Puppy Pandemic – Facing Socialization Challenges Amidst COVID-19
Summary: What’s the one thing we couldn’t do during lockdown? Socialize. What’s the single most important thing a new puppy needs to do? Socialize! COVID-19 brought some unique challenges for people bringing home new puppies, many of whom were prevented from interacting with anyone during the critical first few weeks of their life. Veterinary staff were one exception, so what can veterinary technicians do to help make sure the puppies they see are being given the best possible chance to socialize and grow up into confident, happy dogs?
The arrival of COVID-19 hurtled millions of people into panic and an unknown, unprecedented way of living. It has massively affected the societies and political economies of over 200 countries.1 The WHO calls the economic and social disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic devastating.2 Millions of businesses are still being affected, but it’s interesting to note that the adoption rate at many shelters and rescues across Canada was among the highest ever over the past eight months during the pandemic. In June, the B.C. SPCA reported up to a staggering 200 applications for a single puppy,3 the Alberta Animal Rescue Crew Society received double their usual applications and the Humane Society of Canada reported that adoption numbers were up during the pandemic between 20 and 60% across the country.4 With the increase in the number of people working from home or self-isolating, it’s no surprise that more people would seek animal companionship, but this came with its own new set of challenges, particularly for puppies.
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour states that the most important period for puppy socialization is the first three months of life because it is during this time that sociability outweighs fear.5 This period is also called the sensitive period. Insufficient or inadequate socialization during this time has been linked to an increased risk of behavioural issues including fear and aggression.
Prior to the pandemic, many people relied on puppy classes and play groups for training and socialization, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, these facilities were not deemed essential and were shut down at a time when there was an influx of new puppy owners, many of whom were unprepared for the challenges of raising a puppy during a pandemic. Dog trainers adjusted to this by offering online training classes, but this did not address the social aspect that these puppies required. In addition to this, the decrease or absence of visitors inside and outside the home, the avoidance of high-traffic areas such as off-leash parks, and the closure of many dog-friendly businesses has created the perfect storm for under-socialized puppies.
As one of the few non-household members that a new puppy will almost certainly see, veterinary technicians are in a unique position to be able to identify potentially under-socialized dogs, talk to veterinarians directly, suggest ways owners can provide more socialization, and refer owners to professional trainers and behavior consultants if necessary,
What is proper socialization?
Dr. Ian Dunbar defines socialization as “the process of becoming familiar with all kinds of animals, people, places and things; as well as learning how to behave in society.”7 Anything that a puppy may experience throughout their adult life should be presented to them in a gradual, positive manner ideally before 3 months of age. A poll published on the Bristol Dog School website indicated that the public view on puppy socialisation was limited to going to the vet, meeting other puppies, going to a local café, and meeting people10. While this isn’t entirely incorrect, it’s not nearly comprehensive enough. For example, meetings with new people should include people of all ages and races, men with facial hair, people with hoods, hats, sunglasses, big jackets, and costumes, as well as people in wheelchairs, on crutches, and using other mobility devices.
“Things” should include a variety of textures, sights, smells, and sounds such as sirens, umbrellas, car traffic, fireworks, doorbells, babies crying, children playing, heavy machinery, music, large gatherings of people, vacuums, walking on a variety of surfaces, and much more. A more comprehensive list can be found at the end of this article. Essentially, anything that the dog’s owners experience in life will also be experienced at some point by the dog. Taking the opportunity to discuss the owner’s future plans with their new puppy by asking specific questions is an excellent way to help prevent unwanted behaviours and set both puppy and owner up for success.
Questions veterinary professionals should ask new puppy owners:
- Will the dog be attending dog shows, used for hunting, or competing in trials?
- Will the dog be going on adventures such as hiking, canoeing, or camping?
- Will the dog be required to take regular or long trips in the car?
- Do the owners run a dog or child daycare?
- Are there currently other pets in the home? Could there be other pets in the future?
- Do the owners currently have or plan on having children?
- What type of environment will the dog be raised in (apartment versus acreage)?
- Does the owner have aspirations of having the dog do therapy work?
Asking questions like these will help determine the type of lifestyle the owner wishes to have with their dog, allowing veterinary technicians to educate the client on the environmental factors their puppy should be exposed to in order to reduce or diminish future behavioural concerns and achieve the desired lifestyle.
Additionally, educating clients on exposing a puppy to specific scenarios and noises that will occur infrequently or during special events is easily overlooked but equally important. Such events may include:
- Halloween: costumes, repeated sounds of the doorbell and knocking
- New Year’s Eve: fireworks
- Birthdays (especially involving groups of children)
- Large family gatherings such as at Christmas and Thanksgiving
- Construction: loud, unfamiliar noises and equipment not commonly seen day to day
These scenarios frequently trigger anxiety and problem behaviours in dogs experiencing them for the first time because of the unique circumstances involved with them. When discussing proper socialization, it’s not enough to simply ensure that the puppy gets exposure to as many different sights, smells, textures, people, and other pets as possible, but that this occurs in a safe and positive learning environment.
It’s critical that veterinary professionals relay the importance of learning and observing dog body language to clients so they are able to see when their dog is uncomfortable and address the situation accordingly. The following are commonly seen signs of fear, stress, or anxiety in dogs that can be relayed to new puppy owners. Dr. Sophia Yin put together an excellent poster on identifying dog body language that could be included in clinic puppy packs and is included in a link at the end of this article.8
- Ears drawn down or back
- Lip licking
- Paw lifting
- Tail tucking
- Panting or hypersalivation
- Leaning or moving away from a stimulus
- Crouched posture
- Refusing to take a treat
Attempts to force a puppy to interact with a new stimulus if any of the above signs are present must be avoided to prevent flooding. Flooding is defined as subjecting the dog to prolonged exposure to a stimulus that the dog is afraid of until they stop reacting. It is extremely stressful for the dog and is more likely to increase fear of the stimulus rather than rectify it.9 Instead, steps should be taken to desensitize and counter-condition the puppy using positive reinforcement in the presence of the stimulus to decrease and eventually eliminate that fear response.
Desensitization can be done by re-presenting the stimulus at a lesser intensity, such as by increasing the distance of the stimulus from the puppy, decreasing or muffling the volume of a loud noise, or by decreasing the size of an object. For example, if the puppy shows signs of fear when the vacuum is turned on, allow the puppy to explore the vacuum while it is turned off first. Use positive reinforcement to reward the puppy for interacting with the vacuum (looking at or sniffing it) or play a game with the dog while the vacuum is in the room. Once the puppy is no longer exhibiting signs of fear with the vacuum, put it behind a closed door before turning it on to muffle the sound, and pair this with positive reinforcement. Since it’s impossible to turn down the volume on a vacuum, finding the sound of a vacuum (or any other scary noise) on a computer or phone to play at a lower volume while feeding or playing with the puppy is also a great option.
How veterinary technicians can help
It is the responsibility of veterinary technicians to ensure that clients receive up-to-date knowledge on positive, science-based training methods, access to client education materials and referrals to credentialed trainers and training facilities. Providing and reviewing puppy packets with clients at their appointment is a great way to include this important information while improving the client’s overall experience. A study performed by Preventative Vet in 2020 found that over 90% of pet owners reported loving their welcome packs (puppy or kitten) while only 22% of dog owners expected to receive one.10
The same study also found that nearly 40% of pet owners felt they did not get enough preventive information from their veterinarian. If client satisfaction and contributing to the well-being of their pets isn’t enough, studies have shown that it costs up to five times more to attract a new client than it does to keep an existing one.11 This is more than enough evidence to support integrating welcome packets into new pet appointments.
Supporting clients is especially crucial with the growing number of newly adopted puppies and the challenges of raising them during a pandemic. It can be accomplished by using the following mnemonic:
- Adjust puppy packets to include information on how to socialize during the pandemic.
- Assess the puppy’s behaviour at every appointment and recognize when intervention is warranted.
- Ask the client specific questions pertaining to the puppy’s response when exposed to new situations.
Questions for the humans in the room:
- What is the dog’s history prior to being adopted?
- What is the dog’s home environment like?
- How does the owner describe the dog’s personality?
- Does the dog’s demeanor change depending on context?
- How does the dog react when being handled for grooming, nail trims, or bathing?
- How does the dog react to car rides?
- Has the dog shown any avoidance or fearful responses to specific people or situations (people in hats, men with beards, children, bicycles, when owner vacuums, etc.)?
- Has the dog had the opportunity to interact with other dogs? If so, in what capacity?
How to safely socialize a puppy during a pandemic
Veterinary technicians and trainers are in a good position to be able to suggest positive things new puppy owners can do to help ensure good socialization even in the middle of a pandemic. Here’s a list of ideas:
- Visit a playground or school to experience children
- Visit a hospital or seniors’ home parking lot to expose the puppy to seniors and mobility devices
- Visit a grocery store or mall parking lot to let the puppy experience a wide variety of people of all ages, races, and outfits
- Have family members dress up in a variety of clothing, such as big coats with hoods, hats, costumes, sunglasses, etc. Be creative!
- Pull out a variety of household objects for your puppy to explore. Put treats in and around the objects to ensure the puppy has a positive experience. Objects can include:
- Christmas and Halloween decorations
- Boxes of various sizes
- Laundry baskets
- Cleaning equipment (vacuums, mops, Swiffers, etc.)
- Chairs (upright and on their side)
- Baby gates
- Toys with various textures (plastic, rubber, wooden, stuffies)
- Kitchen appliances (toaster, blender, popcorn popper) *Remember to expose the puppy to the sight and sounds of these things while utilizing positive reinforcement.
- Household tools including power tools
- Lawn mowers
- Coolers and lunch bags
- Air casts, crutches, canes
- Bring out a variety of household items for the puppy to smell, such as soaps, perfumes and lotions
- Play a variety of sounds, like dogs barking, sounds of other animals, children crying and playing, thunder, heavy wind and rain, construction noises, various people talking, laughter, and clinking of dishes at a dinner party, etc. Calm Pet has a 17-episode series on YouTube that clients can be directed to.12
With any behavioural issue, veterinary technicians must be able to recognize when further intervention is warranted and refer the client to the appropriate professionals. Veterinary technicians who specialize in behaviour, certified veterinary behaviorists, and credentialed positive reinforcement trainers are all acceptable options. The Academy of Veterinary Behaviour Technicians, the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, and the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers all have member directories to find a suitable professional in your area. Fear Free Pets is also an excellent source to locate Fear-Free certified professionals in veterinary, training and grooming capacities.
Jenna graduated from Thompson Rivers University Animal Health Technology Program in 2010. Since graduating, she has been dedicated to learning and teaching others about animal behaviour and low stress Veterinary care. Jenna is a Fear Free Certified Professional. She looks forward to writing the exam for the Certified Canine Behaviour Consultant and submitting her application for the VTS (behaviour) later this year.