Socialising a pup with Social Distancing?

I have a litter on the ground at the moment, so this article will be helpful to those puppy owners in a few short weeks, but the idea came from a client and now mate of mine Damian.

Damian has a Malinois that he brought to see me and has done an incredible job, so thanks to him for suggesting the topic for this article.

There isn’t a person in the world that is unaffected by the COVID- 19 Pandemic, but we all have to keep moving forward and that means that you need to socialise your puppy or you will be looking for help with behaviour problems in adolescence.

What is socialisation exactly?

Well I actually wrote an article back in 2010, yes 9 years ago on this very topic (here

But in short, there is a lot of confusion about how to effectively socialise your puppy so that the puppy develops confidence without fear, aggression or becoming over stimulated by other people, dogs’ cats etc.

Some advice even goes as far wrong as “your puppy needs to meet 500 people and 500 dogs in the first 3 months of life”.

This is not at all true, blanket statements like these do not guarantee any outcome at all, it is not at all about how many dogs or people, it is about quality over quantity.

Below is a video of one of our Labrador pups. The dog isn’t doing anything special really, but most importantly he is not doing the wrong thing.

He is not stimulated by people or other dogs, so this makes simple obedience training much easier.

Understanding Social Values

A puppy that arrives at our facility and confidently runs up to me searching for attention is likely a puppy I will not pet or reward in any way.

This puppy is already motivated to find high levels of reward in strangers and reinforcing this will not help at all, in fact it will usually mean that the puppy will grow into a dog that jumps on people and pushes for attention.

A puppy that comes in and is frightened, hesitant to meet me or other strangers etc will get a lot of attention and reassurance.

Now the above examples are two pups at the more extreme ends of the social value scale, but you can see the goal is to get both pups to be confident and calm around people, rather than stimulated in a rewarding or frightening way.

The below scale I have designed helps us with a metric we can use to assess and measure social values.

Socialising a pup

If we have the confident puppy, the last thing you need to do is meet 500 people that will fawn all over your puppy and reward high levels of energy with high levels of energy.

You will create a problem.

I would walk this puppy past people, train him or her around people, 1.5 meters plus away, and meet very few of them.

What I don’t want or need, is people rushing over to my puppy because they “must” touch it.

So COVID-19 may be helpful for you and this pup!

In fact you will see many pups in our system wearing harnesses and patches that ask people not to pet.

Socialising a pup
We do not what people to pet or dogs at times.

If you have the sensitive or nervous puppy, you will want to start by working around people and dogs until there is no noticeable concerns.

At this point in time, it would be helpful if your pup DOES meet and perhaps IS rewarded by strangers, but again, if the ground work has been good, you may only need to meet 5 strangers between 8 weeks of age and 15 weeks of age.

If when meeting these people your puppy is confident and does not show hesitation or excessive submission, then he or she will likely be ok.

What about meeting other dogs?

Dogs are the same, your puppy does not need to, and should not go to dog parks. Dog parks are very often populated by dogs seeking to play with other dogs at any cost.

I rarely see dogs in dog parks with reliable recalls, I rarely see dogs in dog parks with calm greeting skills and ramp up into play at a comfortable pace for the other dog.

I have never taken any of my dogs to dog parks and I recommend people avoid them like the COVID-19 virus.

If you bring your puppy to meet another dog, make sure the other dog is calm and not out to teach your puppy to be submissive or playful.

During the first meeting, you need to conduct an assessment to see how your puppy feels about the other dog. The same values apply as people.

We are not looking for crazy energy and play, or fear and submission.

Some people feel that crazy play at least will stop their dog from becoming aggressive. This is not true at all.

Many dogs develop Predatory aggression and frustration driven aggression because they were allowed to play with other dogs as their primary source of energy release, and at some point the owner has had to drag them away with a leash, causing extreme frustration, aggression is produced or “shaped” this way.

Socialising a pup
Predatory or frustrated related aggression

So that’s it!?

Nope, not even close, socialising your dog is not just about how your dog values people and dogs, this in fact may be the most important part to you but there are very many other elements that I see that cause major issues in dogs, and they should have been taken care of during the early socialisation months.

Dogs and people may form as much as 10% of your dog’s much needed education, so don’t forget about the remaining 90%.

Socialising a pup
Whilst dogs and people are important, they are not the only elements

Environmental Sensitivity

This has long been a big focus for working dog people / departments. In fact, socialisation with dogs is often not a priority at all, but making sure the dog is not sensitive to slippery floors, heights, stairs, car travel etc may be deal breakers if not done correctly when young.

Dogs need to be neutralised to surface textures, slippery, cold, warm, wet, noisy or unstable surfaces so that they do not restrict the dog’s behaviour through lack of confidence.

Social distancing has no effect on these elements at all, you can set up something simple even at home.

Crushed cardboard boxes with food hidden in them is very easy to do and very effective. Add some bubble wrap and it’s a popping party.

A few empty milk cartons with rocks in them, lids glued on are safe noise makers too. Tie one to your belt whilst you play with your puppy.

A plank of wood with pivot makes a great see saw too. Don’t forget stairs, ramps, getting in and out of the car.

Some dogs will get motion sickness in a car, if your puppy drools excessively, vomits or has loose stools during or after getting in a moving car, it can be worthwhile to do some place training in the car, without the car going anywhere.

Some puppies will do much better if you rub a little crushed ginger into their gums 10 – 15 minutes before travel.

Socialising a pup
Cardboard box can provide environmental challenge

Sounds and sound proofing

Many dogs are startled or stimulated by noise, this may cause them to bark, become aggressive or run away.

Exposing your dog to sounds when young, can allow you to set the value of these sounds to “normal” or “unimportant”.

If we miss this element, and we have a storm raging when the puppy is in a fear period, your likely to end up with a dog that is storm phobic or at least nervous or fearful of storms.

You could end up with a dog that barks every time the neighbour walks into their back yard.

Download some sounds on your phone and play them whilst your pup is eating, there is a great app you can get called Sound Proof Puppy, by an Australian lady that I highly recommend.

Other dogs

Some people have a dog at home and get a puppy and the puppy lives with the existing dog, this does not allow your dog to rehearse forming relationships with other dogs.

There are some things your existing dog can teach your puppy but forming a number of new relationships is not one of them.

This only happens once with your existing dog.

EFFECTIVE Socialisation

In the last few years, trainers have started telling their clients that the first number of weeks you get the puppy is the most important time to socialise.

I agree and I want to make clear what I mean.

Firstly, when you get a puppy at 8 weeks, you need to get this puppy into social settings and environments right away.

Yes, there is a concern that the puppy “might” get sick but there is a bigger concern and reality that your puppy will miss a very important social period of their life.

Whilst I will not have my 8-week-old puppy licking the vet room floor, I will take him or her to shopping centres, my work, friends’ homes etc in this period.

The advice to keep your pup at home until he or she has had 16-week vaccinations is not consistent with effective socialisation practice.

Socialising a pup

How is all this done with social distancing?

It may have more to do with the type of dog that you have. If you have a nervous or sensitive dog or a breed that can easily display aggression, these dogs will need more exposure and more monitoring.

For example, I breed two breeds of dogs, Working Line Malinois and Working Labrador Retrievers.

The Malinois will benefit from extensive socialisation, daily exposure is a must. If this is not done and done well, they can become overly protective of their owners and show unwanted aggression to everyone outside the family.

Our Labradors are very different, whilst they will benefit from lots of exposure, they will often manage with a few of outings a week.

So, you need to first remember that:

  • There are many elements of socialisation, not just people and dogs
  • Interaction works better with quality than quantity.
  • You might be better off social distancing your puppy than over stimulating him or her with people, and dogs.
  • Many things you can do don’t involve people or dogs at all.
  • More important is to assess and understand how your puppy views other animals, people, environments and sounds, rather than just ploughing through exercises, ticking boxes.
  • Reinforcing ideal values

People have come to believe that if you give a dog a piece of food when he or she is doing something, this is positive reinforcement. This is one reason why so few people have good control of their dogs.

Giving food to a dog is called “feeding”.

To reinforce a behaviour with food a sequence needs to take place, a hurdle overcome, and choice made.

Socialising a pup

Learning how to create and strengthen these behaviours in dogs can be slightly complicated, so if you get a puppy, invest in some training with a trainer that has demonstrated that they understand this work.

I have done a number of phone consults on these topics in last couple of weeks and Bec here has done dozens with amazing results.

Our education is to put you in a place of understanding how you need to interact with your pup to create the values.

Exploration with Social Distancing

Add a lightweight long line to your pups’ harness, head out to a river, bush track or park and let puppy explore on his or her own, a few meters from you.

If your puppy is hesitant to explore, sprinkle some food in the area so the puppy can find food, make sure the area is not full of Fox bait of course.

You may need to be inventive at this time of restriction but believe me it can be done.

Focus on what your pup needs rather than tick off things on lists that may or may not have any benefit to your puppy.


Socialising a pup
Long line is a must

I had a friend ask me recently for a list of equipment I would recommend for his new puppy, we often put together packs for people with puppies which includes equipment that suits the goals they have a for their  puppy.

In this situation we are in, at a minimum this is the equipment that we feel is a MUST for all puppies going through socialisation.


This is important so that we can manage the puppy on leash without teaching the dog to pull on the leash and collar.

Depending on your goals for the pup, you may not need a harness after this one.

Budget Harness (

Quality Harness (


Of course your dog will grow out of this collar, but we would use this collar from about 10 weeks on to teach loose leash walking. We recommend a martingale collar, which is great value and safe (eg wont slip over dogs head).

Budget (

Long Line

It is important to use the light weight long line so that your pup does not have to try hard to drag the line through the grass. This allows the pup off leash and you remain close enough (10 m) to ensure no harm occurs.

Light weight (


Again depending on your end goals you may end up with a number of leashes, but these leashes are a great puppy leash and good value also.

Water proof and strong (

Treat pouch

It is vital to be able to motivate and reinforce your puppy through socialisation stages, having an effective way to carry food rewards for your pup makes this much easier.

K9Pro pouch (

These are not all you need for a puppy but I would find it difficult to effectively socialise a puppy with less than this pack.

To help any new puppy owners, if you buy one of each of the above products and use this code (PPack10), we will discount by 10%.

Love to hear your thoughts and feel free to share.

About SteveK9Pro

Steve Courtney is a Nationally Accredited Canine Behaviour Specialist, Obedience Trainer, Law Enforcement Dog Trainer and ANKC Breeder. Steve has been training dogs all his life and in these articles he shares with you his experience...

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  1. Great education about socialising dogs, with or without COVID19 isolation. Another need for socialisation may be where adult working dogs that started in one environment
    are rehomed to a totally different type of home. Eg farm dogs rehomed as a pet to suburbia and living inside with humans, not outside.

  2. Hi Steve. Really good advice. Just what I do as a breeder. I think I met you many years ago doing obedience with Kath and Les Spicer? Maybe I’m wrong but these people taught me a lot. I have Ridgeback’s still. Thanks for your blog

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