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  • Lilith Erlenbusch

Effects of Social Distancing on Puppies Under-socialized Covid Puppies


I met Denali the first time when she was 15 weeks old. My new client, a family of 4 with two young kids, reached out with an inquiry for 1:1 puppy training and socialization. Due to Covid they moved up to Truckee escaping the isolation madness of a mega city. Quickly she realized that socialization opportunities for her puppy were rare. New in the community, with everyone in social distancing mode and her husband working full time in the Bay she had to postpone socialization for Denali

Litter Mates are not sufficent for socialization!

Denali comes from a litter of 13 puppies and was bottle fed by the breeder who has several kids. Therefore my client believed that Denali received plenty of socialization. The misleading recommendation from her local Vet further delayed Denali's exposure to other dogs. Although outdated, some veterinarians still recommend waiting with socialization of puppies until they have received all puppy shots.

When Denali saw another dog during a family event she first ignored the dog but then started screaming, "like a human being" said her handler in tears during our first training session. Denali probably never saw and interacted with another dog besides her litter mates which she left when she was 8 weeks old. Being bottle fed indicates that she had a deficit of soothing calming engagement with her mother or that her mother even rejected her.

Sensitive Socialization Period

I shared with my client that the sensitive period of socialization is between 3 weeks and 14-16 week of age and that we need to start with the training immediately. Please read here about the long term effect on missed socialization during the sensitive period in this very data and science based article by the Dr.Sophia Yin DVM in which she refers to the ground breaking socialization studies in the 1950.

Buddy's Puppy Socialization Outing

Buddies Socialization Outings are tailored to continue the socialization process in a group setting with other well socialized dogs . In this setting we have the time and space to introduce the right play partners for a puppy and expose the puppy to natural novelties like brides, creeks and other common outdoor scenes like mountain bikes, runners or skiers.

During our first socialization outing I saw the whole picture of Denali's lack of socialization. When I positioned Denali on my front seat to avoid a direct encounter with the other dogs in the car she growled at Towhee who was in the middle part of the car. With her ears tugged back as much as she could, lip licking she looked very concerned. Another young female and playful dog in the trunk of the car was waiting to become her friend. First I unloaded Willa and Towhee before I facilitated the introduction with Denali. Happened that Denali was too afraid to greet the dogs and showed no interest in them at first. In a very submissive posture (tail tucked, head down to the ground, she avoided their approach trying to sniff her) She turned away, growled and after Towhee and Willa gave up approaching her she started barking and lunging at them.

During the two hour socialization outing I was able to create enough trust in Denali that she would walk with the pack and could allow the other dogs to be around her in approximately 10feet distance. But she still could not let them approach, greet her or interact with them in play. She would still bark and lunge at them but now would also respond to my approach of positive reinforcement of marking and rewarding all of her good behaviors. It was painful and hard for the Denali’s handler to watch the video material of Denali’s manifesting dog-dog reactivity. After shedding tears I practiced with my client how to react in the presence of other dogs and when reactivity arises.

Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Most importantly is to respect the fear and to not push the puppy into situations in which he is too afraid. Desensitization is a slow process in which we expose the dog to a trigger. A setting and distance in which the puppy is still confident and not reactive. When we find this sweet spot we start to focus on all good behaviors that show confidence and interest in the other dog or behaviors that are neutral like sniffing, refocusing on the handler. Professional assessment and guidance is highly recommended when working with reactive puppies.

With these first tools I sent my client to work and I saw her only a couple of days later for her first Puppy Foundation Class that are held in my backyard. Sometimes the universe is there to help. In this class we ended up having another shy and anxious puppy which allowed both handlers to practice together. With some good progress as you can see in this video. Both clients used non verbal cues like palm touch and simply marking good behaviors like not barking or growling.

George the Therapy Dog

In Addition to the classes my client, Denali and I met regularly to practice greeting scenarios and to further socialize Denali with other dogs. Within 10 days Denali gained enough trust and the capacity to be around other dogs when not directly approached. At this point I started desensitizing the head on contact which is for reactive dogs and puppies the most difficult way to approach each other. Another important aspect was to help Denali to initiate play with other dogs.

Our first baby steps in this direction are captured on this video in which I worked with Denali and George. George, is Buddy’s number one therapy dog, helps Denali to have head - head contact. As you can see he is very careful and frequently looks away. Only a week later during another Puppy Foundation Class I filmed Denali playing with another puppy. She looks happy and confident.

Denali is playing!

Thankfully my client was committed to intensifying the training and socialization after understanding the effect of not socializing Denali. The story of Denali is a good reminder on the importance of early socialization of puppies. A good breeder is taking care of early socialization before the puppy goes home to a new owner. Always ask the breeder what he has done to introduce unfamiliar dogs, people and novelty in general. Additionally you need to continue the work and make sure that your puppy receives socialization and training the moment your life starts together.

Socialization without Full Vaccination ?

If you are still unsure please read this recommendation from the American Veterinarian Society to understand the importance of early socialization for you puppy.

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Puppy Socialization Classes and Yappy Hour

Don't wait to socialize and train you puppy in a safe environment. Sign up for the free social monthly event Yappy Hour and for the Puppy Foundation Group Classes at the weekend.

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