Help! I have to self-isolate, but I need to socialize my puppy! (a.k.a. Puppy Socialization in the Time of COVID-19)

Congratulations, sort of!  You just got a new puppy! But now COVID is all anyone can think about and you’re being told to self-isolate.  You have only a short time to socialize your puppy*, but you’re not allowed within six feet of anyone else. What now?

NOTE: Make sure your puppy stays safe and healthy as you expose him or her to new things! Ask your veterinarian if it’s safe to let your puppy walk around outside. If your puppy needs more vaccinations before exploring the world on his or her own four paws, you can carry your puppy in your arms so your puppy can experience the world without the risk of disease.

*Some sources say a puppy’s optimum socialization window only lasts until the puppy is 12 weeks old.  Others say 16 weeks. Either way, that’s pretty young! The good news is that socialization can and should still happen even after the optimum socialization window has closed.

Puppy socialization isn’t necessarily what you think

When people hear they need to socialize their puppy, they think about introducing the puppy to as many different sights, sounds, people, and animals as possible.  And it’s true that those things are important—but not necessarily in the way you imagine.

Put it this way: Would you teach your child to hug strangers?

Socializing a puppy isn’t that different from socializing a toddler.  We want our children to be OK with new people and animals. We’d also like them to be comfortable around inanimate objects like ceiling fans.  So, we teach them to go up and hug strangers, and lift them up to touch ceiling fans, right?  

I don’t know how your parents did things, but that wasn’t how I was taught.  In fact, I was taught never to approach strangers without permission—and I’m pretty sure my father never lifted me up so I could see what the ceiling fan felt like while it was turned on (I think I’d remember that).  So why do we feel the need to teach puppies to go up and greet every strange person or dog they see?

Interaction not required 

Just like a child, a puppy can learn a lot about the world by just seeing it, noting it, and moving on.  

Dog in the distance?


Did anything bad happen?  No.

Did anything super-exciting happen?  No. (more on this soon.)

Ok, we can move on.


Person in the distance?


Did anything bad or super-exciting happen?  No.

Let’s move on.


Truck in the distance?

Check… you get the idea.


Your puppy is seeing things and learning that he can move on to the next thing now, and that everything is OK.  If he seems scared, you can even give him a treat for noticing that truck, but then move on. There is no need for your puppy to go investigate every single thing he sees.  And whatever you do, don’t drag your puppy toward something he’s acting nervous about—no amount of treats will help if you force him to get closer to the scary monster.

Picture a busy city sidewalk—before self-isolation, that is.

Imagine you’re walking down Fifth Avenue in New York City (in May 2019, before this all started).  It’s a beautiful spring day and there are literally thousands of people out and about. You’ve been taught to go greet strangers, so you hug, shake hands with, or at least say hi to every person you pass.  

Even without the COVID-19 situation, I imagine most people on the sidewalk would find that strange, and some of them might even push you away.  Yet this is what we teach our puppies. See a person? Go say hi and get petting and treats! See a dog? Go say hi and have some fun play!  

We super-charge people and dogs and make them REALLY interesting and exciting.  But then, when the puppy gets a little older, the rules change. Stay calm. Walk by my side.  We’re on a walk here! We’ve gone from “shake hands with everyone on Fifth Avenue” to “walk by without acknowledging the person” with no in-between. 

What do you really want your puppy to learn?

I don’t know about you, but I’d like an adult dog who calmly walks by strangers and other dogs, greets visitors to my home in a polite way, and is relaxed in a wide variety of situations.  To achieve that goal, I’m going to let my puppy see a variety of things… and then move on. My puppy doesn’t have to play with every dog he sees to be comfortable with dogs. He doesn’t have to have a lovefest of attention from every stranger he meets to be OK with strangers.  And he doesn’t have to go touch a moving ceiling fan to be comfortable in a room with a ceiling fan.

Don’t worry! You and your puppy will do great!

COVID-19 is here. Everybody is self-isolating, which means people can’t come up and greet your adorable puppy.  They’re also not going to let their dog walk up to your puppy. And they will probably move away if you try to walk your puppy up to them.  

This is great!  Our puppies are learning a good habit—see people, dogs, etc., and keep moving.  And they’ll probably stay calm about people and other dogs as they grow up, rather than being magnetized to every new person or dog they see.  In other words, the current situation is creating what is arguably a better socialization environment for your puppy.  I bet you didn’t expect that, eh? So, let’s celebrate the one good thing about the COVID-19 situation by raising a great generation of dogs!

P.S. While you are self-isolating, don’t forget to also let your puppy experience as many different sights, surfaces, and sounds as possible.  Go for a walk on gravel, grass, and sidewalk (if your veterinarian approves—see note above). Hang out near the front window as a trash truck goes by. Play YouTube videos of fireworks. You get the idea, right?


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