In a time when social distancing is the new normal, many of us have come to realize just how vital our personal relationships are to our mental health and well-being. FaceTime calls, posters in windows decorated with rainbows and phrases like, “we’ve got this” and “stay strong, stay inside” help give humans a sense of community and togetherness. We look to our families, including our beloved pets, for physical affection, stress relief, and the unconditional love they provide. I’ve also noticed just how many friends are calling for advice on pet adoption or posting pictures of their new puppy on social media. The reasons for adopting right now are multifactorial and beneficial. Rescues and shelters are looking to safely place animals in homes and close their doors to all but the most essential staff. Realizing that this period of social isolation may extend for months and that being homebound leads to scads of downtime, pet adoption may be realistic for people who hadn’t previously considered it. A new pet brings joy, hope, a sense of purpose, and connectedness we are longing for. As a veterinarian, I support the placement of shelter pets in permanent homes and am excited that families have newly found hours of time to devote to training and acclimating an adopted pet. One major concern of mine during this unprecedented time is the ability to properly socialize pets. Canines need to be good citizens of the world in which we (normally) live. Dogs that aren’t socialized are often relinquished to shelters for preventable behavior problems such as resource guarding and territorial or fear-based aggression. Pet “problems” account for approximately 47% of surrendered dogs; many are re-homed multiple times, and some are euthanized. (1) New owners must realize that once released from the confines of home, our pets need to function confidently and thrive in an environment populated with small children, other animals, cars and bicyclists, and all varieties noises and distractions. Socialized pets can happily accompany their owners on vacation, exercise amongst other animals at dog parks and daycares, experience the physical contact of other people, and mental stimulation of group agility classes or pet assisted therapy work. They experience less anxiety, stress, and loneliness. They are more physically fit.
What exactly is pet socialization? How can we accomplish the integration and socialization of our furry friends when hampered by current conditions? According to the AVMA, “Socialization is the process of preparing a dog or cat to enjoy interactions and be comfortable with other animals, people, places and activities. Ideally, socialization should begin during the sensitive period between 3 and 14 weeks of age for puppies, and 3 and 9 weeks of age for kittens”. (2) While this window of time is optimal, progress can be made acclimating a previously unsocialized pet if the process is adjusted at a pace suitable to the pet’s temperament. Younger pups are typically more inquisitive and relaxed than an adolescent or adult dog who already associates certain experiences with negative outcomes such as a nail trim that resulted in cutting the quick. Never punish a pet who is fearful but gently remove them from the situation and expose them again to the stimulus when they are calm; do so for a decreased duration and intensity or from an increased distance. If your pet remains happy and content during socialization exercises, continue positively reinforcing them with food, praise, or petting as you extend the duration of training sessions. Ideally, your new puppy has spent the first 8 weeks of life surrounded by littermates and has already been practicing play and learning bite inhibition. The breeder, foster family, or shelter worker has been extensively handling the animal since birth. Touching ears, toes, and exploring the mouth and muzzle in a gentle way is important to learn that contact is safe and enjoyable. If not, these tasks fall to the new owner.
To prepare to begin socializing a pet, it’s best to develop a plan. How old is your dog? Are they in that malleable window of 3-14 weeks? Are they an adolescent who may more cautiously test the waters between 4-12 months? Or is your pup a mature and over 1 year of age? Is your new pet inherently confident, assertive or shy? The speed with which you can introduce new experiences may be slower with an older, more behaviorally mature, or timid pet. Depending on your living environment and what future experiences in which your pet may engage, decide what items or scenarios you’d like to introduce. Do you have other pets in the house and will you need to employ a pet sitter at some point in the future? Engage them with a FaceTime introduction and regular virtual visits with your pet. What resources do you have to work with including things that will be a part of your pet’s daily life? What treats or positive reinforcement will you offer? Do you have a crate or safe space for your pet to retreat to when they have reached their limit as well as to teach alone time and minimize separation anxiety? Do you have nail trimmers or clippers you will want to desensitize you pet to and can you simulate noisy dogs barking, fireworks, fast-moving children or other pets? YouTube videos or phone apps featuring babies crying, chirping birds, or mechanical noisemakers and remote-controlled, interactive toys can be used to introduce the idea of other animals and sounds. If you want to do therapy work with your pet, borrow a walker, wheelchair, a beeping timer, and practice walking through a gate or down a stairwell. If you have healthy adults and children in the house, allow them to engage in socialization activities with the new pet such as ringing the doorbell while your dog practices being calm in their crate or handling your pet while they are eating to discourage food guarding.
Frequent walks outside in a variety of environments and on a multitude of surfaces such as the sidewalk, wooded path, grassy park, near water, or on a deck ensure your pet is comfortable in different settings. Encourage your neighbors and their dogs to greet and engage your pet from a safe distance while you ply your pooch with delectable treats. Play dress up! Animals should be exposed to humans in hoods, hats, wearing sunglasses, carrying umbrellas or pushing a vacuum cleaner or stroller. Have your puppy on a leash, happily distracted by kibble when you ride your bicycle or skateboard nearby. Car rides are safe ways to socially distance but also introduce new experiences. Drive by a noisy airport or construction site. Plan for 1-5 new experiences a day for varying periods of time, but no longer than the period in which your pet is relaxed and happy. Realize your pet may have some limitations and adjust your socialization periods and expectations accordingly.
Above all, stay safe and enjoy the extra time you have for puppy kisses and bonding.