Use it or lose it applies to social skills. Especially for younger dogs, under 3 or 4 years old, there is nothing better for their social skills than the experience of regularly having to use them.
So now what? How can we safely keep our dogs socialized through this period of “distancing?”
If you have your own little pack of dogs, you can help them practice self control, practice sharing and taking turns. There’s a lot to that, as dogs have an acute sense of what is fair and what is not. You have to be able to read your dogs. Rather than going into lengthy details on that, I’ll share a little video of me practicing a two toy game with my puppy, and the rest of the pack watching. I make sure everyone gets a turn (not all in this video) and when I give one dog a piece of rawhide, I make sure they ALL get a piece of rawhide.
If you have an “only” dog, rest assured that effective dog socialization can take place from a distance. When dogs can see, hear, and smell other dogs without having to worry about getting pounced on, they learn to relax. Distance helps dogs relax around unfamiliar dogs.
A well-socialized dog is rather like a well-socialized human being. They can play nicely with others when the situation calls for this, and mind their own business when the situation calls for that.
In the wild, the most frequent cause of death for wolves is other wolves. I’ve observed feral dogs maintain safe “getting to know you” distances from other dogs. At first they give wide berth. Over a period of days, they gradually dare to move closer, and even more slowly the attempt to share food. The “slowly getting to know you” period promotes peaceful pack behaviors. “Physical distancing” now is our perfect excuse to lengthen the “getting to know you” experience for community dogs.
It’s not our excuse to stay home, but to seek spacious outdoor environments with new dogs in the distance. Regularly seeing, hearing and smelling other dogs from a distance can benefit canine social awareness and skills more than wild paws-on play. We don’t give children the the keys to the car before they’ve graduated from drivers ed. Why should we give dogs off-leash close-ups before they’ve fully master social skills (and emotional self-control) from a distance?
Take advantage of this “distancing” time to re-fresh your training plan with your dog, and commit to educating rather than just trying to “wear out” your dog. Simple training plans can be very fulfilling and enriching. Load up on hotdogs, put him on a long line, and practice calling him to your for a treat. Having more distance between your dog and other people and dogs should make it easier for your dog to practice success! After your dogs understands the game, only food reward the prompt responses, and the dog will learn to respond faster!
Get outside in the fresh air, where you have plenty of space. It’s not a bad idea to wear a bandana as a face mask, and protective eye glasses, and have wipes convenient to wipe your hands. By now you likely know the hygiene rules. You’ll want to bring and use your own gear and treats, carry your own poop pick up bags. Don’t pet each other’s dogs. We can do it! During this period, if we play it right, our dogs will be learning to ignore each other. That’s not a bad thing!