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So, you’ve brought home a new puppy during COVID-19? Congratulations! Whether you chose to rescue from a shelter or purchase from a breeder, that little furball comes with a new set of responsibilities. Like children, without love and intention, puppies don’t grow into responsible adults that others want to be around. While the pandemic has revealed more social feeds than ever featuring puppies, it has also brought a number of new challenges in raising those four-legged friends.

Jennifer Skiba, Owner of Namastay Training, states, “In recent years, we’ve seen a troubling trend towards more fear-based behaviors in puppies, and unfortunately, COVID-19 is exasperating the issue.” To start, individuals have a misconstrued idea of what socialization means. Socialization is not physical contact with every dog and human, something we’ve seen naturally diminish in the pandemic. Rather, socialization is having social graces and learning social cues, habits that can be introduced and reinforced even during this era of social distancing.

Lucky for you, if the pandemic has given us anything, it’s extra time to focus on properly socializing a new puppy.

As Julia McPeek, CEO of Harmony Veterinary Center and Medical Qigong Practitioner, points out, “This era of COVID-19 can provide valuable bonding and training time with your new friend.”

To start, shares Skiba, “Just like humans don’t greet and shake hands with every individual they encounter on a walk, dogs should be trained to acknowledge or even ignore other dogs and humans they meet.” She recommends a 75/25 approach. “Seventy-five percent of the time a puppy should simply look at people and dogs. Twenty-five percent of the time, they should engage with people and dogs.”

In many cases, COVID-19 has prevented the ability to get into a well-run puppy class as businesses don’t have the space required. However, other experiences, including seeing additional dogs, people and children, are available. In addition, even with many owners working and schooling from home full time, the puppy can and should be left alone for periods of time. 

Puppies should also be exposed to regular handling by people they trust, helping them get comfortable being handled by others. “That said,” says Skiba,”Just as you wouldn’t hand over your infant to an acquaintance, don’t do that to your dog. Focus instead on individuals you know and trust, including your vet and their staff, your groomer and those in your inner circle.”

According to Skiba, there are three top priorities for raising a happy, fearless puppy during COVID-19 and beyond. They include:

  1. Teach Bite Inhibition. Puppies have soft jaws and sharp teeth, and biting is a natural instinct for them at this stage of life. However, they should be taught that when they do bite, don’t hurt. “It’s the pressure that hurts,” explains Skiba. “By teaching their nervous system to release when they bite, a reflexive movement will be wired into the body.” To accomplish this, simply squeal when your puppy bites you. Saying out loud, “Ouch, that hurts” will send the message for your puppy to stop applying pressure, but don’t do it for every bite, just the ones that really hurt. Says Skiba, “Imagine a scale from 1-10. Ouch the 10’s and when the 10’s disappear, ouch the 9’s and so on until the puppy is barely applying any pressure at all.”

  2. Teach Animal Handling. Puppies must learn to be accepting of touch. Teaching them how to be handled by vets and vet techs so they are not fearful will allow them to receive better health care and thus live a longer, healthier life. “Use a systematic approach,” explains Skiba. For instance, “One week, focus on the torso, then the legs and feet, then the belly and bum, then the head, etc. Keep in mind, you aren’t ‘playing’ with their feet; you are intentionally touching them with the end goal of having prolonged contact to examine and treat them.”

  3. Build Confidence. Observe your puppy to identify deficiencies and tailor their experiences for the best possible outcome. How does the puppy see, hear and feel the world? What do they avoid? What do they interact confidently with? Work on those areas in which the dog seems to be deficient, including confinement training. Skiba emphasizes, “A dog should be happy to be separated from you, responding with ease to being in a crate or a bedroom with the door shut. Not going into a panic. Learning to entertain themselves when they are on their own is a life skill.”

Says McPeek, “Many thanks to Jennifer for highlighting these three key areas for both puppies and puppy owners. It is critical in a puppy’s development to be comfortable being handled by humans, trained not to bite, and to have good social manners with humans and other pets. It is known that the number one reason dogs are abandoned or “put down” prematurely is because of behavior issues that could have been trained out of them early. What you do now saves lives later.”

With time and intention, your little furball of energy can build confidence and enjoy positive interactions with others. The result? A dog that you, as well as your friends, neighbors and pet caregivers look forward to being around.