COVID, as we know, has affected people in a variety of ways. As far as we can tell, the most significant and positive effect for dogs has been that they have seen a lot more of their owners than they usually do, which, from their perspective as a social animal, has been great. However, for puppies born during COVID, there has been one negative effect on their development: limited socialisation with both dogs and humans. COVID restrictions have meant that puppies have not been getting the exposure they need to develop the social skills that are so important in becoming a “well rounded” dog. They have also been missing out on different environments as their activities have been more limited.
“The first three months of a puppy’s life are extremely important to its social development,” says Dr. Christopher Lea, assistant clinical professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences in Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “Primary socialization occurs during the first three to six weeks with a puppy’s littermates. Then there is a secondary period of development from six to twelve weeks. This is when a puppy learns to interact with humans.”
Cat Clutton, a certified dog trainer and founder at ReKalibratedK9 Dog Training Services in Opelika, Alabama, comments: “This early three-month period is critical to a dog’s lifetime behavioral patterns. During this time frame, puppies learn how to properly bond and socially communicate with both other dogs and people, as well as how to interact with and respond to different environments. Simply put, dogs that are not properly exposed to a variety of individuals, objects, sights, sounds, smells and environments during this period may always be fearful of some of those same things.”
Mike Jernigan writes in “The Bark”: “To make matters worse, a larger than usual number of pandemic dog adoptions were to first-time owners, more likely to make novice mistakes with socializing puppies correctly even in a normal environment. This produced a perfect storm of bad circumstances at a critical time in the developmental stages of these dogs.
Even in the case of experienced owners acting responsibly during pandemic isolation—avoiding crowds, gatherings and outings in dog parks, while generally being as antisocial as possible—then many of their dogs have become antisocial as well. And just as some humans are experiencing anxiety during the transition back to some degree of normality thanks to the availability of vaccines, many of these puppies, who are now dog teenagers, are having anxiety issues of their own.
While these teen dogs are more likely than usual to have behavioral problems socializing with strange people, places and other dogs, the largest problem both trainers and vets are reporting so far is due to separation anxiety. As the COVID-19 situation improves, dog owners who have been homebound for months are increasingly beginning to return to work and school. Suddenly, dogs that have had constant human companionship for their entire young lives are finding themselves bored and alone for much of the day.”
So, is there little or no hope for these puppies? Are many of them destined to end up with permanent behavioural problems that can’t be corrected with any amount of training, doomed by the unfortunate timing of their births? Will a majority of them end up overwhelming adoption shelters and rescues in the coming months, as owners despair of dealing with them and they grow from cute, cuddly COVID-19 companions into anxious, angst-ridden adults?
The answer is hopefully not. With the right investment of time and with professional guidance, puppies can develop into well balanced dogs. And to help you along the way, consider the following:
Even if you are still working from home, establish a regular schedule for your dog’s daily activities. Try to set feeding, walks and play at the same times each day on a schedule that will work whether you are home or back at work.
If you haven’t already, begin crate training to provide a secure option for leaving your dog alone for short periods. Never use a crate as punishment. Instead, start by giving your dogs meals, treats and toys in the crate, always leaving the door open so the dog won’t feel confined. Soon the crate will become your dog’s safe place.
Taking an adult dog that is fearful or unsure of how to behave appropriately with other dogs and people and forcing them into interactions without taking the appropriate steps is likely to make the problem much worse. This also goes for environmental soundness: “Flooding” a dog by forcing it into uncomfortable environments will not change its feelings about those spaces.
Dogs uncomfortable with unfamiliar environments, people or other dogs after the age of approximately five months need training plans that include counter-conditioning rather than just simple socialization or exposure. Counter-conditioning involves attempting to change a dog’s emotional response to a trigger, making it a better fit for dogs that have already developed negative associations with certain experiences.
Many veterinarians today are trained in “fear-free” techniques when it comes to dealing with nervous pet patients. Dogs, and cats, are able to visit the veterinary clinic to explore the office, get treats from staff and generally familiarize with the people and place without the trauma of treatment.
Stay positive, draw up a plan of action and don’t be shy asking for help. By getting through this unwanted COVID problem you can score another point for the good guys!