Many people have taken the opportunity to adopt a puppy, as they now have the time to help a new dog settle into their forever home.
The 'critical socialisation period' for puppies is between approximately four and 16 weeks of age and a puppy's experiences during this time are essential for their learning and development, influencing and shaping their behaviour for the rest of their lives.
Socialising a puppy means exposing them to lots of different experiences in a safe and positive way, so they cope with different situations and know how to interact with and relate to other dogs, other animals and people.
The current COVID-19 situation has made socialising puppies more challenging but there are still many ways to achieve this.
Socialisation is not just introducing your puppy to people and other dogs. While this is important, there are many other experiences we can introduce puppies to that will give them the skills to cope with situations they will encounter during their lives, including different sights, objects, surfaces and sounds.
Everything new needs to be paired with something good (e.g. a delicious treat, a fun game and praise/petting) so the puppy forms positive associations with the experience.
Socialisation and training should only ever use reward-based methods, whereby the puppy is set up to succeed and is then rewarded for performing the 'good' behaviour known as positive reinforcement.
Getting out for a walk
If you can go out for walks, you can still take your puppy. You can do this by carrying your puppy if they have not been fully vaccinated, or by walking with them if they are fully vaccinated.
Get dressed up
Your puppy is likely to come across a range of different objects and sights in their lifetime, such as people who are wearing different clothes and doing different activities. You can get your puppy used to these things just by showing them lots of objects and by playing dress ups! Remember, always pair the new sight/object with a positive reward.
You can play act and simulate different situations, like a delivery person bringing a big box, packages or bags to your door; someone riding a bicycle; a person using a walking frame or walking stick; or a traveller with a big backpack or rolling a suitcase. Always give a treat and praise when your puppy behaves calmly and investigates a new object.
You can make an 'experience walk' in your backyard with a little bit of creativity, using wood blocks, concrete, tiles, ramps, stairs, grass, carpet and even expand it with other experiences like flapping flags, plastic bottles or bags waving in the wind.
Look for videos or soundtracks online of everyday sounds to play to your puppy; for example, sounds of appliances, cars, trains, whistles, barking dogs, motorbikes, birds, and many more. Just keep the volume low so you do not startle your puppy and reward them for calm behaviour.
Get your puppy comfortable with being handled through regular sessions of gentle touching of areas like their ears, feet, mouth, eye area and tail. This will help you with regularly checking your dog for issues like lumps or wounds, doing routine care, and also with future visits to and examinations by your puppy's veterinarian.
Take a short drive... away
You can get your puppy used to the car, even without going anywhere!
Teach your puppy to be comfortable getting in and out of the car, when you turn on the engine, and even do a few trips up and down your driveway to get them used to a bit of movement.
Toys for enrichment
Enrichment toys are a great way to keep your puppy entertained and to keep them mentally and physically stimulated; for example, treat dispensing toys or games that encourage a puppy to explore and be rewarded for self-initiated play.
Rotate the toys every day so your puppy doesn't get bored with them.
To find more tips on socialising your puppy or companion animals and COVID-19, please see the RSPCA Knowledgebase on the website at kb.rspca.org.au