In spending so much time at home, many people have realized that there may never have been a better time to adopt a dog or cat.  Animal shelters are in desperate need of adopters and fosters. Now more than ever, social distancing alters shelter policy and affects the workforce that is necessary to care for animals on the adoption floor.  The humans are all home, either on leave or working from home. They have never been more available to care for a new furry family member. And to think, we all thought we would have to wait until retirement for an opportunity such as this!

Some Unique Challenges to Consider

There are however a few unique challenges that new adopters will encounter that may not be as obvious from the outset.  How does one go about socializing a new puppy, when social distancing is the norm? What about puppy class? How do you ensure that your new dog or cat isn’t afraid of new people when you can’t invite anyone over to your home?  And finally, what happens when you go back to work?

In an effort to prevent a future pet-pandemic of poorly socialized, maladjusted pets afflicted by separation anxiety, I have assembled a few thoughts to consider and recommendations with the following question in mind: Pet Socialization in the Age of Social Distancing: Is it Possible?

I won’t make you wait until the end of the article for the answer, because the answer is yes.  It just requires some background information, a plan and creativity.

What is Socialization?

Socialization does not mean your pet must interact with new people and pets directly.  It is the introduction of new situations in a positive way, while making them feel safe, and confident. The most important timeframe in which this occurs is between 7-16 weeks for puppies and kittens, however this can be applied to any age group.  You CAN in fact teach an old dog or cat new tricks.

Thinking Outside the Box of Traditional Socialization

You can’t go to puppy class, and you can’t go to your neighbour’s house for your new dog or cat to meet the kids.  Now what? Think about socialization in terms of experiences and use the following list to help guide your efforts, and pair each experience with positive reinforcement such as treats, praise and the use of toys.

  • Surfaces & Textures – have your new pet walk over a number of different surfaces and navigate obstacles such as linoleum, carpet, tin foil, the empty bathtub, towels, plastic bags, pillows, gravel, dirt, garden stepping stones, etc.  Hide treats amongst the items to encourage them to search out the treats, thus building confidence while exploring.

  • Sounds – use sounds, either recorded or in real time to acclimatize your new pet to sounds they may encounter in the outside world.  This may include a lawnmower, sirens, dishwasher, hairdryer, radio, different ringtones on your phone, etc.

  • Other people – make sure that other people in your household are spending equal time with your new addition.  At this time, your pet cannot interact with those outside of your household, however dogs can still observe new people from afar and receive praise for calm and confident behaviour.  Sit with your dog in a location where other people (and pets) may be visible, but are still at a safe distance to respect social distancing.

  • Play dress-up – I know it sounds silly, but getting your pet used to you and other people in the household wearing different clothing and accessories is very useful.  Some ideas include a winter coat, bathrobe, hats, or an old Halloween costume. Try using a cane or a walker, or emulate a delivery person by holding a pizza box at the front door.   Ring the doorbell and enter the house as a “guest” while you continue to ensure a positive and calming experience.

  • Scents – the nose knows, so make sure it knows as much as possible!  Expose your pet to new scents and encourage nose work games with your dog.  Scatter treats around the yard and encourage them to find them. Buy a snuffle mat for feeding and special treats.

  • Go for a drive – field trips are a great way to help prevent travel anxiety.  Start slow and go for short trips, eventually leading up to longer car rides.

  • Wear your mask – remember those masks everyone is wearing?  They can look pretty intimidating to your pets (new and old), so be sure to wear your mask around the house while giving treats and praise.

The Importance of Alone Time

One day, our schedules will normalize and you will find yourself back to a regular routine.  This may include long days at work or at school. This is why it is so important for your pet to learn to enjoy their alone time. Scheduled alone time, whether you are home or not, is important for your pet in preventing the development of separation anxiety.  Crate training naturally falls into this category, however confinement to a small room, alone with a bed and toys, is an important tool in training your pet to be confident on their own.

At the Height of #StayHome Culture, is Adopting a Pet the Right Thing to Do?

If you have checked every box on your mental list titled “Am I ready to adopt a pet?”, then the answer is yes. Don’t let the pandemic get in your way of opening your heart and home to an animal in need. Unusual times call for creative problem solving, and socialization in the age of social distancing is one of those conundrums.  But there are many solutions. Most, if not all, of our local shelters are still fully operational. They have developed protocols such as appointment-only adoptions and meet and greets. The Winnipeg Humane Society and Animal Services are keeping their workforce safe with social distancing procedures, appointment-only service and by increasing their visibility online to potential adopters.  And for this reason, and every other reason I have always encouraged local pet adoption, please consider adopting a pet if the time is truly right for you.

Written by Dr. Samyra Stuart-Altman
Learn more about Dr. Samyra Stuart-Altman here.