At first glance, Gabby seems like a perfectly normal growing dog – a healthy, happy, and wild mixed breed puppy who will soon be one year old. She is just one of an avalanche of approximately 3 million new US pets bought or adopted to improve 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 quite as carefree as she seems. She often reacts with fear or uncertainty when she meets new people or other dogs. She is close to panic when confronted with a new environment or an unfamiliar situation. Even visiting the vet is more difficult and stressful than usual for them and their owners.
But Gabby is certainly not unique or unusual. Instead, she is one of an unknown number of dogs that are now and forever products of the pandemic. While they were in the critical formative weeks of their early life, particularly in 2020, the behavior and socialization of this “Generation P” of dogs have been affected to varying degrees by the lack of normal contact and experience during the long months of quarantine isolation influenced.
“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, College of Veterinary Medicine at Auburn University. â€œPrimary socialization takes place with the littermates of a puppy during the first three to six weeks. Then there is a secondary development period of six to 12 weeks. Then a puppy learns to interact with people. “
Cat Clutton, a certified dog trainer and founder of ReKalibratedK9 Dog Training Services in Opelika, said this early three month period is critical to a dog’s behavior patterns.
“Put simply, dogs that are not properly exposed to a variety of people, objects, sights, sounds, smells, and environments during this time can always be terrified of some of these things,” Clutton said.
Many of the “Generation P” puppies had few, if any, of the experiences and contacts that Lea and Clutton describe. Instead, they spent most of their first few months in the company of their owners and perhaps with older dogs in their household. To make matters worse, a greater than usual number of pandemic dog adoptions for first time owners were more likely to make novice puppy socialization mistakes, even in a normal setting. This created a perfect storm of bad circumstances at a critical point in these dogs’ developmental stages.
Even if seasoned owners acted responsibly during pandemic isolation – they avoid crowds, gatherings, and trips to dog parks while generally being as anti-social as possible – many of their dogs have become anti-social as well. And just like some people are scared of transitioning back to a certain degree of normalcy, many of these puppies who are now canine teenagers have anxiety problems of their own.
The biggest problem both coaches and vets have reported so far is separation anxiety. As the COVID-19 situation improves, dog owners who have been home chained for months are returning to work and school. Suddenly, dogs that have had constant human company all their young lives are bored and alone for most of the day.
“This is a big problem as most COVID-19 pets were happy that their owners stayed home all day,” said Lea. “Breaking this pattern can trigger destructive behavior, and destructive behavior is a big reason people give their pets to shelters.”
Whether more dogs will be put up for adoption depends on who you ask. The American Kennel Club estimates that 73% of first-time dog owners who have adopted a puppy during the pandemic have at least thought of finding a new home for them or moving them to a shelter. A recent USA Today article found that owner buybacks were up 82.6% in 2021 from 2020. In contrast, the same numbers show a small percentage decrease in buybacks compared to the year before the 2019 pandemic.
So is there little or no hope for Generation P puppies? Are many of them destined to have permanent behavioral problems because of the unfortunate timing of their birth?
Clutton said the sooner owners realize their dogs need help and action, the better the likely outcome.
“Do not wait. Waiting for behavior to become uncontrollable doesn’t leave the owners or coaches with much flexibility. We can always make progress in behavior, but the longer bad habits persist, the harder it is to change, â€said Clutton.
“Owners need to realize that their decision to adopt a puppy for company and entertainment while stuck at home shouldn’t become a lifelong problem for the dog,” added Clutton. â€œLearning to live and work with your dog’s needs is important, whether or not you feel that your puppy has been socialized the way you would like them to be. And if you are not sure how to do this, be sure to seek professional help. “
Lea and Clutton are optimistic that most conscientious owners are willing to give their pets the help they need. “Training is easier when a dog starts with the right socialization, but I think that most of the time any dog â€‹â€‹can be properly trained with the right trainer and techniques,” said Lea. “On-site clinics and veterinarians can also help owners optimize their pet’s socialization.”
Tips for Pandemic Puppy Owners
Establish a regular routine. Even if you still work from home, set a regular schedule for your dog’s daily activities. Try to schedule feeding, walks, and play at the same time each day on a schedule that works whether you’re home or back at work.
A box can be great. If you haven’t already, start boxing training as a safe way to leave your dog alone for a short period of time. Never use a box as a punishment. Instead, start by giving your dogs meals, treats, and toys in the crate, and always keep the door open so the dog doesn’t feel cramped. Soon the box will become your dog’s safe place.
Don’t force the problem. Taking an adult dog who is anxious or unsure about how to behave appropriately with other dogs and people and forcing them to interact without taking the appropriate steps will likely make the problem much worse. This also applies to how dogs react to physical locations. “Flooding” a dog by forcing him into uncomfortable surroundings will not change his feelings about those spaces.
Looking for vocational training. Dogs that become uncomfortable with unfamiliar surroundings, people, or other dogs after around 5 months of age need training plans that include counter conditioning rather than just simple socialization or exposure. Counter-conditioning is an attempt to change a dog’s emotional response to a trigger to make it more suitable for dogs who have already developed negative associations with certain experiences.
Ask if your veterinary clinic is a “fear-free” practice. Many veterinarians today are trained in “fear-free” techniques in dealing with nervous animal patients. Dogs and cats can visit the veterinary clinic to explore the practice, get treats from the staff, and familiarize themselves with the people and the place without the trauma of the treatment.
This story originally appeared on the Auburn University website.