Auburn University Veterinary Professor: Adopted ‘Pandemic Puppies’ Face Behavioral and Socialization Problems


At first glance, Gabby appears to be a perfectly normal adolescent dog – a healthy, happy, and rambunctious mixed-breed puppy who will soon be one year old. She is just one of an avalanche of around 3 million new American pets purchased or adopted to brighten the lives of their owners during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is only when she is approached by a stranger – or a strange dog – or exposed to a new and unfamiliar environment that it becomes clear that Gabby is not as carefree as she seems. She often reacts with fear or uncertainty when meeting new people or other dogs. She is close to panic in the face of a new environment or an unfamiliar situation. Even taking her to the vet is more difficult and stressful than usual for her and her owners.

But Gabby is certainly not unique or even unusual. Instead, she is one of an unknown number of dogs who are now, and forever will be, products of the pandemic. While they were in the critical training weeks of early life, particularly in 2020, the behavior and socialization of this “P generation” of dogs were affected to varying degrees by their lack of contact and lack of contact. normal experiences during the long months of quarantine isolation.

“The first three months of a puppy’s life are extremely important for its social development,” said Dr. Christopher Lea, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Auburn University. “Primary socialization occurs during the first three to six weeks with a puppy’s litter mates. Then there is a period of secondary development of six to 12 weeks. This is when a puppy learns to interact with humans.

Many puppies adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic face behavioral and socialization challenges. (contributed)

Cat Clutton, certified dog trainer and founder of ReKalibratedK9 dog training services at Opelika, said this early three-month period is critical to a dog’s behavioral patterns throughout its life.

“Put simply, dogs who are not properly exposed to a variety of people, objects, sights, sounds, smells and environments during this time may still be afraid of some of these. same things, ”Clutton said.

Many “Generation P” puppies have had little, if any, of the experiences and contacts described by Lea and Clutton. Instead, their first few months were largely spent in the company of their owners and possibly with older dogs in their households. To make matters worse, a larger than usual number of pandemic dog adoptions were for new owners more likely to make novice mistakes with socializing puppies, even in a normal environment. This produced a perfect storm of bad circumstances at a critical time in these dogs’ developmental stage.

Even with experienced owners acting responsibly during pandemic isolation – avoiding crowds, gatherings, and outings at dog parks, while generally being as anti-social as possible – many of their dogs have also become antisocial. And just as some humans experience anxiety during the transition to a certain degree of normalcy, many of these puppies, who are now adolescent dogs, have anxiety issues themselves.

Dr Christopher Lea, clinical assistant professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Auburn University, explains that a puppy’s primary socialization occurs during the first three to six weeks with litter mates, followed by a period of secondary development of six to 12 weeks as the puppy learns to interact. with humans. (Auburn University)

The biggest problem reported by trainers and vets so far is due to separation anxiety. As the COVID-19 situation improves, dog owners who have been confined to their homes for months are returning to work and school. Suddenly, dogs who have had constant human companionship throughout their young lives are bored and left alone for much of the day.

“This is a big deal because most COVID-19 pets were happy to have their owners stay home all day,” Lea said. “Disrupting this pattern can trigger destructive behavior, and destructive behavior is a big reason people abandon their pets at animal shelters. “

Whether more dogs are given up for adoption depends on who you ask. The American Kennel Club estimates that 73% of new dog owners who adopted a puppy during the pandemic have at least considered finding them a new home or turning it into a shelter. A recent USA Today article noted that, so far in 2021, homeowner buyouts were up 82.6% from 2020. In contrast, those same numbers show a small percentage drop in home buybacks. compared to the pre-pandemic year 2019.

So, is there little to no hope for Generation P puppies? Are many of them doomed to have permanent behavior problems because of the wrong timing of their birth?

To help your dog adjust, try to schedule feeding, walks, and play at the same times each day on a schedule that will work whether you’re at home or at work. (deposit)

Clutton said the sooner owners realize their dogs need help and take action, the better the likely outcome.

” Do not wait. Waiting for behavior to become unmanageable doesn’t leave much flexibility for owners or coaches. We can always improve with behavior, but the more bad habits are in place, the harder it is to change them, ”Clutton said.

“Owners need to understand that their choice to adopt a puppy as a source of companionship and entertainment when stuck at home shouldn’t become the dog’s permanent problem,” Clutton added. “Learning to live with and manage your dog’s needs, whether you feel your puppy has been socialized as well as you like or not, is important. And if you don’t know how to do it, be sure to seek professional help.

Lea and Clutton are optimistic that most conscientious owners will be ready to provide their pets with the help they need. “Training is easier when a dog starts with good socialization, but I think most of the time any dog ​​can be trained appropriately with the right trainer and techniques,” Lea said. “Local clinicians and veterinarians can also help owners understand how to optimize their pet’s socialization. “

Tips for Owners of Pandemic Puppies

Establish a regular routine. Even if you still work from home, set a regular schedule for your dog’s daily activities. Try to schedule eating, walks, and play at the same times each day on a schedule that will work whether you’re at home or at work.

A crate can be great. If you haven’t already, start crate training to provide a safe option for leaving your dog alone for short periods of time. Never use a crate as a punishment. Instead, start by giving your dog meals, treats, and toys in the crate, always leaving the door open so the dog doesn’t feel confined. Soon the crate will become your dog’s safe place.

Don’t force the problem. Taking an adult dog that is scared or doesn’t know how to behave appropriately with other dogs and people and forcing them to interact without taking the appropriate action may make the problem worse. This also applies to the way dogs react to physical locations. “Flooding” a dog by forcing him into uncomfortable environments will not change his feelings about those spaces.

Look for vocational training. Dogs uncomfortable with unfamiliar surroundings, people, or other dogs after about 5 months of age need training plans that include counter-conditioning rather than just socialization or exposure. Counter-conditioning involves attempting to alter a dog’s emotional response to a trigger, making it a better choice for dogs who have already developed negative associations with certain experiences.

Ask if your veterinary clinic is a “fearless” practice. Today, many veterinarians are trained in “fearless” techniques when it comes to treating nervous animal patients. Dogs and cats can visit the veterinary clinic to explore the office, get treats from the staff, and generally get to know the people and place without the trauma of treatment.

This story was originally posted on the Auburn University website.

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