Local trainers say pandemic puppy boom leading to social isolation, separation anxiety in dogs

“Even just going out food shopping or running to the store can be very traumatic for a puppy that's never been left alone."

Tabitha Fineberg sits next her dog Sirius in Peabody, MA on Dec. 18, 2020. Fineberg worries her puppy will miss "mommy" when it’s time to head back to work. –Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

The little black lab was cowering in the corner farthest away from everyone else in the room both human and canine. 

“This particular puppy was just so scared,” Mary Farren, a Melrose-based dog trainer, remembered. “I bring my dog out to see what the puppy does, if they’re snappy. When my dog went to do the obligatory sniff of the puppy, he’d scream and run and find someplace to hide. A lot of times dogs will find their pack of people, and run to them.”

Is this okay? Is everything okay? The puppy might plead with its wide eyes, gazing up at its owners.  

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“But this particular puppy just didn’t have that relationship, and he didn’t know what to do with himself,” Farren said. The little fella, who wasn’t as accustomed with the smells and sights of everyday life, had no idea who to run to. “He was looking for a place to hide, and it was any corner that was as far away as he could get. It’s very sad.”

Slowly but surely, Farren said she coaxed him out and eventually he was able to stay in the same room as another dog. But lately, she said, this scenario has been all too common.

Dog adoptions and sales soared during the coronavirus pandemic as people rushed to find canine companionship, yet as the state continues to reopen, local trainers say more and more of the puppies they work with that were introduced to the family during the past year are fearful due to a lack of socialization from months in lockdown. And as people are progressively heading back into their workplaces, they’ve noticed an uptick in dogs facing separation anxiety and stress as well. 

A Jan. study by the pet wellness company Itch surveyed 1,000 adults living in the U.K. who had bought or adopted a dog during the pandemic and discovered that over a third have never visited the park. 

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About 62% of pups bought during lockdown haven’t been in an environment other than their own home, 42% have never met another dog, and 49% have never been introduced to children, according to the study. 

Research conducted by the Kennel Club in August also found that about 18% of people are not certain how they will take care of their dog as they return to work, and only 52% of respondents said they had taken this change into consideration before getting their puppy. According to the study, nearly 22 percent of owners said they’re also concerned about their puppy’s socialization and behavior after living in lockdown restrictions. 

Farren, lead trainer at What A Nice Dog, said she personally began noticing the issue around April last year. 

“Some of the puppies that are coming in, I mean they’re the cutest little babies,” she said, but “people adopted them and bought them from breeders and just kept them home.”

Before COVID-19, Farren held regular socialization classes for up to twelve dogs. As Mass. gradually continues to reopen its economy, she said she’s seen a rising need to strike up the class again, but for two socially distanced dogs instead of a dozen. 

“Twenty-five percent of the people do bring their puppies out. They walk them every day, they want to see and meet new people and other dogs. People are still going to dog parks and sending their puppies to daycare just because they know they need to get that socialization,” she said, noting how for the other 75%, it’s their first time owning a puppy. “So they don’t know what they don’t know.” 

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It’s just about getting the pup used to new items, she said, “like mailboxes, leaves that fall on the ground, new people, people with hats and glasses and gloves and masks.”

Vera Wilkinson, a certified dog behavior consultant and trainer for her program The Cooperative Dog, said she’s been mostly leading private lessons with the pandemic still present. Having worked with over 22,000 dogs in her career, she meets with pups in neighborhoods throughout Boston and surrounding communities. 

Without in-person training sessions, she said puppies and younger dogs are getting less time to socialize. Not having those interactions early on contributes to the “stranger danger” and possible aggression that crops up later in a dog’s life, Wilkinson added.

She recalled some of the dogs she’s worked with that have freaked out when construction workers, plumbers, or electricians pass through the house.

“There’s a lot to do these days to prepare dogs for whatever comes next for all of us,” Wilkinson said. 

The primary socialization period for all dogs begins when their eyes open at three weeks of age and runs through five weeks of age. The second most important socialization period is between six weeks and 12 weeks old. Some people extend this to 14 weeks old too, she added. 

“It’s really important to maintain socialization throughout the life of a dog. It’s kind of a use it or lose it sort of thing,” Wilkinson said. “That socialization period of a dog is that which informs the dog of all the imprints for life. It’s very much like young children.”

So having positive experiences early on is critical.

“One of the factors, certainly out on the street, is that because of social distancing people are turning away from each other,” she said. This works both in favor and against dogs. Wilkinson said some more timid puppies, especially rescues, benefit from people not “coming at them all the time trying to get their love fest on, getting a chance to pet and kiss the heads of the dogs the beautiful beings that they are.” Though others, she explained, “aren’t getting the benefit of being able to say hi to as many people.”

“It’s definitely a challenging time but I’m really optimistic with a lot of what’s happening,” Wilkinson said of training. “Dog owners are getting a lot of intense education.”

Lessons that include understanding how the intrusiveness of visits to the vet for medical exams can spark fear in puppies as well, especially when they’ve met so few people.

“The dog of course remembers every little detail about how they feel,” she said. So if an experience is terrifying, it sticks. 

When dogs tuck their tails between their legs and their fur stands up, Wilkinson explained, they’re not just scared, they are afraid they’re about to die. 

She said many of the problems that occur between dogs and people, or vice versa, can be linked to “what the dog owner doesn’t know that they need to know, and then sort of simple things like an understanding of a dog’s body language and how they perceive what the human does.”

“One of the sayings for dog trainers has typically been, ‘dogs are the easy part’,” Wilkinson said. “It’s just accounting for all the varied experiences that the humans have, or that somebody might have a very steep learning curve relative to learning how to live with a dog and bring out the best in the dog, not just love them to pieces.”

She believes most trainers like herself will begin working with a lasting hybrid model, in which a majority of the owner’s education continues happening online so the work with the dog and others when in-person runs more smoothly. 

For many trainers, this past year has been one of their best yet for business, Wilkinson added. 

She’s currently working with about 23 people for virtual training, and each dog is either struggling with stranger aggression, dog reactivity, or aggression and separation anxiety. 

“But because they’re puppies, we can make major strides,” she said. “It’s pretty consistent these days, that everybody’s addressing this struggle to help their puppies be at home alone. People are aware of it for the most part already.” 

This growing pattern of separation anxiety seems to be universal, Wilkinson said, adding how she’s noticed similar conversations happening in Facebook groups, email lists, and message boards for the various trainer organizations she belongs to.

“We’re all pretty concerned about what comes next when people go back to work,” she said. “There’s always got to be a transition. We always need to be thinking about preparing the dog in a step by step no-steps-skipped manner.” 

With over 30 years of experience working with dogs, Mary Farren said she’s seeing the same issue slowly emerge. “Even just going out food shopping or running to the store can be very traumatic for a puppy that’s never been left alone,” Farren said. 

First-time dog owners, she added, have ushered in an unexpected side effect of the pandemic as well. 

“They don’t understand how much work it actually takes,” Farren said. “Puppies tend to be pretty demanding.”

Focusing on building communication with your puppy is key, she added, and running around with other puppies teaches them how to be a dog. 

“They can go out for a walk, there’s bound to be another dog out for a walk too,” Farren said. “They need to see big dogs, little dogs, fluffy dogs, white dogs, black dogs and just seeing them, and being able to walk on past them, is a better interaction than not seeing another dog.”

Even without a pandemic, Wilkinson said trainers have to break down lessons into the pieces and parts necessary for the dog to get a better reinforcement history built up, and a better idea of the way that people leave, but then come back. 

That’s why crate training even while home helps simulate this process of leaving the puppy alone to relax so “they’re not surfing the counters and stealing food, the iPhone, or something,” she said. 

As for socialization, she recommends owners begin thinking of exposure to people, other dogs, and new surroundings as a social-behavioral vaccination for the pup. 

“Socialization is about setting the stage of a dog’s life for either a good life or a great life,” she said. “Or maybe, a life that has a whole lot of anxiety or fear.”


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