Puppy socialization during social distancing.

Note: recommendations based on CDC guidelines at time of publication, March 15th, 2020.

It is spring 2020 and you just brought home a new puppy! You’re excited to get to know your sweet new dog, and you are planning on showing them the world. Then the World Health Organization (WHO) announces there is a pandemic and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) urges the general population to practice social distancing. How will you socialize your puppy?

Puppies go through a “sensitive period of socialization” between approximately 4 and 14 weeks of age, when they are most open to experiencing new things and building relationships. During this time, your puppy’s brain is developing and creating a virtual blueprint of what they expect to see in the world as well as determining what is safe and what might be dangerous. It is important that your puppy has positive experiences with a variety of different people, dogs, objects and places during this time. Social distancing naturally makes the process of socializing your puppy more difficult, but there are several things that you can do to set your puppy up for success.

Socializing with people

You don’t need to take your puppy to a crowded place to socialize with people – in fact, meeting people one-on-one or seeing people from a distance is a great place to start!

Nature walks

Exploring the outside world together is a great way for your puppy to bond with new people while you maintain the distance from people that is recommended by the CDC.

Meet one or two healthy friends at a park and take your puppy on an on-leash walk together. Using a 6-15 foot leash, start by walking at a distance from your friend where your puppy can calmly observe the person while taking treats. Continue walking together and exploring the park and slowly narrow the distance between your puppy and friend. When your puppy is calmly exploring a leash distance away from the friend, give your puppy a verbal cue, such as “go say hello,” and encourage the puppy to greet your friend briefly. Have your friend toss treats on the ground for your pup to create a positive association and reduce the likelihood that they will practice jumping up. After a few seconds, call your puppy back to you with an upbeat tone and feed more treats before continuing to explore together.

If you cue your puppy to go say hi and your puppy hesitates and/or chooses to stay near you, feed them treats away from your friend and continue to wander around the park together. Give your puppy all the time they need to choose to approach. It is important that your puppy learns that they do not need to approach if they are scared; knowing that they can choose when to approach people will help prevent aggression as your dog grows older.

Note: there are leash laws in many parks, so check your local laws before using a long leash

Socializing with dogs

Your puppy doesn’t need to wrestle with another dog to make friends with them. It is just as important for them to learn to practice calm behavior around other dogs.

Buddy walks

Invite a healthy friend with a very puppy-friendly dog on a walk with you. Start at a distance where your puppy will take treats and explore while in view of the other dog, and narrow this distance as your puppy offers calm behavior. When the dogs are a leash distance away, cue “go say hi” and allow the dogs to greet briefly, then encourage them to continue walking with treats. Let the dogs explore the world together on a fun walk and feed treats whenever your puppy checks in with you or offers polite behavior.

One-on-one play dates

Visit a healthy friend who has a very puppy-friendly dog. In order to maintain social distance, utilize exercise pens or gates to keep the dogs separate and play with them on either side of the gates. Practice calling your puppy away from the other dog and feeding them high value treats for listening. If the dogs are calm around each other and recall away, allow them to play without the gates.

Socialize with new things/surfaces

Introduce your dog to different surfaces that they will come across in the world such as tile, carpet, wood, grates, etc. Pick up different materials at your local reuse center and let your puppy play on them. If your puppy is nervous about walking on a slippery surface, give them time to explore it on their own, then offer them a treat on a safe surface. This will help build a positive association without turning the food into a trap that lures them onto a scary surface.

Socializing to new places

Utilize your vehicle for your puppy to observe people and dogs in a safe and controlled way. You can park at pet stores, vets, or grocery stores and let your puppy watch people and dogs from a distance. Give your puppy awesome treats for seeing new things and experiencing new sounds.

Consider taking your puppy with you to different neighborhoods, and parks to explore. Take them to large pet friendly stores like a hardware store and stay at least 6-10 feet away from other people while there. Feed your pup a treat each time they see someone, to avoid them becoming frustrated that they cannot greet, then encourage them to explore down empty aisles. Keep your trips short so your puppy doesn’t get too tired.

Avoid taking your puppy to very busy places. Although your puppy cannot get COVID-19, it is best not to have them greet a bunch of strangers that would then be within 6 ft of you, as the virus can spread from person to person at this distance.

Socialize to water

Helping your puppy learn that water can be fun will make things like bathtime so much easier as he gets older!

Introduction to bathtime

Fill a low basin (such as a kiddie pool) with an inch of lukewarm water and allow your puppy to explore it. Feed them treats for sniffing, pawing at the water, or stepping into the bin. Avoid spraying or splashing your puppy until they are happily splashing around in the water themselves.

When they love the low bin, get a slightly taller bin (like a short storage container) and fill it with the same amount of less water. Let you pup choose to jump in. Slowly increase the amount of water if they are having fun.

Rivers and lakes

On the next warm day, take your puppy to a quiet river or lake and let them explore the water’s edge. Praise and treat for exploring the water, but don’t force them to step in. It’s very important for your puppy to make the choice when they enter the water or they might record this as a negative experience.

Keep in mind your little one might get cold if they get wet, so bring a towel for them to cuddle with and plan on going back to the heat of the car or house within a few minutes of playing in water outside.

Socialize to handling and husbandry

All dogs will need to be handled for things like grooming and vet care. Set your puppy up for success as an adult by starting young.


Practice intentional handling to prepare your pup for vet exams. Reach towards your puppy’s ears, paws, mouth, tail, then feed your pup a treat. Observe them for any signs of stress while handling their bodies. If your puppy moves away, mouths at your hand, or pins their ears back, practice reaching without touching before advancing to actually touching or examining their body parts.

Nail clippers, brushes, and other equipment

Show your puppy the nail clippers, brush, or other tool then feed them a treat. Repeat this until your puppy looks very happy whenever you pick up the tool. Practice moving it towards your puppy, say “yes” when it’s as close as you will bring it, then feed a treat and move it away. With nail clippers, practice clipping a toothpick near your puppies foot to get them used to the sound and feed them a treat. Practice moving the brush over their body without making contact and then feeding a treat. Build up to gently touching them with the tools then feeding a treat and eventually doing one brush stroke or toenail clip then feed a treat.

Socialize to random objects

Prevent fear of items that your puppy will experience throughout his life.

Vacuums and Brooms

First introduce the vacuum or broom to your puppy while the object is sitting still. Feed treats for sniffing it as well as any calm behavior they offer around it. With the broom, practice small brush strokes then toss your puppy a treat at a distance to encourage them to stay a ways away. Reward any calm behavior while sweeping. With the vacuum, practice moving it around without turning it on and toss treats to your puppy at a distance. When you first turn it on, do so at a distance far away from your puppy and feed your pup lots of tasty treats for hearing it, then turn it off again. Keep their first experiences with the noise brief and make sure it involves high value treats. Build up to moving the vacuum while it’s on.

It may help to have your pup behind a gate working on a Kong stuffed with high value treats the first few times you vacuum or sweep with them around.

Sunglasses, hats, and face masks

Our winter puppies may not have seen summer gear before, so hold up a pair of sunglasses or a hat then feed them a treat. When they look happy seeing the sunglasses or hat, put it on and feed your pup treats, then take it off. You can play the same game with face masks, so your puppy gets used to seeing people wearing these safety tools.

Bikes, strollers, skateboards, and wheels

Enlist a healthy friend to come over and help you introduce your pup to wheeled items. Have your puppy on leash at a distance where they can see your friend biking, pushing a stroller, skateboarding, etc. and feed your puppy treats for seeing this. Explore the yard with your puppy and even start a game of fetch or tug while your friend continues to move around items on wheels. This will help your puppy learn those fast moving wheeled items are not that important and the fun stuff is over by you.

There’s a lot you can do to continue your pup’s socialization while we all practice social distancing. If you would like additional tips on working with your young puppy, feel free to reach out to us or schedule a video appointment. We’re here to help you and your pup make the best of your extra time together!

Author: Laura Maihofer, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA


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