With so many people working from home during the pandemic, many of our furry friends have become accustomed to having us around all day, every day. When remote workers eventually return to offices, many of us will be faced with the task of figuring out how to re-socialize our dogs after the pandemic.
While it’s not necessarily easy to socialize a dog with anxiety, it is often doable. In an effort to help you and your hound ease your way into the new normal (whatever that means), we have compiled this list of dog socialization tips.
1. Start the Socialization Slow
With CDC guidelines loosening up as the latest COVID-19 wave subsides, we know how tempting it is to party at the dog park. But your dog may not be ready for that much stimulation after so much time without it.
Keep the chaos low by starting out slow. Schedule some one-on-one playdates with friends’ dogs, preferably ones your dog already knows and plays well with.
2. Lose the Leash During Playdates
During playdates, allow your dog to socialize off-leash in a safe, enclosed area. Dogs act differently on-leash than off-leash, so losing the leash will allow them to interact more naturally with others.
According to this wise advice from Fitdog: “Allowing your dog to have mini parties on the end of their leash will encourage naughty leash behavior. It will also inadvertently reward behaviors such as jumping up, pulling, barking at other dogs, etc.”
Continue maintaining social distance from other leashed dogs during walks so Fluffy learns to differentiate between leash-time and play-time.
3. Let Your Dog Make New (Human) Friends
Spending so much time together at home may have inadvertently convinced your dog that you and your family are the only trustworthy humans in existence. So, it’s important to introduce them to new human friends.
Make sure they meet women and men, children and adults, tall and short people, and people of different races. You can do this on daily walks by mixing up your route and taking walks at different times.
Another option is to hire a dog walker to take Rover on new daily adventures, or enlist a trusted pet sitter who can drop by to interact with your pup now and then.
4. Mask On; Mask Off
Studies show that dogs pay close attention to human faces and are rather adept at reading our facial expressions. When we wear masks, dogs have a harder time recognizing those social cues.
As the Omicron wave subsides across the US, mask recommendations are changing rapidly, and different communities are adopting different standards. You may find that your pup is confused by people in public wearing – or not wearing – masks.
This article from Rover offers some excellent tips for helping dogs adjust to unfamiliar faces – masked or not – by modeling calm confidence and rewarding them with high-value treats.
5. Take a Dog Socialization Class Together
Disappointed that your dog seems clueless about how to behave in public? You’re in good company. Humans are not born with dog training skills, so it’s a good idea to turn to the experts when your dog needs to learn some manners.
While you can learn a lot online about dog training (we listed some good options in a previous blog post), in-person classes offer the added benefit of socializing your dog in a controlled environment. The best dog socialization classes spend more time training you than your pet, giving you the foundation you need to continue teaching your dog new tricks long after the class ends.
6. Prepare for Separation Anxiety
After spending so much time at home, our dogs have become accustomed to having us around all the time. It’s only natural that they would feel anxious about their humans leaving them home alone for long stretches of time all of a sudden.
Your neighbors may be lovely people, but they will not enjoy a non-stop soundtrack of barking, whining, or howling whenever you leave the house. Furthermore, a distraught or bored dog may regress to bad habits you thought they’d outgrown. You may return home to mangled shoes, shredded furniture, scratched baseboards, and garbage strewn throughout the house.
If you hope to prevent these behaviors, your dog will need time and practice to adjust to its “new normal.” Experts recommend returning to a work-friendly feeding schedule before you return to the office.
They also suggest leaving your dog alone in the house for short stretches of 5 or 10 minutes to begin acclimating them, and working your way up to longer intervals. This helpful article further recommends that you “… provide plenty of enrichment before you leave the house: puzzles, Kongs, scent games. These activities really work a dog’s mind and tire them out, preventing boredom.”
7. Hire a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer
Despite implementing best practices for separation anxiety, you may find that your dog simply can’t cope with your absence.
If your best efforts are producing zero progress, it may be time to call in a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer. These experts have specific experience in reducing or resolving separation anxiety in dogs. They receive hundreds of hours of instruction over multiple weeks, via high-level coursework, exams, and intensive study. The treatment they offer is neither cheap nor fast, but it can be highly effective.
Options for pet owners range from online training programs, phone and Zoom sessions, to private coaching. You’ll likely be asked to fill out an intake form to begin the process, and to commit to a minimum number of sessions or a set time period. Google “certified separation anxiety trainer near me” to generate a list of local options.
8. Respect Your Dog’s Boundaries
Whether your dog needs help getting used to other dogs, new people and places, or spending time at home alone – the most important factor is to listen to your dog.
If your pup is acting out, it is trying to tell you that it is stressed out by its current situation. Your job is to figure out why and find the best solution to the problem.
Sometimes that solution is modeling confidence and rewarding good behavior. Sometimes it is additional training. And sometimes, the solution is to stop exposing your dog to a situation it simply cannot handle. You may want Fido to make new friends at the dog park, but Fido may have other ideas. Good pet parents learn to recognize and respect their dog’s boundaries.