Early socialisation and habituation in puppies: How can we provide for them in these difficult times?

In these difficult times we are all advised to stay home and socially distance ourselves, however,  exposure to a variety of social and environmental situations is fundamental for puppy's physical, emotional and behavioural development.

The key socialisation period in puppies occurs between 3 and 14 weeks and the risk of insufficient socialisation is that puppies can become more fearful and anxious when they face novel stimuli and situations later in life.

We are all advised to keep 'social distance', and this means that we should not get close to other people and their dogs at the park, we should not allow other people to come close and touch our dogs and, if we or someone in our household is ill with the virus or we are extremely vulnerable, we should not be out  walking our dogs. No puppy socialisation classes will be organised in these weeks. 

Veterinary practices are now available only for emergencies, meaning that your puppy may not be able to finish his course of primary vaccination. If this is the case, you need to be very careful and avoid areas used by other dogs and foxes.

How can we provide adequate social and environmental stimulation for a puppy during the coronavirus outbreak? 

It's important to follow government advice regarding social interactions at all times. We provide here a few tips to help puppy owners to minimise the disruption to their puppies' socialisation process and to aim to prevent future behaviour problems.

How to provide enough exposure to social and environmental stimulation

Although our activities and ability to socialise in general is restricted we can still provide positive stimulation and help our puppies to experience and get used to new things.

You can take your puppy outside with you when exercising once a day but you need to be careful and prevent other people from approaching you and cuddling him/her, for safety reasons.

If your puppy has not completed their course of vaccination, it is advisable to be particularly cautious and avoid waterways and parks at least until they have.

Where possible, take your puppy on a wide course around other people and at all times maintain a 2m distance. If someone approaches (puppies are social magnets!), you can sometimes prevent them from coming closer if you don't make eye contact with them.

Engage your puppy's attention using your voice and/or small food treats and keep moving. If the person continues to approach, ask them to step back in a nice way: your puppy should not perceive that you are anxious or upset. Now that people are ordered to stay at home the traffic will be quieter than normal, but there will be some normal traffic sound and it is a good thing that your puppy gets used to it. During walks your puppy will get used to the external environment, cars, the sight of people at a distance.

Unfortunately your puppy will need to keep distance from other dogs but this is a good opportunity to teach your puppy not to become over-excited about the presence of other dogs. Use a treat or toy to attract your puppy's attention when he sees another dog, and again take your puppy on a wide course around the other dog.

It's very important that your puppy associates the sight of other dogs with pleasant things rather than with fear or frustration, so for now the only possible advice is that you distract your puppy with something nice when there is another dog in sight. Select a quiet area of the park and entertain your dog with a toy, put him/her on a long line and let him/her chase a ball that you throw carefully at a distance compatible with the length of the line. 

If you or someone else in your household is ill with the virus, or you are considered extremely vulnerable then you won't be able to go outside but you can still provide different stimulation, with a little bit of creativity, here below some examples to stimulate your puppy 'from paw to nose':

  • Walking on different types of surfaces: this will help your puppy to be confident. Provide something different from your normal floor surface. You can use plastic or paper sheets that make crackling sounds and encourage your puppy to walk on them using treats. Use some of your bigger books or any other solid and flat object you may have (low piles of magazines can do the trick) to make a pathway so that your puppy can walk on an uneven surface and again encourage him/her using treats. (Please ensure the activity is safe for your puppy, and they cannot get stuck or fall).
  • Exploring different objects: This will provide your puppy with many different sensory experiences. Use cardboard boxes as tunnels, hide your puppy's favourite toy or treat under a pile of old clothes or rags so he/she will move them to find it, hang some soft barriers like a towel or some strips of paper and encourage him/her to overcome the barrier to get a treat. Be imaginative, as long as it is safe and your puppy isn't fearful.  
  • Experiencing different kinds of sounds: You can simply open your window and let your puppy hear the external sounds while he is playing with you or chewing something nice. You can feed your puppy in different objects that may make different sounds as they forage, for example a metal bowl with spoons in, a ceramic bowl with stones in (ensure these aren't small enough to swallow), a plastic bowl with small containers in it. Use recorded sounds to get your puppy used to hear different sounds and noises. You can use the 'Sounds Sociable' recorded sounds. Be gradual, start with low volume for a few minutes, while your puppy is playing and gradually increase the volume. The purpose is to gradually get your puppy used to a variety of sounds but if you notice that he is scared by a particular sound, please skip that part and seek the advice of an accredited behaviour consultant.
  • Experiencing different kinds of smells. There are a variety of different smells in the 'real world' that we cannot provide at home, but the smell of different things can be associated with nice experiences and rewards. For example you may identify your puppy's toys with a touch of vanilla or lavender, hide them and ask him/her to find them. 
  • Experiencing different and surprising visual stimuli. If we cannot expose our puppy to different human types, we can'play in disguise'. Wearing a funny hat and sunglasses, a shawl of anything that changes your appearance and pairing this weird experience with something fun for your dog (throwing a ball or a treat). The purpose is not to scare the puppy, of course, but to surprise them with the unexpected and reward them at the same time. Be very gradual with shy puppies. 

Early training

You cannot take your puppy to training classes, but you can train him yourself at home, teaching simple basic exercises. Sessions should only last two to  minutes and can be repeated two or three times per day. If you can, practice in different environments, this may be different rooms of the house and the garden or front garden. Also practice while different distractions are happening, but make sure you don't make it too hard or your puppy won't enjoy their learning. 

Prevent separation problems

Separation problems need to be prevented starting from puppyhood and now that everyone is ordered to stay at home it may be difficult for your puppy to experience some time alone. Take a look at our #DogKind Being left alone (PDF 1MB) leaflet.

Here some tips that can be useful to prevent separation problems while you are unable to leave your puppy home alone:

  • It's important to keep your puppy occupied and this can be done both playing with him/her and giving him/her something to chew. Try to be very clear when you start and finish an interaction, for example when you finish playing say 'finished', give him something to chew and do something else. This will give the puppy a clear signal and teach him that you are not always available for him. The first step is to give him the message that your availability is predictable and that interactions with you are predictable. 
  • Put a comfortable dog bed in different rooms, so that your puppy has a resting place in different parts of your house. Then from time to time give your puppy something to chew in one of these beds. The purpose of this is to help him/her to build positive associations with his environment and perceive it as safe and secure.  In this phase you can be in the room with your puppy but do not interact with him. This will help him develop independence.
  • When your puppy gets used to spending time alone, resting or chewing something nice in one of his/her comfy beds, you can start to leave the room for just one minute.
  • Progress to more and more time spent in a different room and behave normally when you come back, if your puppy is excited when you return, say 'hello' calmly and then do something else until your puppy calms down.
  • Small puppies are very cute and fun, it can be hard to resist and we can end up paying a lot of attention to them. Keep a balance between cuddles, play, training, and settling time. When they are getting more used to being alone, ensure this is maintained as part of their daily routine. 

If you notice that your puppy is fearful of something and cannot recover even when you are very gradual or for any other behaviour problem you may notice in him/her, please seek the advice of a clinical animal behaviourist. Many clinical animal behaviourists are available for remote consultation online. 

When we'll go back to normal life, please take it slowly when you expose your puppy to novelties (including people and other dogs) and gradually increase the time of walks. A puppy that spent two weeks in a home can get tired very soon, so it's better to start with walks of 10-15 minutes, three-four times per day.

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