling and force-free training:
- RSPCA QLD
- RSPCA South Australia
- RSPCA Victoria
- RSPCA WA
- RSPCA NSW
- RSPCA ACT
- RSPCA Darwin
- RSPCA Guide To Understanding & Training Your Dog
- The Pet Professional Guild
If you are facing challenges caring for your animals, please get in touch with your local RSPCA to discuss options; we are here to offer support and help if possible.
Thank you to our colleagues at RSPCA QLD’s School for Dogs, Dr Jess Beer at Kiwi Vet Behaviour, and SPCA NZ for sharing their ideas with us to use as the basis for this article.