The Effect of COVID-19 on Puppy Demand & Socialization
The high demand for puppies brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has yet to slow down. In many homes, owners have been inseparable from their dogs for months. Thus, it’s not surprising that there has been a counterpoint surge in owners seeking the professional services of dog trainers and veterinary behavior specialists to help them learn to train their dogs and to deal with problem behaviors.
Kari Holcomb, a breeder of Curly-Coated Retrievers in Johnson Creek, Wisconsin, receives numerous calls daily from people wanting a puppy. “Typically, people interested in a Curly pup have done a lot of legwork to find us and to determine that the breed is a good fit for their family,” she says. “There’s a real sense of impulse buying today.
“In our small breeding program, by the time someone gets a puppy, we’ve known them for about eight months. Importantly, we help them have the resources they need to be successful with their puppy. This means we guide them toward puppy classes and obedience training and are always available to take any questions they may have.”
Holcomb and her husband, Zach, breed Curlies under the Stoic prefix focusing on producing dogs that are competitive at dog shows and successful in hunting tests. They also run a training program, Stoic Gundogs, in which they train upland bird dogs and retrievers. “We are booked out for months,” Holcomb says, “and not just for traditional gundog training.”
Early in 2021, the Holcombs noticed some of their new charges that had arrived for training, young dogs around 1 ½ years of age, were undersocialized. “For these dogs, the first week in a kennel was really stressful. Some had never been in a crate and were used to eating on their own schedule,” she says.
They also experienced a novel onslaught of requests from new dog owners for housetraining of 8- to 10-week-old puppies. “We usually never take dogs under 6 months of age, and housetraining puppies is not among the services we typically offer,” Holcomb says. “People were calling who had no interest in housetraining their puppies or teaching them basics like how to walk on a leash or good manners. I worked with a few of these puppies on a one-by-one basis in our home. COVID set the stage, but ultimately, some of these new dog owners were not prepared for having a pet.”
The lack of puppy socialization opportunities when the pandemic began snuck up on even experienced dog breeders and owners. Heidi Hartman of Harbor Run Retrievers in Lawtons, New York, bred and raised three litters right before and during the early months of the pandemic. She kept two Labrador Retriever females with the intent of finishing their show champion titles and eventually breeding them.
“As breeders, we know there is a critical socialization period to introduce puppies to a myriad of new experiences,” Hartman says. “When this should have happened with my puppies, I was focused on keeping us healthy. As a result, these dogs don’t have the confidence they should have. To get them over this, I am starting slowly with classes in agility and trick dog to help build their confidence.”
The first crucial window for puppy socialization falls between 8 and 11 weeks of age, when pups are prone to developing fears related to novel environments, novel experiences and new people if they are not exposed. The greater the variety of social exposure a puppy receives during this time —assuming the dog is enjoying it and not scared — the more likely the puppy is to develop social flexibility, emotional stability and trainability skills. Positive development opportunities are important for puppies through 16 weeks of age and then throughout life. Social exposure reduces the number of things in the world that frighten a puppy by continually providing the experience of first being a bit unsure and then recovering and discovering how to explore novel experiences successfully.
Not surprisingly, COVID-19 is being blamed for missed social opportunities and subsequent behavioral problems in dogs. “There are risks to having less exposure to the outside world, but it’s a mistake to attribute all bad behavior to this,” says Karen L. Overall, VMD, PhD, DACVB, professor of veterinary behavior at the Atlantic Veterinary School of the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada. “I fear that every young dog with a behavior problem will be blamed on COVID-19 isolation.”
Dog behavior is a combination of genetics, experiences and environment. “When dogs are born, they have a set of genes that determine what can happen, not what will happen,” Dr. Overall says. “Genetics need to be considered, too. There are too many variables to blame bad dog behavior in dogs solely on lockdown-related isolation.”
A positive example is Dr. Overall’s now 1 ½-year-old Australian Shepherd, “Annie,” who was raised during the pandemic. “Annie spent one week out in the world with me going to the vet school before lockdown,” she says. “We took her on some car rides, but she did not go to parks, markets, city streets, or meet very many people, except our neighbors, or other dogs. But despite that relative lack of socialization, she is social, sweet, kind, and smart. She’s great with other dogs, people and new places.”
Holcomb and Hartman agree on the importance of starting early to socialize puppies. “Although we couldn’t get out as we usually do during the pandemic, I made time for my puppies to sit in a park with our other dogs,” Holcomb says. “They learned to go in a crate and the X-pen. We even slept overnight in our camper as we would if traveling to an event. I took them everywhere I could.”
Hartman, who is catching up with her Labrador Retriever females who are now 18 months and 24 months of age, says, “We are making great progress starting with companion sports rather than conformation. Because we were behind, it forced me to think differently about how to build confidence in these dogs. Reversing fears is an ongoing process, but we are getting there.”
Tips on Ways to Help Reduce Anxiety in Dogs
- Schedule a veterinary examination to check for conditions that could cause stress and to discuss your dog’s physical and behavioral health
- Practice a predictable, consistent schedule with set times for eating, exercise and play
- Prepare for changes in routine such as going back to work by gradually increasing time spent in a crate or alone to minimize anxiety and smooth the transition; note that not every dog should be or needs to be in a crate, though it is important that the dog is comfortable in your absence
- Slowly expose your dog to new situations, people and dogs, giving plenty
- of praise and rewards for good behavior, including opportunities to reward spontaneous good behavior such as when a dog is sleeping
- If you recognize your dog may have a behavioral problem, seek help right away from a board-certified specialist in behavior medicine who is trained to address the problem and prescribe medications as needed