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puppy in training

A puppy sits on command. (Photos by Jillian O'Connor)

Opinion | Pandemic puppies need socialization

Despite COVID, young pups have a need to meet new dogs, people

It’s no secret that the shelters are now void of puppies. 

Breeders have waiting lists, and it’s difficult to find a puppy nowadays. 

Ever since the COVID quarantine hit, many families have been making the decision to get a puppy. 

It makes sense. Studies have shown that children with pets have higher self-esteem and improved social skills. They also learn nurturing skills, as well as showing improved empathy and a more caring attitude. There is also evidence that pet ownership may help to develop good nonverbal communication. Kids that read aloud to a dog tend to read longer. And, let’s face it, it’s more fun to read to a nonjudgmental creature like a dog.

puppy listening to command

Good puppy, sitting for an 8-year-old.

But what about the puppy? Puppies need to develop social skills — not just in their own homes, but also outside their homes as well. 

During a pandemic quarantine, this can prove to be a challenge. 

How can you socialize a puppy during a quarantine? Many trainers and day school facilities have now created online programs and play days for puppies. My fear as a trainer was that if we, as a society, didn’t socialize these puppies, nine months later we would have fearful, reactive dogs. 

And, in turn, those shelters that were almost empty: Would they start to fill back up because we failed to plan for dog training during the pandemic? 

Just because we are in a quarantine does not mean that you should quarantine your puppy.

Here is what Dr. RK Anderson, DVM, Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine, had to say about the importance of socialization: “Puppies begin learning at birth and their brains appear to be particularly responsive to learning and retaining experiences that are encountered during the first 13 to 16 weeks after birth.” 

That means that the key moment for socialization comes to a halt between 13 and 16 weeks. (However, more socialization happens after that period.) This means that breeders, new puppy owners, veterinarians, trainers and behaviorists have a responsibility to assist in providing learning and socialization experiences with other puppies and dogs, with children and adults, and with various environmental situations during this optimal period from birth to 16 weeks.

Families often need help with early socialization. Some vets have also added a learning program as part of a total wellness plan for breeders and new puppy owners during the first 16 weeks of a puppy’s life — the first seven to eight weeks with the breeder and the next eight weeks with the new owners. This socialization program should enroll puppies from eight to 12 weeks of age as a key part of any preventive medicine program to improve the bond between pets and their people — and to keep dogs as valued members of the family for 12 to 18 years.

What are the two most common mistakes we are seeing in families with new puppies? One, there is a failure to socialize the puppy. This is happening possibly from the lack of education regarding the importance, or the family simply does not know how to safely socialize a puppy, so they are taking the “do nothing” approach. As we all know, the do nothing approach rarely goes well, especially with dogs and puppies. 

misbehaving puppy

It looks like a little more training is needed here.

Point two, families overlook the importance of crate training the puppy. If you are crating the puppy, that’s great, but are you crating enough? While puppies need to be social, they also need to learn to self-soothe, so separating them from you is huge. If you only leave them alone when you are gone or when you sleep, they can develop separation anxiety. Puppies, on average, need to sleep up to 16 hours a day, so solid napping is crucial. A crate is really nothing more than a crib for a baby dog. When you crate the puppy during the day, giving the kids and the puppy a break from each other, both will do better. Puppies tend to be less mouthy when they are getting their required sleep. That’s another benefit to crating. 

It may be difficult for some families to enroll their puppy in a program due to location, or their finances may not allow for it. If that is the case, reach out to friends who you know also have puppies and plan playdates.

While kids may be struggling as online students, they love learning to be their puppy’s teacher. 

Becky Bishop is a dog trainer and the owner of Puppy Manners, based in Woodinville. She’s also the founder of the nonprofit literacy program Reading With Rover. For more information, visit www.puppymannersonline.com.