How do we ‘Socialise’ our puppies whilst either in lock-down or social distancing?

Could we perhaps, by looking at things a bit differently, turn this situation into an advantage?

Two words: Habituate and Socialise

Habituate means ‘make or become accustomed or used to something’.

Socialise means ‘mixing sociably with others’.

They both take time and depend upon exposure.


Exposure involves being aware of the ‘thing’ at a distance or intensity, a ‘safe zone’ where the puppy can cope without being scared or over-excited. Where he can look at it, be aware of it and process it.

Exposure also involves counter-conditioning to anything that is causing her fear by immediately finding that ‘safe zone’ – and then pairing that ‘thing’ with something puppy loves, food or fun.

Puppy needs both socialisation and habituation from the very start, well before he’s ‘allowed out’ after his vaccinations. See this from Linda Michaels, Puppy Socialization and Vaccinations Belong Together. The fallout from leaving it to late is that he may enter a sensitive ‘fear period’ where any negative experience may even colour the rest of his life.


Habituating is about puppy generally getting used to everything in her new world, indoors and out. Everything is new. A falling leaf, a car horn, wheelie bins, scooters and traffic, the vacuum cleaner – and people, children, dogs…… The list is endless.

The important thing is not to overwhelm her, to take it one or two things at a time if possible.

Could social distancing actually have it’s plus side?

Social distancing may even be to puppy’s advantage because it may prevent her being flooded with too much too soon.

Ideas for habituating while social distancing or in lock-down: Gradually get him used, at an intensity or distance okay to him (his ‘safe zone’) to household items like vacuum or hairdryer. Watch out for any wariness about anything and immediately work on it, increasing distance and pairing with food or fun.

You can sit in the car and habituate him to traffic and outdoor sounds, bearing in mind all the times the rule about distance/intensity/adding something he loves rules.

There are some good tracks on Spotify that play different sounds and also YouTube, useful for getting the puppy used to the outside world.


We tend to associate ‘socialisation’ with meeting people and other dogs. The very worst thing people can do, even worse than no exposure at all, is to ‘flood’ the puppy with too much, too soon and too close. To scare her.

We get our new puppy home and invite all family and friends for a meet and greet. Poor puppy can’t cope and this could well cause trouble and lack of confidence later on.

Again, social distancing may even be of benefit!!

Ideas for socialising while social distancing: People-watch and dog-watch either from the car or well back behind a gate. Every time a dog or person is in view (or puppy becomes aware), feed him. Build up strong positive associations with people and other dogs.

It seems that while people are ‘staying at home’, the dog walks are much more crowded. There are countless stories of off-lead dogs. Virus apart, this is not a good environment for a young puppy, even if vaccinations are complete.

It takes just one unpleasant encounter to colour his life eventually causing reactivity to other dogs. No ‘socialising’ at all is less harmful as you can always carefully build up. Once damaged, the harm has to be undone first.

Exit procedure for puppy

Then, when the restrictions are lifted, you can gradually expand his/her world and get closer to people and dogs. Have your own puppy ‘exit strategy’.

You will now be an expert at introducing puppy to things gradually and making him feel good about them, so you will now know what to do!

When you are able again to have people to your home, ask them to come in quietly one at a time to start with, move slowly and sit down. Then let puppy decide. Postpone young excitable children till puppy can cope.

Working hard on socialising and habituating with its limitations during lock-down may actually be more beneficial to puppy than otherwise would have been the case  if you had waited for vaccinations to kick in at 12-14 weeks and then overdid it.


About Theo Stewart

I am a dog Behaviourist C.C.B (Certified Canine Behaviourist) INTODogs). I have helped over 3000 dog owners over eighteen years. In addition to online consultations all over the world, I cover Beds, Herts, Cambs and Bucks for home visits. A 'Victoria Stilwell' Positively Dog Trainer (VSPDT) and a full member of the IMDT. Graduate ISCP, International School for Canine Practitioners. My main site:
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2 Responses to How do we ‘Socialise’ our puppies whilst either in lock-down or social distancing?

  1. Hannah Miller says:

    Thank you for such a wonderful newsletter. I really agree with so many of your points Theo. It’s so interesting how each individual puppy/dog develops isn’t it. Time and space really are the way forward. I love observing their responses too . All my three are so different!
    I had the privilege of attending a two day workshop with Sheila Harper in 2017. It certainly shaped my way forward!
    Much love and regards


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