Socialization and Social Distancing

With puppy classes on hold, and people practicing social distancing I have had a few clients reach out and ask what they can do to keep their puppy socialized, and to expose them to new things. I did my best to put together some things to do, this is not a definitive list, it is a list of things to try, things to do, and ways to keep busy. If you think of something else, feel free to give it a try, or if something is just not for your puppy, skip it!

First though, a warning. Socialization is about quality, not quantity. It is also about creating quality experiences for your puppy. You want to go slow, at your puppy’s speed, and make sure you are not overwhelming them. Watch their body language, are their ears shifting back, are they lip licking, is their brow furroughing? If they start to worry watch and see if they can resolve it, if they cannot back them up, can they resolve it with more space? No, then go on home, or stop, and try again later. Sometimes if a puppy has already done too much they just cannot handle another thing, or, sometimes they are tired, or sometimes they are worried. Forcing them through something will not make it positive though, and in fact it may make it worse. If you want to learn more about socialization and how to help your puppy I suggest watching the seminar Mindful Socialization by Suzanne Clothier. I was involved in the production and it was incredibly helpful to me as a trainer, and a dog owner.

Second, bring treats. If your puppy can enjoy a snack as things go on around them – yay! What a great day for a puppy. The treats may also help you work through a sticky point, or be needed to manage an over-excited or worried puppy and lure them out of a situation. If you are in a spot without treats, and things get scary, and your puppy is unfocused and barking, that may be experiences we have to undo later, so, use food and make it awesome as much as possible.

Here is a list of some suggestions:

  • If you cannot get your puppy around different types of people, wearing different types of clothes, become those different people for your puppy! Start wearing hats, sunglasses, coats, wigs, Halloween costumes, masks, whatever strikes your fancy! Put on any weird thing around your puppy and make it seem totally normal.  Just please do not startle your puppy. Do not put on a Batman mask and jump out at your puppy, sit in front of her and let her see you put it on and take it off a few times. Same with the glasses, or hats. Let them see you change and realize that sometimes people look different, but they are still people.
  • Show them seasonal clothes or stuff they would not see everyday! Put on a rain coat, open an umbrella, break out your pancho, roll a suitcase around, go outside and show your pup a wheelbarrow and a hose and a rake and whatever is in your garage!
  • Break out some throw rugs, cardboard boxes, metal cookie trays, measuring cups, metal spoons, bells, balls, any weird things and put them on the floor as your puppy plays. Ask them to walk over weird stuff, to play with weird stuff and get used to different materials under their feet and in their mouth.
  • Break out toys that make sound have flashing light, let them check those out. If you have ones that move or dance, all the better!
  • Take out your lawn mower, rev it up, take out the weedwacker, rev it up. Chainsaw – sure! Let the neighbors think you are crazy (and feel free to send me video please – ha!). Inside use your coffee grinder, your blender, a food processor, vaccuum, carpet cleaner, whatever is different. You want to get really brave, put the fire alarm very, very far away and set it off and give your puppy treats while it happens.
  • Just because you have to stay apart does not mean you cannot see people. Drive to the grocery store, go to the back of the lot where there is no one close, and people watch with your dog. You can also do this with the vets office or a pet center to watch the dogs come in and out.
  • Bored neighborhood kids? Talk to their parents and ask them to ride their bikes by your house at set times so you can have your dog see them from a distance. Have them use scooters, throw footballs, bounce basketballs, ride a skateboard, make noises and be kids! Really want to go nuts? Ask them to wear costumes or hats and really give your pup some new things to see. From a distance! Don’t have kids? Go on YouTube and find some video of kids laughing, crying, screaming and being kids and at least play those sounds for your puppy, all while sharing some awesome snacks.
  • Take a drive to the country, check out cows, horses, sheep, llamas.
  • Drive your pup to a boat lock, look at the boats, walk on the weird surfaces. Go to the gas station and have them wait in your car as you pump gas. Take them to a drive through for coffee (well, coffee for you, puppies do not need caffeine!). Go to the places you hope to go when they are older, even if you cannot go near people, or you may not be able to inside, you can get them used to the ride and the area.

Remember, quality, not quantity. Use the check-lists below if they help. Make memories, create positive experiences, have fun and take pictures. Puppyhood does not last forever and while this one will be a little non-traditional, it is still going to be awesome and you will miss it when they are big (minus the house training part).

Raising a Perfect Puppy

Each and every puppy class I teach I am surrounded with owners who want what is best for their dogs.  Best food, best treats, best training, best play, best toys – and I get it.  I also want what is best for their dog, and for them.  I am right there with them determined to give them my best, and help them do their best.  It is a lot of pressure.

Especially since puppies are not blank canvases, their DNA has been in place since conception, and that DNA will drive who they are, and who they become.  But, their experiences help shape that DNA, and that is where good socialization is so important, where creating positive experiences and associations can guide your dog to their best possible self.

But, this post is not about socialization, or DNA.  It is about you, me, and the pressure we put on ourselves when we raise a puppy.

Whether we realize it or not deep down I think we all dream of owning Lassie, that perfect dog who saves us when we need to be saved, who is friends to all, and who can walk by your side, never questioning your commands.  I know I do, the list of dogs I read about when I was young and dreamed of owning is epic.  But they were all fictional, and, the dogs by my side are not. 

Jasper was not a perfect puppy, he worried, he was aloof, he did not want to interact much with people, and he gets rough when playing with other dogs.  I knew I had to be careful with him, I put a bubble around him and did all I could to control everything around us and give him only the best experiences.

And I failed.

The first incident I could not control was when we were taking a walk and the neighbor’s let their dog out without realizing their gate was open.  She silently ran up from behind Jasper and grabbed him by his neck as we were walking by.  My husband’s quick reflexes saved the day as he (stupidly but bravely) tackled the other dog and grabbed her collar.

Then there were the new neighbors.  We used to have a lovely greyhound next door who would sniff along the fence line and say hi to Jasper, they had a great relationship.  He moved out and two new dogs came in, one of those dogs decided the best way to enter the yard was to bark and charge the fence, even if we were not outside.  He did his best to eat Jasper, I did my best to manage it.  I put up a visual barrier, I put up a smaller fence inside our fence, and then eventually had to put a full fence inside our fence to keep him from my dogs.  He still managed to make a hole big enough to shove his head through in the metal fence on their side.  Despite my best efforts Jasper learned the joys of barking at other dogs through the fence, he truly seemed to think it was a sport.  When the other dogs were let out and he was inside he’d run to the door with his tail high and wagging, wanting to go out and bark back.  He also learned dogs on the other side of the fence were dangerous.

The neighbors did their best but we both had dogs who needed to go out, and work schedules, and life happens and the dogs were exposed to each other far more then I would have liked.  There was nothing I could besides move, which we did, but, not before the habit was formed.

Then there were the neighbors who felt it was appropriate to let their dogs roam the neighborhood, loose and free, unattended.  Their dogs who were intact females, who would dance around outside my fence and drive Jasper wild.  More bad fence habits established. 

The most stressful moment for me came in a class when Jasper was taking his Canine Good Citizen test.  There was a dog in the class who felt it was entertaining to chase after the dogs as they walked by, barking at them.  Instead of dismissing the dog, as they should have, the tester decided to make every dog walk by that dog.  Jasper did, and he held it together as the dog chased after him snapping at his feet.  And Jasper held it together as three other dogs were forced to endure that.  But then the dogs in the room started to lose it, they started to get restless from the tension, and they started to bark back at this dog.  Jasper is not one to be left out, and he is not one to handle tension easily, and I watched him fall apart.  I should have left that class as soon as the other dog acted out, but I didn’t want to be rude. 

I’m telling you this not to excuse my dog’s behavior, or to promote the truth in the adage that good fences make good neighbors.  But to share that no matter how hard I worked, no matter what I did, I was not going to make Jasper’s life perfect.  Life is not perfect, life comes with conflicts.  And you have to be prepared.  Not by building a fortress around your dog or reading every training book you can get your hands on, but by accepting that you cannot raise a perfect puppy, that life is not perfect, and neither are you, and neither is your dog. 

Love your dog, build a relationship with your dog, celebrate your dog’s quirks and accept them for who they are, and where they are.  Take the pressure off you, and your dog, and enjoy the journey.  You only get one chance at life with your dog and if you spend your dog’s life worrying you are missing out on so much.

I failed at giving Jasper only the best experiences because my expectations were unrealistic, perfection is unrealistic.  Where I succeeded was in building a relationship with my dog.  Because of that relationship when the imperfect moments happened we could work through them together.  We have a connection to fall back on when things get stressful, or one of us gets worried.  And that connection was not built just through training, although that does play a role, it was based on having fun with my dog, listening to my dog, understanding what he likes, what he doesn’t like, and respecting him when he told me no, I can’t do that right now, or no, I don’t like that. 

When Jasper barks at another dog I know we can work through it together, and that is more valuable to me than having a dog who doesn’t bark.  Why?  Because while not every dog might react to other dogs every dog is going to have something they struggle with, and if you have a connection with your dog, you can help them through that struggle.