Many dogs who were acquired during the beginning of the pandemic are now adolescent dogs or slightly over a year old. Working with under-socialized, fearful and nervous dogs is nothing new to professional dog trainers like myself, yet seeing this many come through our doors at the same time is. If you added a puppy to your family during the pandemic, here’s what you need to understand about how stay at home orders affected their development.
Dogs are social creatures. They need social interactions with a lot of people, dogs, other species, and exposure to novel stimuli to develop properly. All this has to happen prior to 16 weeks of age and continue through adolescence for dogs to develop into confident, fear-free adults. Things that dogs were not regularly exposed to during the critical early socialization window become triggers for fear responses like hysterically barking, lunging, growling, cowering and pulling away when on leash. If you’re wondering how many people a dog must meet in order to be confident around people, the answer is in the hundreds. That’s right, the hundreds! So meeting just your close family circle or a few friends during the pandemic unfortunately doesn’t cut it for socialization purposes.
Although dogs can learn to cope with their fears better through behavior modification training, there is no turning back the clock on early socialization. Either puppies were, or weren’t socialized. As a result, repeated exposure to new stimuli doesn’t fix the problem alone. It has to be slow, repeated exposure combined with a motivator like food, toys and praise, that can help a dog make a new association that people and dogs are safe. It’s critical that your dog participate in a controlled, group class setting with an experienced trainer now. You can’t afford to wait any longer as your dog matures into an adult animal and things return back to normal in our lives. Slow, positive exposure can definitely help lessen the impact of under-socialization, but it’s important you realize that in some dogs there is no “fixing it.” A harsh reality, but one you need to hear. Don’t delay another day in finding a professional who can help you and your dog work through it. After all, you’ve got another 12+ years to go!