These are unprecedented times, and every aspect of our lives has been affected.
While humans deal with their loss of freedom, financial stress, and health issues, our
companion animals feel these changes in different ways.
Our pets are happy to suddenly have their people around so much, but there are
challenges for them that need to be addressed. Your dog’s current age has an impact
on how these new isolation experiences will affect them.
Puppies under 16 weeks are in a highly sensitive social learning stage, during which
they learn critical skills and acceptance. While they will benefit from the extra
attention from family being home with them, this doesn’t necessarily translate to
Some skills, such as house-training, may be improved through this family
involvement. Other skills, such as acceptance of strangers, can become more of a
challenge. We saw this when parvovirus first hit back in the 1980s and puppies
were not being socialized at all. A year down the road, data showed that there was a
large spike in behavioural issues.
Creative solutions will need to be designed to help address the very real lack of new
interactions. It is recommended that pups meet and interact with 50 new people in
their first 16 weeks, in order to build a comfort level with a wide range of types.
After 16 weeks, pups are far less accepting of new people, so we’ve got to help them
now as much as possible. Walks in the neighborhood with your puppy on a 6- to 8-
foot leash can let them say hi while you both still keep the appropriate distance.
There is significant evidence that dogs often see men as being scarier than women,
and research suggests that the difference in a man’s stride may be a cause, while
their lower voices may also be perceived as more threatening. Whatever the reason,
it is a real factor and needs to be addressed accordingly. While out on a walk, ask a
man to stand sideways and toss your pup a treat, or ask them to crouch down and
allow your pup to approach them while ensuring your dog stays at least 2 metres
Kids also have a different way of moving that can be scary for pups, so going outside
to parks once they’re open again and staying at a good distance can help a lot.
Find safe opportunities where you can help your puppy observe a lot of different
types of people from a safe distance. If it is safe for you to do so, stationing yourself
in a parking lot of a grocery store or hardware store can provide some great
experiences, including rattling carts, sliding glass doors, and people moving toward
and away from you.
Trash day is an excellent opportunity to practise having your pup watch something
novel – from the safety of your front step! The trucks are loud and big; the people
wear bright vests and create a lot of commotion, picking up and throwing things.
Calmly watching with a loose leash and treats can help condition your puppy to this
experience. Start while the truck is a few doors away, as the noise is quite loud and
Learning bite inhibition – the proper use of pressure in contact with others – must
be learned before 16 weeks of age. While it is ideally taught from interactions with
other pups in play, it is still possible to build what is known as a soft mouth with just
human interaction. Work on creating a “gentle” or “soft” cue when engaging with
Teaching them the cue “gentle” when licking soft food from the palm of your hand is
a great place to start. Tug-of-war is a really excellent game, but at this stage, with no
other pups to interact with, I do recommend refraining from it until after 16 weeks
of age. For now, we want to teach puppies to engage with toys, hands, and other
You’ll have a lifetime to teach tug fun, but only up to 16 weeks to get a soft mouth!
Playing doorbell games is a great thing to practise with dogs of all ages! We want to
help them learn to not get overly excited every time they hear them, including on TV
shows! Start with a soft knock from a family member and then toss a treat toward
your dog’s bed to teach them to move away from the door. You can play this game
with a recorded round of doorbells, slowly increasing the volume, so that it stops
being such an exciting cue.
Once you are able to interact and be in public in a more normal manner, don’t rush
new experiences. Let your puppy choose their own pace when approaching a novel
thing and the distance to observe it from. Be aware that just because you know
something isn’t a threat doesn’t mean that it isn’t scary for them. Fear is an
emotional response, not a rational one, and the goal is to slowly change your dog’s
perspective about an experience.
You should pay careful attention to your puppy’s body language during any greeting
or new experience. If they are crouched down, have their tail down or tucked under,
have their head lowered, or are putting the brakes on before approaching, then you
need to stop! Giving your pup a chance to observe while remaining stationary will
often help them be willing to approach. If they continue to resist, move fully away
from the situation and note that you need to start from a greater distance next time!
Is your dog happy to have you home but bored? If you notice that they are getting
into trouble more often, it may be because they don’t have enough stimulation.
Being a couch potato may be nice for you, but most dogs need more to engage them.
Balance boards, kids’ tunnels, toddler play structures, balls in a plastic pool, and
jumping through hula hoops are all easy ways to keep dogs of any age engaged!
Some great owner-oriented games include hide-and-seek and recall games where
you call your dog back and forth between family members. Not only does this
increase their love of hearing the cue “come” by practising it in such a fun manner,
you’ll tire them out as well!
Teaching new tricks rather than obedience skills tends to keep things light and
happy. While a solid “stay” cue is highly desirable, a happy pop up in the air or fast
spin is so much more fun! Smiles for us, which trigger our endorphins, and physical
exercise and release for them. A true win-win!
Try to maintain a similar routine to when you are away at work, to avoid the stress
of a big change to the schedule. The departure-to-work time is often the most
stressful part of the day for dogs, so try to practise separating yourself from them
every day at the same time. Even just an hour or two alone each day will help to
keep your dog on a regular schedule. Do some yard work or take a walk on your
own, so that your dog isn’t becoming too dependent on having you in the home at all
times. Avoid allowing them to follow you everywhere in the home with the use of
gates or by closing doors.
When we do return to our regular schedules, it will likely result in an adjustment
period for everyone. We are likely to be more tired and have less time for our pets.
Ease your pets back into your usual schedule as the day of return to work
approaches by increasing their alone time.
Good luck, stay safe, and try to enjoy your time with your dog!