The COVID-19 pandemic limited pet owners’ ability to socialize puppies born between 2019 and 2021. This has led to an increase in dogs that display mild to severe levels of fear, reactivity, or aggression.
We know that puppies who have negative experiences or no exposure during the most sensitive period of development - before 14 weeks of age - are more likely to grow into adult dogs who perceive unfamiliar people, places, and things as scary or threatening.
Can They Be Socialized Now?
Unfortunately, once that window closes at around 14 weeks, puppies no longer generalize positive experiences as easily as when they were younger. Each new experience will be a single socialization program. For example, if your Pandemic Puppy learns to makes friends with one new person, that experience will only apply to that person. They will need to start over again with each new person. Same with new places and other dogs.
It's not hopeless! They may be able to generalize these positive experiences after dozens or even hundreds of meetings. However, if their experiences are mixed – both positive and negative – their progress will be minimal. When exposing a fearful dog to new people, places, or things, the quality of their experience is far more important than how many people, places, or things they are exposed to. This is where a certified behavior consultant can help you, to ensure your pup has positive experiences.
Will They Ever Be “Normal”?
Fear IS a normal behavior in all animals. Their fear keeps them safe. If you have never seen a bear before, it is better to automatically fear them than see them as a friend! Early socialization is what prevents dogs from fearing the things they are likely encounter in their everyday lives with humans.
While improvement can and will happen over time, the effects of under-socialization are lifelong. No trainer, method, training tool, supplement, or medication can cure behavior. These dogs will likely always need a higher level of support throughout their lives.
Some dogs may come to enjoy activities like neighborhood walks and entertaining visitors. Others may always require special accommodations for visitors, vet visits, and more.
Adopters should carefully consider how their lifestyle may be impacted if the dog's fear does not improve enough to enjoy outings and social activities.
Avoid These Approaches
While it isn’t possible to predict how much a dog will improve over time, we do know what actions will worsen these behaviors.
Immersion. Dogs don’t overcome their fears through exposure, alone. If you are afraid of snakes, you will not get used to them if you are tossed into a snake pit. Forced exposure or “immersion therapy” increases stress and is not socialization. If a dog is put in a high stress situation that they are unable to avoid or escape, their fear will intensify. Some dogs can escalate to aggressive behavior.
Punishment. Growling and barking are all normal forms of communication in dogs. They are not expressions of dominance or intent to bite. If a dog growls, they are experiencing a high level of stress and want to avoid or leave that situation. Punishment only adds more stress to a stressful situation.
Getting Help for Your Pandemic Puppy
Every dog is an individual, so while there are many dogs that fall under the "Pandemic Puppy" label, each dog will have their own challenges and support needs. For many of these dogs, there are two approaches that will be helpful:
Hire a Behavior Consultant. A certified behavior consultant will develop a training plan customized for you and your new dog, then coach you through the process. Avoid any trainer who recommends punishment/correction or immersion.
Medication. Modern behavior strategies include the use of anti-anxiety medications for additional support. These medications can increase a dog’s tolerance to stressful situations which speeds the behavior modification process.
“Natural” products sold online or at the pet store rarely provide relief. Speak with your veterinarian before giving your dog over-the-counter products that claim to solve behavior challenges.
Living With Special Needs Dogs
Pandemic Puppies are able to live happy, full lives – you may just need to adjust your expectations of what that life might look like. They may not enjoy walks in your neighborhood, but love a peaceful hike. Or they may be happiest staying home with you, cuddling on the couch, learning new tricks or playing scent games.
Serenity Canine has many options to help your Pandemic Puppy. Learn more.