How often should I take my puppy to the Dog Park to Socialize him? Worried that since no one is visiting he will not be socialized during COVID.
My first response is NEVER!
But let’s look at this a bit closer and try to understand what the goal of socializing a puppy is and how it can be done in these challenging social distance times and really any time.
First Socialization is a long ongoing process that begins within the litter when the adult dog teaches the puppies how to behave with each other and most importantly with her.The puppies learn to recognize each other, to wait sometimes for attention, to take turns sometimes and to be respectful of older dogs. The Mom will promote paying attention, being gentle, managing bite response and going with the flow of the group
The puppies learn to play with each other and with themselves. They learn their muscles and how to stretch and exercise as part of play. Watching a group of puppies play may look random at first but there are rules of engagement and over time everyone figures out how not to get hurt!
As puppies grow and develop, they begin to engage more and more with people and it is this interaction that the next level of socializing is intended to promote and secure.
Your puppy should have been exposed to many different sounds, textures, situations and levels of stress before coming home with you. These were intended to help build confidence, avoid fears and generally get your puppy ready to be a part of a human home with people, other pets and varied situations both indoors and out. Socializing continues this effort of making your dog into a good companion for you and to having the puppy be happy, well adjusted, confident and a joy to live with.
The training/socializing in the next 3-6 months of coming home are key to having your puppy and you forge a lasting bond built on respect, training, love and hard work. Your puppy needs to trust that you are the safe source of all things, from food to new activities to challenges to fun. Everything that you do should reinforce you as the safety net for your puppy. The puppy should feel confident that if you say go it is ok. If you say stop, they should listen and stop. If you take them into a new place that it is ok to be there and nothing bad is going to happen. When you walk your dog in a new place or go further in your neighborhood the puppy should understand that the sidewalk is a good place to be and that the other dogs, cats, people etc. you may encounter are not a threat. Or if they are a threat that you are there to manage the situation and make sure that is safe for them.
None of this can be assured at a dog park! A dog park is by its nature a non-safe place. You have no influence and no control over not only your dog but any others that are there or who come there. Running out of control with other dogs is not socializing it is often terrorizing and creates a pattern of fear and anxiety in most dogs. Using an enclosed dog run at a park for exercise and play with just your dog is fine but setting your dog up for potential disaster in an unregulated group is not.
Your puppy can experience may new situations even with Social Distancing that will help to build confidence and encourage a lifetime of doing well with people and other animals. Finding one or two friendly well trained dogs who you can interact with at a distance is a good start. Learning to walk near and sit near and settle when near another dog is a critical skill and best done with social distance.
Family can take on the roles of visitors to teach being calm when the doorbell rings and a visitor arrives. Getting everyone onboard to having a peaceful interaction at the door is a great thing! Kids can be distractions on a walk near home, skate boarding near by, riding their bikes in front of the puppy etc. can all help to expose him to new experiences and challenges.
A little creativity and the occasional walk through Home Depot, the Pet store or Park will be so much better than running loose in a Dog Park. Remember your puppy will love you best when you are the source of all good for him.