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Just like parents do for their human children, we pet parents need to set our recently adopted puppies and rescued dogs up for success. That includes exposing them to all the things they’ll encounter throughout their lives—from other dogs and people, to crates, cars, noises, and vet visits.
I’m often asked by pet sitting clients how to socialize their puppies and nervous rescues. As the pandemic lingers on, these questions have only increased. I meet new dogs every day as a pet sitter and I’ve found that, first impressions can make a big difference. When dogs are introduced appropriately to a pet sitter like me, or to other dogs, it lays the foundation for a stronger bond and makes things less stressful both for the pup and for their owner.
While socializing a puppy or dog during a pandemic is uniquely challenging, it can also be fun and rewarding!
So, how do you do it?
Here are my top five tips for socializing your pandemic pup:
- It’s never too late. It’s true that the first four months of a dog’s life are the optimal time for socializing. During that time, puppies are best able to experience new things without fear. That said, if your dog is beyond the optimal socialization stage, they can still learn to love people and other dogs. They may require a little more training or positive exposure, but that’s okay. There’s no age at which dogs are too old to be socialized or trained. You’ve got this!
- Put safety first. Use caution when introducing your pandemic pup to new dogs and people. Make sure you’re in a position to intervene safely or remove your dog from the situation if something goes wrong. Your pup may seem like they get along well with others, but it’s safest to proceed without assumptions. Even if you know your puppy will be friendly, you never know how other dogs, or even people, will react to them. Yours may not be the only “pandemic puppy” in the situation.
- Focus on building confidence. The purpose of socializing your puppy is to build their confidence around other dogs and people, so they’ll be happy and comfortable when encountering them throughout their life. If your dog is not fearful or hesitant around new dogs and people, start by introducing them while giving them something they love, like delicious treats. By doing so, you’ll begin conditioning your pup to form positive associations with meeting new friends.
If your dog is fearful or nervous about meeting others, use what’s called counterconditioning to turn their negative associations into positive ones. Pair exposure to new dogs and people with irresistible treats to create a positive association.
- Start small. Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to socializing your pup. Whether introducing your dog to a new person or to a new dog, it’s best to have them meet one-on-one, rather than inviting over a group of friends or bringing them to a crowded dog park. A great way to introduce your pup to a new person or dog is to take them on a short walk, with the new friend walking alongside you at a safe distance from your dog. This will help create those positive associations, while also building your dog’s on-leash confidence in new situations. Work with your dog slowly, checking in to assess their comfort level at each new stage of socialization.
- When introducing your anxious or fearful pup to new dogs, do so from afar first. Walk them on the other side of the street from the new dog or near a park where dogs are walking or playing—a neutral space usually works better than your home or yard, since your dog won’t feel as territorial.
- When introducing your dog to friends, family, or new pet sitters coming into your home or yard, ask the person to enter with treats or toys. Have the person gently toss them to your dog while avoiding eye contact, talking only with their humans for now. This will take any pressure off of your dog and show them the new person is a trusted friend.
- When you see that your pup is consistently comfortable and not reactive with a new person or dog, you can decrease the distance between them. Keep rewarding your pup for their good behavior to keep building those positive associations!
- Be careful to avoid what’s called flooding—overexposure to stimulus your dog isn’t comfortable with yet. If you take your training too fast, you risk scaring your pup and causing your hard work to backfire.
- Make it fun! I know, everyone says this! But, I promise, it’s actually an essential component of successful dog training. In fact, positive only training (also sometimes called fear free or force free) is highly effective, perhaps even the most effective when compared to other forms of training. Giving your dog positive experiences with new dogs is the best way to teach them to enjoy making new friends.
Take a step back or pause your training if you see your pup (or the other pup, for that matter) exhibiting any signs of distress. These can include: looking away, trying to run away, pacing, tail tucking, hiding, shaking, panting, lip licking, or yawning. They won’t forget the work you have been putting in. Taking breaks and having daily scheduled training will provide them with routine and also keep them on a good sustainable pace to being less nervous and gaining new skills and confidence.
Happy socializing to you and your dog!
If we haven’t met yet and you’re located in Westminster or Broomfield, Colorado, drop us a line! We would love to work with you on socializing your non-aggressive dogs. Our insured, Bonded, and CPR/First Aid certified Pet Sitters would love to meet your pup, get to know them, and become your trusted sitter when you leave town. (And if you’re not local, we recommend looking for a sitter on LocalPetCare.com, PetSitLlc.com, or PetSit.com.)