Like most of the American population before March 2020, my job as a dog trainer is almost always away from my home. The corona virus caused most of the world to shut down. Everyone was ordered to shelter in place and not leave their home except for essential travel, like getting toilet paper. After we realized this wasn’t going to be a few weeks, people began to look for ways to occupy their time at home. An overwhelming amount of the population had the same idea: a puppy. The local shelters got on board by advertising low or free adoption fees to clear their kennels. The breeders did not stop producing puppies, whether responsible breeders had planned prior to the shutdown or backyard breeders were trying to capitalize on the new demand. The global coronavirus outbreak delivered a new generation of dogs brought up in a unique set of circumstances, which in turn created very unique behavioral issues. The term coined for this new challenge is “Pandemic Puppies.”
The idea behind the now common phrase “Social Distancing” has greatly affected our dogs. The key word in this new term of 2020 is ‘social.’ Socialization is the most important developmental factor in a puppy’s training and growth. In training classes, I would ask new clients “what are the three most important things for puppies to have before 6 months?” as I held my three fingers in the air. Clients would yell out varying suggestions, and while many were important, they did not convey what I was about to illustrate. With each finger I held up, I repeated “Socialization, socialization, socialization!” A trainer can teach your dog at any age how to sit, lay down, stay, not jump, walk on a leash. Many of the phobias we are currently seeing, however, far extend the normal training sector. These fear issues are grander in scale and scope compared to before the pandemic, due to dogs never leaving their home except for a vet or grooming appointment, and are nearly impossible to successfully rehabilitate.
Phobia is defined as “an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something.” Fear is natural in all animals; it helps us survive. Puppies even have a developmental term called “Fear Periods.” There are two main fear periods that puppies go through: the first is in puppyhood, 8-11 weeks, and the second in adolescence, 6-14 months. Each lasts about 2-3 weeks and are fundamental in determining what our adult dogs will behave like and what they can tolerate. Carefully introducing puppies to strange and new things in a very controlled setting and knowing your puppy’s threshold are critical in getting through the Fear Periods with confidence. 2020 did not afford us much of these opportunities for proper socialization, making way for phobias of every shape and size. These phobias manifested themselves in reactivity or aggression and/or dogs that have no coping skills and shut down, while giving the appearance of abuse.
The aggression cases are skyrocketing within the trainer circles in my area. Many are guard breeds that need significantly more socialization than your common companion breeds. They have little-to-no experience with strangers coming into the home, and therefore, react accordingly to something that does not fit the environment. Overly protective and under socialized dogs are a recipe for disaster when the world opens back up for the remaining 10 plus years of these dogs’ lives. Most aggression stems from fear or phobias. Dogs that start out fearful may become aggressive if this fear is left unmanaged and the dog left untrained. Dogs that do not leave the fearful stages are some of the most difficult dogs to rehabilitate. Phobias about stairs, different humans, other dogs, a flag, the vet, a garbage can, you name it, take months – even years – to overcome and if done improperly, you may never achieve any success or worse, cause more harm than good.
The flip side of under socialization with strangers is the over socialization with their family. Many companies and government agencies opted for Work from Home. The children are schooling from home. The entire household is home a large portion of the day aside from errands. Pre-pandemic dogs were alone much of the day and much more likely to be crate-trained. Work-and-school-from-home haven’t felt the need to crate train their dogs, or were struggling with puppies that howled in their crate during Zoom meetings and soon gave it up. This created a learned behavior to be disruptive when owners needed quiet and would be rewarded with freedom. These same dogs are exhibiting separation anxiety and panic now that the world is starting to open back up and humans are returning to school and work. Separation anxiety is a difficult behavioral issue to overcome. It is a long and arduous journey that can never be resolved without serious lifestyle accommodations.
Avoiding lifestyle changes and adaptations for your Pandemic Puppies needs to start now, ideally sooner, to prepare them to be happy, well-adjusted adult dogs. It is past time to make the effort to find ways to safely socialize our dogs. Invite guests to your home that look and act different from your family. Bring your dog to other dog friendly households (vaccinations and/or masks can make these safer options). Create play dates with stable, friendly dogs of varying sizes, ages, and breeds. Go on outings to open, pet friendly stores. Parks are great to practice obedience and focusing through distractions. Create puppy obstacle courses to expose your dog to weird surfaces and objects. Make sure your dog spends time alone and learns to self-soothe. Find a sport, job, or tricks training to do with your pup at home and in public to alleviate excess mental energy as well as build confidence for your nervous dog. It is imperative that we spend time daily working with these Pandemic Puppies to help them cope when the world opens back up.
If you brought a puppy or an adolescent dog into your home in the last two and half years, you need to be taking steps to socialize and build confidence away from the house and family. Bringing in a professional trainer to help safely and positively navigate the socialization of your dog is the best way to be successful. The longer humans wait to address problems, the more difficult the road and longer it takes to overcome behavioral issues. Remember you are training a puppy or adolescent to be a well-adjusted adult dog for the remainder of its life. Trainers will be dealing with the unique behavioral issues this worldwide pandemic created for the next ten plus years, which will change training styles for the foreseeable future. The Pandemic Puppies are still in a new horizon of information and studies; we have yet to see what these adult dogs may hold for us in training obstacles and the success rates of rehabilitation. Start your training and socialization today. Get out and train your dog!