Like many of our friends and family, we added a puppy to our pack during the pandemic. With the lockdowns and limited social interactions, we couldn't give Leo the same socialization experiences as our previous pets. Recently we have resumed attending community events and noticed Leo is very nervous around other people and barks loudly at strange dogs. I know this is a common Pandemic Puppy problem, but what can we do to help Leo become more confident?
– Pandemic Puppy Parent
Dear Pandemic Puppy Parent,
Given recent events, your situation is a very common one. Dogs that are brought into our lives during stressful times often benefit from confidence building and safe socialization. When we cannot provide those learning experiences, they can become anxious and frightened by normal interactions with the outside world.
To help Leo’s confidence, I suggest beginning by taking him on quiet, enrichment-oriented walks where he gets a chance to experience the world without being thrown into the “deep end.” For example, instead of going to a concert downtown, begin by meandering around your neighborhood, observing construction equipment at a distance or sitting on the outskirts of your local park. Invite family and friends to see if Leo wants to say hi, and if he appears nervous, cheerfully tell them “sorry, not today” and ask that they ignore him. Often shy dogs will summon the courage to approach if the visitor simply gives them space. Of course, the use of tasty treats, auto-shaping tools such as Kongs stuffed with peanut butter or a lively game of fetch can help pair fun, enjoyable sensations with novel, stressful ones.
If you have friends and family with their own calm, friendly dog, then consider having doggy play dates, going for walks or attending training classes together. I encourage all of our clients to hold overnight sleepovers at another house. This is particularly helpful to prepare Leo for a doggy daycare, being boarded while you are away on vacation for the week or moving to a new home.
Once Leo is showing increased confidence, advance to high-distraction outings, keeping in mind that ideally he should be placed in situations that inspire curiosity rather than aversion. Drive-throughs, local movies in the park, quiet pet-friendly cafes and low-key trails are all great socialization opportunities. Pet-friendly stores such as Lowe’s, Tractor Supply and Home Depot are all great places to expose your on-leash, friendly dog to forklifts, automatic doors, shiny floors and different sights, sounds and smells. To increase the challenge as Leo becomes even more confident with those adventures, attend a neighborhood barbecue, a child’s birthday party or a concert downtown.
An additional important step in the life of a Pandemic Puppy is to incorporate behavioral training into Leo’s life. Dogs thrive on healthy structure and team-building activities, with the added bonus of increased obedience creating even more opportunities for safe socialization. A dog who can walk politely on leash without pulling, greet people without jumping and wait patiently while you sip a coffee is more likely to be included in family events. Consider finding a trainer who specializes in canine behaviorism and who prioritizes individualized private classes rather than generalized, large groups so that they can focus on Leo’s unique needs.
My last piece of advice is to permit Leo to progress at his own pace. Our modern world can be an overwhelming, stressful environment but by exploring its wonders with curiosity, we can show even the most anxious pup that life is amazing.
Kendall and Chandler Brown are owners of Custom K-9 Service Dogs, a dog training business serving Minden/Gardnerville, Carson and Reno. For information go to customk9servicedogs.com or email email@example.com.