Puppy Socialisation during COVID crisis


Most caregivers are aware of the importance of wide-ranging positive socialisation experiences during the sensitive socialisation period in a dog’s development.

This period starts at around 3 weeks of age and ends around 12-16 weeks depending on the breed.

The first part of socialisation is learning about your own species by interacting with your siblings and your mother and perhaps this part won’t be too negatively affected by the changes we are experiencing as a community practicing social distancing. The bitch teaches the puppy how to behave, how hard to bite, how to play, when to stop playing and how to be part of group. Canine social rules are learnt. It is so important to have a kind and caring mother (for humans too!) The second part, however, starts around 8 weeks and goes to 12 -16 weeks and this period will likely be affected. This is the period where the puppy learns about the world he lives in and the things humans do. I guess we just have to accept that these will be COVID puppies and we will have to watch out for them as they mature.

They essentially have a RED FLAG now for future development. “Puppy born during COVID restrictions.”

So what can you do as a new dog guardian to minimise the negative effects of limited socialisation?

Firstly you should as always be selecting dogs from fit and healthy mothers who live in environments free from stress and distress. Ideally the mother is tried and tested. She has produced wonderful puppies before. Hopefully you have been diligent in sourcing your pup from someone you have developed a relationship with – enough to know the temperament of both the adults that produced the pup and the environment the puppy lives in. The breeder follows the latest advice in behaviour. They do not follow outdated advice such as being a strong pack leader, or showing their dogs who is boss. The breeders have a solid interest in producing puppies that will be sold to pet homes. They pride themselves with excellent temperaments. If you are looking for a pet you do not need to be convinced by the number of show ring ribbons or that the sire is from imported semen with strong guarding lines. You have not purchased from the internet with little information other than images.

You are not going to be able to do many of the things that we suggest a new puppy owner do. You may not even be able to attend puppy class, although some are still running, so look around for those who are able to offer a large facility and social distancing.

You may not be able to introduce your puppy to the large number of people we generally advise – 100 people in 100 days might have shrunk to single digit numbers. So I want you to be the 100 people! You can dress up – wear silly costumes, walk funny, put on sunglasses and hats. Get all your immediate family who you are not socially isolating from to do the same. Weird voices, funny laughs, fake beards, use a walking stick. Become a crowd!

You may not be able to take your puppy to cafes and markets anymore as they are no longer open, but you can still walk the streets and get the dog habituated to the sight and sounds of traffic and people at distance. I am afraid no people should be getting close enough to you to touch your puppy. I suggest pairing food with everything new thing the puppy is experiencing and taking note of anything that seems especially scary to the pup and increase the distance. You want to see a wiggly, happy pup the entire time you are exposing the dog to new stuff. He should want to engage even though he can’t. This will be a good sign.

Because no one but your immediate family is touching the dog you might want to get your pup used to the weird and intrusive things people might do in the future. Pair touching the dog’s head and reaching over the dog’s head with high value food. Practice the kind of greetings you want your dog to be accepting of.

You can increase the rudeness of your greeting as your dog shows he is not bothered at all by the stupid things humans do.

You may be able to mimic some of the sounds of the experiences you are not able to do in reality. There are sound apps such as SOUND PROOF Puppy and no doubt others that can be used to expose a dog to sounds. Have your television on a lot. The reality will be that the dog will not be experiencing these for real and it might be good to do more of this that you normally would and gradually increase the volume of different sounds, eg children playing may be something the new pup may be limited in seeing if schools close so use the sounds of these to socialise to. Even if you don’t like sport you can find it on You Tube and play these sounds.

You may be spending more time with the puppy than you normally would, and will in the future, and so you do want him to get used to you going out. Covid won’t last forever! So even if you are not working get him used to be separated from you and you leaving the home. When you enter your office place him away with something to do rather than have him next to you constantly. Go for a drive and leave him with chew toys and things to eat. Don’t spend every minute with him just because you can.  He needs to see your departures as his chance to eat and sleep. Watch him via a phone and laptop to ensure he is behaving calmly while you are out. Early signs of separation distress require treatment. Remember puppies need 16-18 hours of sleep each day so if kids are home from school make sure they give him a break too.

Crate training is a great way to teach a dog how to settle and done correctly it can be a useful trained behaviour for a dog who is moving home, going to a vet clinic, boarding etc. It can assist toilet training. Crate training should, however, occur in a stress free manner and therefore needs to be a planned. No dog should see a crate as entrapment and if your dog is responding in this way then the crate training has been rushed.


Kikopup – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dUzF0g0PwY4

Susan Garrett – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8HNO79bZMY

Even though I do not underestimate the importance of good socialisation I do think that if the individual has sound genetics (stable, calm mother that had a dream pregnancy and her influence on her pups was positive in their early in life) he will be okay despite not having as much socialisation as we would like. The real risk is for dogs who have the genetic predisposition for fearfulness and then they are, on top of this, under-socialised due to COVID. These dogs will likely be the patients of the future.


Why Not Pass The Puppy?

puppy conditioning exercise
In this image a trainer demonstrates conditioning a pup to being handled – no force is used.

Recently I read the responses a client had given in her Behaviour Q (which is the basis to the history taking ahead of a behaviour consultation) and noted how during puppy class her pup was often put in the “settle pose” for behaviour that was considered unwanted as well as the pup’s perceived comfort whilst being handed around during “pass the puppy”.

These are two antiquated and out-dated exercises that are still practiced in some puppy classes. So why not pass the puppy? Why not make pups submit to the settle pose?

It is true that we want your puppy to be friendly and affiliative with new people, but the way to ensure this is to expose the puppy, when he/she is neurodevelopmentally ready to do so, with the experience of new people.

The experience of new people should be that they are warm and nurturing – not giants that pick you up and pass you around as if you are their next meal.

The pup makes the choice to engage and that engagement results in a positive association – yummy treats. “Passing the puppy” takes away the puppy’s control and essentially allows a fearful puppy (maybe undetected) to be overwhelmed. This is what flooding looks like. A puppy that is worried about the approach of strangers should not be passed around as it confirms to the pup that the approach of new people is scary. If a pup cannot move away he/she may learn that a better strategy to keep these scary people away will be to act more threatening him/herself.

The “settle pose” was described as scruffing the dog till he desisted. It is used when a pup, who is acting in ways we don’t like, is held by the scruff, and asked to settle. The thought behind this is that it shows the dog who is in control – you – and that struggling or displaying any signs of resistance is pointless. This is relatively easy to do to a small pup and is very reinforcing for owners, as they immediately feel they have stopped whatever it is they don’t like and have therefore solved a problem. Trainers may tell owners that this is what a mother dog might do too and so therefore it is natural and normal and allows an effective way to communicate with your dog. Like you are speaking their language.

The problem with this is that it is untrue. Mother dogs do not scruff their puppies. Yes they move them like this, very gently when they need to, up until a certain age, but they do not grab them by the back of the neck and shake them.

And besides we are not dogs’ mothers. It is very likely that pups do not mistake us for their mothers. We are humans and we are scary enough.

When we physically restrain a dog and punish him with our touch we teach a dog that we will use force to get our way and that we do not care that they are experiencing distress. Their subtle signals do not work on us. We are not listening to what the body language is telling us (“I am afraid”, “I am overwhelmed”,  “I am over threshold”) and we continue on till the dog gives up. This neither helps the dog learn a behaviour that we want, (no replacement behaviour is taught) nor does it change the negative association into a positive one. It is unhelpful in so many ways. Later, as the dog grows, the “settle pose” can no longer be easily administered and many a person has been bitten attempting to assert themselves over a worried dog. The dog will then be labelled “dominant” and treated with more punishment. The cycle of misunderstanding will continue, till eventually the dog bites and bites hard. Then the dog will be euthanased or rehomed.

We do want the dog to be able to be relaxed, even on his back, perhaps being cradled in your lap – but this is done through slow manipulation of a relaxed and calm pup – a puppy that has come to be very trusting of what human touch means.

A pup receives deep, slow, long pats so he lies down and then once he has chosen to lie down, then he can be gently stroked along his belly. The pup is not forced into any position and  is not held down against his will. The pup is not scruffed.

Dr Karen Overall DACVB (my behaviour guru) says: “scruffing by humans is inappropriate to use in dogs”. That alone should be enough of a reason to stop this exercise.

Please give pups CHOICE, recognise when they are fearful and start making positive associations with the triggers of their fearfulness.




Socialisation – what it’s NOT and how important is it…


Socialisation is not taking a small puppy to Bunnings and have it bombarded with attention and pats.

Socialisation is not taking an adolescent rescue dog down to dog beach to “play” with all and sundry.

Socialisation is not taking a fearful pup to a cafe and asking people to greet your pup while is cowers in your arms.

In a natural setting socialisation takes place when the pup, with mother near by, meets and interacts with new things. It happens in a safe way. It happens when the dog is neurodevelopmentally ready for the interaction. It happens because the mother dog is feeling safe and knows the interaction is safe too. She is not about to introduce her precious pup to something she deems is unsafe. Everything she is introducing the puppy to is something that later the puppy may experience as a “safe” object/state/place to be around. After a certain period of time, about 12-14 weeks of age, the pup becomes fully weaned from the mother and separates from her, and after this time anything newly introduced may be greeted with mistrust and a fearful response. It makes sense not to stay open, infinitely. Otherwise you might just bound up to the first tiger you meet. It is a good survival mechanism and has evolved over tens of thousands of years.

In normal development the mother is also able to move away from the puppy – to source food for herself, to toilet and to exercise, and so a pup learns that time away from mother is normal. Independence is gradually grown, not abruptly enforced. Bitches who are not allowed to move away from their puppies – as in a puppy farm scenario – may not be tolerant and nurturing in the same way that a mother who has time away can be. Then puppies are drastically separated, whilst at the same time forced into frighteningly new scenarios with all new sensations and with no nurturer to safely retreat to.

When we take on the job of socialising a young animal because the pup is no longer with its mother it is important to remember that socialisation experiences will only be good and beneficial to the pup if the feeling at the time is one of relaxation and associated with positive emotions. The pup must not be forced to interact, but rather make the choice to.

If the experience is frightening and causes the puppy to want to avoid and repel the new person/thing/place then the experience may be creating a very different outcome from want we aimed for. Fearful early experiences can create later phobias.

Ideal socialisation in a breeding setting would be a breeder who is able to expose puppies to all the future possibilities of its destined home. Some proactive breeders take part in programs such as Puppy Culture – where they follow a timetable of introductions ensuring a wide range of future possibilities. But a good rule of thumb is to consider all the senses and making sure puppies are experiencing a wide range of surfaces and obstacles, unusual sounds, smells, food textures, background noises, sights.  Puppies should be faced with some challenges and some mild frustrations that help to build impulse control. They should be being exposed to a wide range of people, other animals and environments consistent with their future homes.

CAN Socialisation FIX everything?

Recently I had a internet conversation with a person involved in dog rescue who had been worried by my labelling of a post of a dog as “another reactive rescue” and then we discussed how there is indeed a prevalence of behavioural problems in dogs whose mothers had experienced stress and distress in pregnancy, whether they be purebred dogs or dogs from rescue.

Sadly even pedigree dogs may be being bred in environments where mothers are stressed and distressed. Paying a lot of money for a dog does not preclude future behavioural problems. There is evidence that stress during pregnancy and during the neonatal period creates permanent effects on the ability of the offspring to deal with stressful experiences later in life. These animals may be permanently effected by their poor start and this may be reflected in later behavioural abnormalities.

Purchasers of puppies need to have reliable information about the source of their dog  and know that the mother was well-fed, well cared-for, emotionally stable and responsive to her puppies.

People adopting dogs sometimes assume that purchasing a puppy at 8 weeks of age is like buying a blank drive – ready to have information uploaded and stored, but the truth is that so much is already downloaded and installed, and sometimes, continuing the computer analogy, corrupted from the get-go by the early history and the genes inherited.




You’ve been advised that your pup should see a vet behaviourist!

“Puppies who are shy, worried, or anxious throughout early veterinary visits are likely to exhibit the same behaviours as adults at 1.5 to 2 years of age. Early intervention is essential for such dogs.” Karen Overall, Manual of Clinical Behavioural Medicine

“If a timid puppy does not make dramatic gains, it is a sign that formal effort, likely extending well into adulthood, will be necessary.” Jean Donaldson, Culture Clash.

When your vet or trainer tells you that your puppy may benefit from the input of a veterinary Behaviourist it can be a confronting time. Shouldn’t time and love be enough!

Your trainer or vet though has seen hundreds, if not thousands of young animals, and knows what constitutes normal responses in puppies.

A puppy that is exceedingly fearful, has little bounce back and is not exploring the world with rambunctious energy is not normal behaviourally and has a high chance of continuing to suffer from fear and anxiety through later life.

Responses to fear and anxiety will be dependent on breed, but common strategies are reactivity and aggression that come to the fore as the dog reaches social maturity at around 2 -3 years old.

So what can you do?

Early intervention is vital. Just as it is in the treatment of children with developmental issues animals treated earlier make better progress and have more chance of living normal lives.

Behaviour treatments involve managing the fears and anxieties, gentle behaviour modification that proceeds at the puppy’s pace and sometimes with medication as an adjunct.

A veterinary behaviourist is the most qualified professional to assist you with these decisions and making the right choice for your puppy.

All behaviour conditions have come about through the combination of genetics, learning and the environment, but when we see fear in puppies it often has a significant hereditary component. Genetic components to anxiety-based disease need both remedial work and the assistance of behavioural medications that do two things – they protect the brain from stress and they allow the pup to learn new ways of feeling safe. There are many very effective and well-tested medications that can be used for a period of time while the puppy is being assisted by a skilled behavioural trainer.

“Just like us, animals can’t learn anything when they are really scared. And learning not to be scared is a form of learning too! This is when medication can be especially helpful. Medication can reduce the fear so a dog can learn to play games, eat treats, and learn through behaviour modification exercises that she does not need to be fearful. The goal is for the dog to create new neural circuits in her brain and learn on her own not to be fearful of the situation. Then, in the future she may not need medication.” Decoding your Dog editors Debra Horwitz and John Ciribassi