UPDATE 13 May: Limited puppy preschool places are now available at our clinic on Thursday nights. To comply with current regulations, we request that:
- only one person comes with each puppy
- class members wait outside until the start time
For puppies elsewhere in the world, I’m afraid that the puppies of the next few months won’t grow up the same. I fear that this virus will change how they enjoy the rest of their lives. But I also think you can do something about it.
It’s especially important because I keep hearing that it’s a good time to get a puppy. Maybe so, but before you do, I really hope you read this.
Social Distancing vs Puppy Socialisation
At the heart of the problem are the new rules for public gatherings. I fully support these measures. However, imagine you’re a new puppy owner at the vet for the first time. Here’s what all vets say:
“How you socialise your puppy in the next 6 weeks is critical to their future success.”
Dog professionals have spent the last 30 years shouting from the rooftops and banging drums to get puppies socialised properly. That’s because we see what happens when these things aren’t done.
Well now it’s been taken away. Almost.
Why Socialisation Matters
The simple message is this: whatever a puppy has never experienced in a positive way before 14-16 weeks of age is likely to cause fear later.
This brief time is called the sensitive period. It’s when they soak up sights, sounds, smells and new experiences, and say, “this is what my life will contain, and it’s all good”.
Puppy preschool is an integral part of this, by encouraging dog sociability. Just as important is making sure that your puppy experiences what you do. They need to meet lots of different people, go to a variety of places and see, smell and hear a wide range of stimuli.
In the process they normalise them. That way, their life becomes exactly as they expect it to be, and it’s a fun one.
Now contrast all this with the puppy who’s left at home. The lack of dog socialisation makes them fearful of other dogs, so that in time they learn to keep them away using aggression. They rarely play with strange dogs, and instead try to avoid them.
The lack of environmental exposure at the critical time makes them afraid of the world. Anything outside the their narrow social upbringing now gives them fear and anxiety. This might be strangers, cars, crowds or (highly embarrassingly) people with different-coloured skin.
A Puppy Socialisation Checklist
Just have a look at this checklist of recommended positive experiences for puppies. As you do, think how many of these things we can still do easily. Afterwards, I’ve got some suggestions for using it.
|People at the front door|
|Unfamiliar people of all genders|
|Tall men or women|
|Men with loud voices|
|Men with beards|
|People of many ethnicities|
|People wearing hats, helmets|
|People wearing high boots|
|People wearing hoodies, high vis|
|People wearing backpacks|
|People wearing sunglasses|
|People with walking sticks or frames|
|Children (quiet & playing)|
|Toddlers (walking and squealing)|
|People running or riding by|
|Friendly dogs (both calm & excitable)|
|Dogs of all sizes who play well with other dogs|
|Horses and livestock|
|Any other species your puppy will meet|
|Slippery floors (hardwood, vinyl, tiles etc)|
|Unstable & irregular surfaces|
|Stairs (metal, wood and solid)|
|Mud, sand, gravel|
|Manhole covers & other metal surfaces|
|Ice, frost, or snow (if needed)|
|Thunder & heavy rain|
|Live or amplified music|
|Babies and kids|
|Alarms & sirens|
|Loud traffic noise|
|Lawnmowers, leaf blowers etc|
|Gunpowder (fireworks, nail gun, bird scarer)|
|Skateboards & rollerblades|
|Cars (stationary & moving)|
|Buses & trucks|
|Motorcycles & vespas|
|Blankets or rugs being shaken|
|Sandwich board signs|
|Plastic bags blowing in the wind|
|Escalators & lifts|
|Shopping centre car parks|
|Electric hair clippers|
|Checking between toes & in ears|
|Chewing bones (read this first)|
Socialisation Within The Rules
So here are my suggestions for doing everything possible:
- Don’t blame yourself. The puppy you adopted was conceived before any of this was predicted, and always needed a home.
- Use the checklist to do the best you can under the circumstances. I’ve put five check boxes but just get in as many as you can. Many of these you can do or simulate at home but I have no faith in recordings as a substitute for real sounds. Remember that each exposure needs to be a happy one.
- Use your legitimate exercise time. Vaccines are available that allow puppies to walk from 11 weeks of age* so get on the streets, into parks and down the beach. As long as you respect the social distancing rules no-one should be bothered.
- Ask your vet about the rate of parvo in your area. Some suburbs are so low in risk that many people think even walking an unvaccinated puppy is advisable right now.
- During walks, ask well-meaning people of all ages, sizes and appearances to make friends with your puppy while you keep a safe distance away.
- To socialise to a wider range of people, try loaning your puppy to another family, or an old couple up the street.
- Seek out friends with good-natured dogs and do the same, this time for dog socialisation. Remember that for 4, 5 & 6 you will need to wash your pup first just like you would your own hands, and again on return. Concerned about frequent bathing? Click here.
- Take the time to also teach your puppy to be able to be alone without anxiety. This must be a gradual process, often helped by crate training.
- Seek help from the experts. Our puppy preschool instructor, Susanne Eckert is offering phone advice to puppy owners. You can call her on 0412 500 661 but please treat this generous offer with respect.
What I wouldn’t do much is use your walks as a way to meet other dogs. Yes, some encounters are great, and you can stay 1.5m apart between two leads, but that isn’t my concern. I’ve written before about the common problem of on-leash aggression, and too much of it could change how your pup relates to other dogs for good.
Remember: every experience must be a positive one. Make sure your puppy stays relaxed throughout and don’t overwhelm them with too much at once.
Now, it’s over to you. Like with so much else at the moment, let’s use this time to re-invent our lives for the good. It’s even possible that with a bit of effort, we can do a better job than we did before.
* These vaccines are given at 10 weeks of age. Ask your vet for more details. If your puppy is not fully vaccinated yet, you can still socialise safely by:
- Taking him for car rides – stopping the car, put the window down or open the door, letting him view the environment from the inside of the car, or outside of the car in your arms
- Use a picnic blanket and lead to contain your puppy while at the park or watching people and dogs in the distance
- If you are able, carry your puppy around to different places, i.e. outside of kids play areas, quiet shopping areas
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These blogs are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!
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