By Hilton Butler
It seems the entire world has gone crazy. We have been socially distanced and isolated for what feels like an eternity. Humans and canine are both highly social animals. Even those of us who prefer the company of dogs to other humans still need social interaction to remain healthy. This is doubly important for our furry companions; while older dogs might be reveling in all this home time with their humans, those newly acquired “COVID puppies” are struggling. You might or might not have seen issues arise, but they are inevitable. Socializing our pooches should always be a priority in their training, but social distancing has greatly limited our options.
As a puppy grows, there is a window of time where he learns and develops socialization and communication skills within a pack. This window varies slightly, but it is generally when your puppy is between 3–16 weeks old. Usually, this window starts to close between 12–20 weeks.
Even educated breeders often send puppies off to their new homes at 8 weeks of age, and veterinarians caution against taking pups out in public too much until after all vaccinations are given. However, that means puppies spend about four weeks of this critical window of time learning how to communicate with humans, but not with other dogs. While there are real health concerns regarding exposing unvaccinated puppies, I would argue that a puppy not learning vital communication skills is just as dangerous. As soon as your veterinarian gives the green light, make it a priority to get your puppy around other dogs.
I am not a fan of dog parks in general–your dog is at risk of illness or injury, often due to other people’s inability to control their dogs. At parks, you constantly hear, “Oh, he is friendly,” or “They’re just playing.”
Imagine though, if you—a human—just charged up to every person you saw and wrapped them in a big hug. At some point, you’re bound to hug the wrong person and get punched in the face. Now, you’re stuck explaining to the police officer that you don’t understand what happened; try saying “I was just being friendly” or “That’s how I normally greet people” to the police!
The same is true in the dog world. When a dog growls or gives off any of a dozen cues, that means they don’t want to interact. But if a puppy doesn’t interpret this as a warning and proceeds with the unwanted interaction, the growling dog is going to correct him. When owners don’t understand this, the situation escalates between the dogs—or, worse, the owners. Fingers are pointed, words are exchanged and it no longer matters whose fault it actually is. These moments can be a horrible experience for everyone involved, and the consequences can be far–reaching.
On the other hand, dogs that are not adequately socialized can become shy, anxious, and sometimes even fearfully aggressive because they don’t have the social skills to deal with new situations, people or other dogs. Because of the pandemic, it can be even harder to properly socialize dogs. What you can do, though, is start the process of socialization now, even if COVID or any other circumstance caused you to miss that small, ideal window of opportunity.
This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Spring 2021 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.