So many good questions. About how to socialize puppies. About whether to go to dog parks. So few good answers.
But here’s a perspective that I hope is helpful: Risk management. It’s all about risk management.
FOR PUPPIES what are the risks if you have a puppy and can’t follow the usual guidelines for socializing your puppy? What are the risks if you do? We all know the risks by now of not following the advice about social distancing and avoiding contact with others as much as possible. We’re all (or should be) trying to avoid this freight train of a virus flooding medical facilities such that people end up dying simply because there were no beds, doctors, nurses or ventilators available. It’s not going to stop the virus from spreading so much as it will stop a surge in cases that overwhelms our ability to deal with it medically.
The risks to our puppies of social isolation are less dramatic, but exist nonetheless. Some young dogs who are isolated during early developmental periods will develop a fear of unfamiliar people or other dogs. Some will become aggressive. Many, of course, won’t. But it’s hard to predict exactly how any one puppy will respond to having social contact restricted.
So . . . Here are some thoughts about how raise a healthy puppy in this very unhealthy climate:
WALKS WALKS WALKS Strictly speaking, “socialization” refers to a young animal learning to identify members of its tribe. But as currently used, it’s been broadened to mean exposing young dogs and cats to a variety of stimuli, from unfamiliar people and dogs, to new sights (statues!), sounds (train whistles! trucks!) and smells (perfume?!). Take your puppy on lots and lots of walks outside, trying to vary the sights, sounds and smells as you do. This is easier to do, of course, in the country or the suburbs where there are fewer people, but do all you can to get your pup out and about while maintaining a safe distance from others. We took the (leashed) BCs out last Saturday on a trail that we’ve seen one other couple on in about 6 trips total. This time the tiny parking lot was full, and people were parking on the road. About half of them had dogs with them. Silver lining! So many happy dogs!
Granted, it’s harder to walk a young puppy on leash than an adult, because that means you’re also training it to walk on leash. Silver lining number two! (With acknowledgement that you may need a more relaxing walk later after the pup has gone to sleep!) Your walks can be the equivalent of your puppy class exercises–I love training “in context,” so ask your pup to sit, stay, lie down, leave it, etc while out walking. That’s when you’re going to need it any way, right?
HAVE A COSTUME PARTY Part of “socialization” is getting puppies used to the vast variety of humans that they are going to meet. And to dogs, “variety” often equals “shape”, so have a stash of hats, coats, sunglasses, feathers–you name it–in your car or garage and return home to greet your pup looking like Elton John. Please send photos.
CROSS FIT YOUR PUP Young dogs who live in the country experienced a vast range of environments and substrates. They have to push their way through tall grass, get stuck on wild raspberry thorns, run through mud and gravel, and negotiate downed trees and branches. But they sometimes don’t learn to navigate slick floors, rooms with ceiling fans (oh the horror) and noisy appliances that go on and off. City and suburban dogs grow up with that, but haven’t learned how to scramble their way over a wood pile, or slink under a hedge.
Think about what your pup has to do physically to get around in his world, and create challenges that not only expose him to a variety of challenges, but that also help him develop strength and coordination. And, of course
TRAIN WITH LOVE AND PATIENCE Your pup is learning whether to trust you or not, plain and simple. Do all you can to train using positive reinforcement, understanding that the trainee always gets to say what is reinforcing at the time. What any individual wants varies at any given time, so always ask yourself what is the best way to reinforce your pup at that moment. To chase you after coming when called? A super good piece of food for responding correctly to Leave It? A belly rub after lying down on cue? Your pup will tell you, honest. You just have to pay attention.
CAN YOU SAFELY HAVE YOUR PUP PLAY WITH ANOTHER? We’re back to risk management here, and to everyone making the best decision that they can. Can you set it up so that you and the other owner stay well apart? Are you sure you won’t both need to jump in and separate the pups at some point? Has the owner and the pup isolated themselves for two weeks? Can you wipe your pup’s coats down with soapy rags after they play? What risk category are you in? Only you can decide what is best for you and your pup, and what level of interaction you feel is safe for you, your pup and the community.
AND WHAT ABOUT DOG PARKS? Is it safe to go? Are they even open? Dane County, WI dog parks are open, while Decatur Dog Park in IL are closed, so be sure to check before you go. If your favorite park is open, going or not is again a question of risk management. What do you lose by not going? What do you gain?
IF YOU GO, use the obvious precautions about touching anything–the gate, the latches, picnic tables. Use an approved sanitizer to clean your hands. Touch any public areas with something you can dispose of. Wash your hands before and after. Stay at least six feet apart from other people. (This means that you simply shouldn’t go if you have a dog that you have to manage physically rather than by voice. If Moxie runs up to other people and jumps on them, you can’t go get her. If Sammy plays a bit rough, how are you going to stop him?
I’d be very cautious myself about going to a dog park, but I do have sympathy for those who have dogs who pretty much implode without some off leash exercise. If that’s you, read what I wrote for puppies above, and last weeks post that encourages us all to teach our dogs new tricks. (Dogwise has some great books on trick training if you need some new ideas.) Take it from someone who lives in snow/blizzard/sleet country: Teaching a dog a new trick tires them out as much as a long walk.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Like everyone, we are doing our best to adapt to the strange world that we live in now. Jim and I are grateful for so many things, including that we live in a beautiful place in the country where we can walk out our door into the fresh air anytime we want. Granted, right now, that often means massive quantities of mud needs to be washed off of dogs when we come back in (I’m talking to you Skip The Mud Sponge), but still. Lucky us.
Jim, the oak tree, cruises along steadily, while I, the wind, cycle between We Can Do This Warrior Mode, and Does Sucking Your Thumb Count as Touching Your Face? (Answer not required.)
I am ridiculously lucky to have flowers blooming in the house right now. Given the bleakness of the usual March Mudmare going on, they lift my spirits every time I see them. This first one is a Christmas cactus that missed the party in December, but is doing it’s best to make up time.
Lucky me with blooming African Violets in the house! I just happen to have the perfect window for them, and once I moved them to it, all it took was a little fertilizer to wake them up.
This deep purple one is very special, because it belonged to my friend Donna’s mother, who passed away a few months ago. Donna asked if I’d rehome it, I said yes and she brought it back on the plane with her. Since then it’s flourished, and has graced us with these gorgeous flowers.
This is an orchid from a dear friend, and after a rough start, is blooming like crazy. Generally I think of myself as an African Violet Whisperer and an Orchid Killer, but after moving this one to the kitchen window, it went crazy. Not really a convenient place for a plant, but, hey, I’ve gotta keep my priorities straight.
By the way, Jim bought the flowers in the background from the supermarket when he went out for our now rare grocery runs. I know they are not considered an essential item, but we all have our definitions of essential, right? I’m admittedly a bit greedy about flowers, it feels like they help me stay sane.
What are you greedy for? And how are you doing? Sending love and warmth to all of us in this very special global village.