Getting a new puppy might sound like a great idea. But a puppy can suck everything out of you — they are adorable but exhausting.
We are wiped out after a 30-minute puppy appointment, trying to hold it still to feel the hips, trying to look at its very sharp teeth, and somehow listening to the heartbeat. What with chewing, wiggling, zooming, trash can exploring, and pen eating, puppies typically give us no peace until we whip out the peanut-butter-covered LickiMat.
You need them to sleep, so tiring them out by having them play with other dogs has always been part of training them. In fact, socializing with other creatures, including people, is essential to raising a healthy animal.
For dogs, the best age for them to form relationships and attachments is 3 to 14 weeks. If you expose puppies to new places, sounds, floor textures, carriers, grooming procedures, and people, they are less likely to be fearful of or aggressive toward new places or people later on.
Ideally, you would bring your puppy to a new environment once a week to meet 5 to 10 new people and 2 or 3 new dogs, keeping it unthreatening, paying attention to body language, and stopping if you see subtle signals of fear or anxiety.
For cats, the ideal age for socialization is 3 to 9 weeks, when we focus on sounds, carriers, new places, and grooming.
Socializing a puppy during a time of social distancing requires creativity. In your own home, you can play outdoor sounds such as traffic, skateboards, and kids playing, starting softly. Turn the vacuum on and, if the puppy tolerates it, work up to moving it around. Move the furniture around when the pup is asleep, encouraging her to explore the new environment when she wakes up. Acclimate dogs to different surfaces like carpet, tile, cement, and stairs.
Walk outdoors with a six-foot leash and carry a second one. If you meet a new person or friendly, healthy dog, temporarily extend the distance with the second leash to allow the puppy some freedom while keeping yourself safe.
Please, no retractable leashes. They are useless for teaching good behavior and frequently lead to both canine and human injuries (dog fights, broken ankles, lost fingers).
It would be good to have a friend in your pod with a healthy, vaccinated dog who loves puppies. If the only dog in your pod is a bossy dachshund, try to find positive-reinforcement or reward-based training.
Raising a puppy is complicated but not impossible, and many animals’ good behavior genes will compensate for limited socialization. But before acquiring a young dog, make sure you are comfortable with the exposure you are committing yourself to.
This is one of many reasons not to surprise anyone with a pet this Christmas — or ever. Other reasons: the expense, the time commitment over many years, the chances of making a poor match, unexpected allergies, and the need for proximity to people during a pandemic. Just give the kid a nice itchy scarf.
Sadie Hutchings, D.V.M., practices at the Herring Cove Animal Hospital in Provincetown.