A funny thing happened when everything shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic: People and dogs bonded big time! Not only did the national adoption rate soar from 58 to 85 percent in March of 2020, but shelter animal euthanizations decreased by 49 percent and pet toy sales increased by 18 percent. Time Magazine named shelter dogs their 2020 pet of the year. It makes sense. Staying safe indoors all the time can get repetitive, lonely and dull. Dogs break up the monotony—and provide ample affection to keep us mentally and emotionally optimistic.
However, the isolation required of us during COVID-19 is not ideal for puppy socialization. Reacclimating your dog to society after being inside all year is going to take some finesse. Whether you adopted a young puppy or completely changed your routine with the family dog, there is one thing you need to remember as we emerge back into the world: Don’t flood your pet.
Don’t flood your pet
Dr. Claire Walther, DVM, is the Medical Lead at Zoetis Petcare. She says the one thing dog owners need to remember as they reacclimate their dogs to society is not to flood their pets. “Flooding is when you overwhelm a pet by exposing them to a situation that causes extreme fear or anxiety,” says Dr. Walther. “Flooding can result in serious medical and/or behavioral conditions.”
In other words, pushing your dog too quickly can have lasting negative effects. A slow, step-by-step reacclimation or socialization process takes time but is worth it in the long run.
What does flooding look like?
Well, your instinct might be to head right to the dog park or take your pup to an outdoor restaurant. But, if your dog has never done this before—or hasn’t been around a group of strangers in 12 months—he could react negatively. Too much stimuli—smells, sounds, sights, materials—could be triggering for your dog.
Greater Good Magazine says humans are feeling anxious about reentering society after adjusting to a more antisocial lifestyle during the pandemic. It’s the same for canines. Would you enjoy leaping onto a crowded train full of sweaty strangers talking on their cell phones after months in isolation? Probably not. Remember this and have patience with your dog as things open up.
Socialization for pandemic dogs
Socialization, or the art of teaching your dog to behave well around people and animals, is important because it sets your pup up to be a healthy, confident dog. Ideally, socialization happens in the first three months of a dog’s life. During the pandemic, new puppies may not have had this opportunity.
“One of the best ways to socialize your new dog is to take them to new places,” says Dr. Walther. “Whether it’s a dog park or even the veterinarian, this helps expose them to all sorts of people and noises.” This method also works for older dogs who used to be very social but haven’t had the opportunity since last spring.
Since new sights and experiences can be overwhelming, Dr. Walther recommends slowly exposing your dog to things like:
People of all genders, ages and ethnicities
People wearing accessories like hats and scarves
Bikes, scooters, drones, and skateboards
Wheelchairs and walkers
Mops, brooms, and umbrellas
Bodies of water, woods and beaches
Different types of flooring and ground surfaces (carpet, stairs, concrete)
She also reminds pet owners that socialization should always be a calm, positive stepwise process. Reinforce good, desirable behavior with treats, toys and a good scratch behind the ears.
Remember: Don’t flood your pet! If venturing out is too much for your dog at first, Freshpet’s Expert Veterinarian Dr. Aziza Glass, DVM, encourages inviting trusted friends or family members to your home, one at a time (adhering to COVID-19 gathering guidelines, of course).
“It's important that [dogs] understand that these new folks are friendly, welcomed in their space, and pose no harm,” she says. “Doing this frequently will allow your dog to feel more comfortable with new people.”
Even better? Schedule playdates with friends who also have dogs. Dr. Glass says play time in a controlled environment gives you more influence over the surroundings. Try this before taking them out in more unpredictable settings. Even just observing other dogs playing nicely can boost your dog’s confidence around new canines.
Your dog’s well-being should always come first. Make sure your pup has all the appropriate canine vaccinations before letting him play with others. Commit to practicing new routines daily, whether it’s a short walk in a different park or meeting a neighbor. Hire a dog walker if you’re heading back to the office! Enroll in puppy training classes! “For some dogs, reacclimating to a social life outdoors can be a long road, from weeks to even months, but the reward in the end is always worth it,” says Dr. Glass. “So be patient and start small.”