Socialization in a Pandemic: Planning Ahead for Puppies

By Nichole Myers-Youngquist, CPDT-KA, WHS Behavior & Training Instructor

More of us are working from home during the pandemic, and we’re all looking for companionship. Did you tackle your sense of loneliness with a new puppy? Was it planned, or did you make an impulsive decision? Either way, you’ve made a lifetime commitment to socialization, enrichment, and training. My May and June blogs covered enrichment ideas, so this month, I’ll focus on creative socialization.


The phrase “social distancing” may seem negative, but to your puppy, it can mean the difference between being well-adjusted and friendly, or shy and fearful as an adult dog.

Socialization means gradually exposing your puppy to new people, animals, places, objects, and sensory stimuli. The key word is gradually. You want each experience to be enjoyable without overstimulation which can result in fear or avoidance. Safety is critical too.

Consider making a socialization list. Include as many things your puppy will encounter in her daily routine and in her lifetime.

Here are some safe, distant, and creative ideas to add your list.

Sensory: Smells, Sounds, Tactile, and Taste

During COVID-19, socializing your puppy can be challenging. Our health comes before visitors or going out and about. Staying inside, however, can lend itself to expanded “puppy time” opportunities.

Think about everything you do during your daily routine. Anything you use, eat, or wear (like electronics, appliances, blow dryers, shoes, pots, pans, paper, cell phones, candles) should be added to your socialization list. Socializing doesn’t just involve people and other animals. 

Have treats ready for any moments when your puppy interacts with or doesn’t run away from a stimulus. The more you reward those happy interactions, the more your puppy will have good associations with that stimulus. 


  • Start with brief and distant interactions. 
  • Gradually, increase the duration and decrease the distance each day. 
  • If your puppy avoids the item or sound, go back a step in distance and duration. 
  • Your puppy’s mood dictates how long the process will take.

Think Creatively

  • For cell phones, I play “The Kooky Lady” game. 
    • I walk around the house randomly saying, “Hello” in different intonations or play my ringtone. 
    • I toss treats to my dogs when they are relaxed and quiet. 
  • “The Baggy Cans” game combines all the senses.
    • Place one empty, clean, soda can in a paper bag with yummy treats.
    • Allow your puppy to happily root through the bag for the treats.
    • Add another can each day.

 People, Animals, and Places

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior believes that “it should be standard care for puppies to receive socialization before they are fully vaccinated.” In general, they say puppies can start group training classes “as early as 7-8 weeks old after a minimum of one set of vaccines at least seven days prior to the first class and a first deworming.” Our Best Beginnings puppy course follows their advice. We check all vaccine records before a puppy’s first class.

In this time of social distancing, how do you introduce your puppy to new people, places, and animals? The simple answer is outdoors, but, as I write this, the air is filled with the smoke and ash from devastating wildfires. How do we keep our puppies healthy when outdoors?

Think Creatively

Invite family or friends to bring their fully vaccinated, social dogs to your secured backyard for a play date. 


  • Introduce the dogs slowly, and use leashes. 
  • Give your puppy treats for not barking or avoiding the other dog. The same goes for the visiting dog. 
  • After both dogs are relaxed and wanting more interaction with each, allow them to play. 
  • A maximum of 25 pounds weight difference between the dogs is a good rule to follow when choosing playmates for your puppy. 
  • Pick up any eliminations promptly.
  • It’s always a good practice to clean all surfaces which may have been touched by humans or dogs.

If you would rather not have guests, set up virtual puppy play dates. 

  • You and your family can play and chat while the puppies see each other having fun. 
  • This organically lends itself to slow introductions and social distancing. 

Additional Notes

Are you thinking of taking your puppy to a dog park? Dog parks can be both beneficial and detrimental to your dog’s socialization process. According to the Humane Society of the United States dog parks are popular “thanks to responsible pet owners and community agencies and officials, who realize their important role in improving, not only the quality of life for dogs, but for us all.” 

On the other hand, the real problems, according to the Association for Professional Dog Trainers, are “both short and long-term behavioral issues.” Whatever you decide to do, wait until your puppy is fully vaccinated. In most cases, this is 16 weeks. 

If you take your puppy to a pet store or the veterinarian’s office, don’t allow her to walk on the floor or on the ground near the parking lot until fully vaccinated. You can carry her in a pet carrier, push her in a shopping cart or a pet stroller, or use a backpack for pups.


Yes, we have resumed in-person group classes! 

As I mentioned, Willamette Humane Society offers a puppy course, Best Beginnings. In this six-week course for puppies aged 8-16 weeks old, you will learn skills beyond basic obedience. Plus, you’ll be taught enrichment, management, and socialization to keep your puppy happy every day.

We also offer a course for puppies 4-9 months old, Tweens and Teens. In this four-week course, basic obedience behaviors are taught to help manage unwanted puppy problems like jumping up on people and pulling on the leash. 

Our instructors use rewards-based teaching methods to help you build a strong, trust-filled bond with your puppy.

To find out more about all of our courses and to enroll, visit our website.

Thank you for reading and, as always, practice patience.