Under these different and odd circumstances, I’ve received countless emails and questions on socializing new puppies and new rescue dogs. If you look at many articles it talks about how your puppy should meet 100 people and as many dogs as possible in the first month. If you got a new rescue dog, you probably want the dog to meet everyone to make sure things will go smoothly with your friends and neighbors and friends dogs. We currently live in an environment where in many places, that just isn’t easy or can’t happen at all. I wanted to give some training tips for the puppy and rescue dog situation to help.
This might put your mind at ease to start with…socialization in it’s accepted form is overrated! Socialization usually means interacting. Unfortunately, your puppy is a sponge and learns everything good and bad very quickly. This means that the tons of people you have meet your new puppy or dog makes them think they are always greeting people. They often don’t care about you at all and when on a walk, they are just looking for their next meal ticket! (pets on the head and attention)
Even when I train puppies, I do a few controlled introductions to people over the course of a week and make sure they see 10 times more people just move on by, rather then interact with them. This promotes a calmer mindset for the puppy. When people walk by and the puppy pulls out of curiosity or excitement, strangers talk to them, or a dog barks at them, I use food to help them focus on me. They learn that seeing people often means to look at me for food. This is what gets you a calmer adolescent dog that cares more about their owner than seeking attention from life around them. This type of socialization is calm existence, although puppies aren’t so calm, haha. They will likely be hopping all over the place and that’s okay. You are teaching them to see excited things and redirect that attention on to you using space, moving away from the distraction, then food, to refocus them and have a positive association with seeing different people. Try to go to a park where you might see bikes, strollers and kids playing with their parents at a distance to get them used to all of those sights and sounds. You just hang out and do your basic obedience work the pup has already learned inside. Sometimes use food and sometimes just let them observe life around them if they aren’t pulling. This creates positive associations.
Greeting some people is necessary if you can, but it doesn’t need to be a ton of people. Do your best with who you have access to. Have some trusted family members meet the puppy outside to practice an organic street meeting and also inside. If you don’t have anyone you can use that doesn’t already live with you, pretend with someone in the house. Have a roommate or family member where different types of clothes, maybe a hat, carry an umbrella and use a different scent of cologne or perfume. Then have that person hang out down at the end of the block and practice a “meet”. Your puppy may even be startled at first and need lots of food for confidence work. Figure out what startles your puppy and you’ll know what to work on more. Is it a big jacket? The hat? The umbrella?…etc. If your puppy is just crazy excited to see someone they know, work on getting some focus (even a “come” and food and then release your pup) before letting them say hello to the person.
Practice the same scenario above a couple of times a week in the house with door knocking, calling your phone, door bell, etc. However people usually come over, that is how you set it up to practice. Your pup will get a great foundation. If you live alone and have no one you can use because maybe you are considered in the high risk category for COVID 19, practice the door knocking yourself. Even come through the door and when your puppy runs up curious, drop some food and then ask for a sit, another piece of food and then calmly walk in and ignore. That way the knocking and door bell is positive for the puppy. Maybe treat yourself to an amazon order and be ready for the drop off too. That way you can practice the same thing, even though the delivery person leaves the box, you can pretend someone is there. (we really do this all the time with dogs to prep them for the real thing)
Now puppies learning to be social with dogs is trickier right now. There is no substitute for an animal. You can play dogs barking, playing, doing sports and more on youtube for your puppy. Start it at a low level and see how your puppy responds. It should be all kinds of noises from dogs, not just heavy barking. Feed your puppy throughout the noises and try to work your puppy. This will help your puppy long term with distractions outside. Hear the neighbor dog bark? Turn and look at owner for food, etc.
See if any of your friends have a calm dog that tolerates puppies or got a puppy themselves and abide by the rules in your state/city for social distancing. Do not force your puppy to greet dogs you don’t know or dogs that may not be friendly, even if that dog belongs to a friend. We see countless puppies that love dogs until they are attacked or have a bad incident with another dog. It can take them weeks to get over it, if they even do. Quality over quantity is very important.
If access to dogs isn’t possible, you must do what I mentioned above with people. Go out of your way to find areas (if you can) where dogs are walking. Stay at a distance at first and be a treat machine. I don’t want your pup to PULL hard towards dogs. That can cause a lot of frustration down the road. I want them to observe if they are calmer pups or you are luring them to focus on you for food. That way they see a dog and it means yummy food! This is the best we can do right now and in my experience that goes very far when it comes to socializing dogs and is even MORE beneficial than constant engagement. Yes, a balance of the two is ideal, but this may be the best we can do.
Okay let’s talk about the new rescue dogs! Not to be dismissive, but it’s much the same as above. What I didn’t include is more accountability for too much excitement when seeing people and dogs. By accountability I mean you aren’t using tons of food constantly like with a puppy. It’s a balance of some food work that is calmer, delivered with low key energy from you and just telling your dog to move it and not pull towards other dogs and people :) They need more structure too. If you have a dog come over, go for a walk first. That way their first interaction, other than seeing dogs at a distance, isn’t just off leash fun. Do a 20-30 minute walk together first with a little sniffing of each other, but mostly use movement to focus on the walk. Then do some off-leash socialization. Respect your dogs wishes if they are not ready to play with a dog yet or meet a new person. Just having them walk together is a good, low pressure situation that can build confidence in a rescue dog or a dog that is over zealous.
For new rescue dogs, meeting people it is similar. Just make sure the people are not over excited. Instruct your guest or family member in the house to let your dog go to them first if your new dog is a little unsure. You can use food and so can the new person, but don’t let the new person just reach out and amp up your new dog. Calmer and more controlled scenarios are especially important for older dogs new to being in a home.
One more thing before I let you all go. Whether you got a new puppy or older dog in the last few months, it’s your responsibility to expose them to as much as possible in this weird time. That might mean traveling with your puppy in a travel case more often since they are not vaccinated yet. It means finding an old large stuffed animal for your dog that might be scary to them. Using umbrellas, bulky jackets, hats and sunglasses, skateboards, loud noises on youtube of kids playing, dogs, traffic, etc., climbing over obstacles, the list is endless of things you need to work your dog or puppy around to prepare them for normal life and build their confidence and tolerance up for what the world has in store for them.