In many areas across the country, pandemic restrictions are lifting for those who are vaccinated, making it possible to go a lot more places with your dog!
You're excited, and your dog is ready to go, but it's important to be thoughtful and intentional as you and your dog start going places again for the first time in a while. Just like all of us have been changed by the last year and a half, our dogs have also been impacted.
For puppies born during 2020, all they have known is a world of lockdowns. For older dogs that were born before the pandemic and went lots of places, just like for us, it will be a readjustment to remember how to appropriately engage with a larger environment.
As lockdowns begin lifting in some areas, it's fun and exciting to be able to take your dog more places. But before you go, look online or call ahead to make sure that the places you are going are dog-friendly and welcoming, and to make sure that the social distancing, masking and other Covid-related precautions required align with your comfort levels before arriving with your dog.
Just like any other outing with your dog, be sure to bring lots of treats, water for your dog, and poop bags.
As you start to take your dog out in the world, be realistic about where you're going and if it's something your dog will find enjoyable. If you know your dog is anxious or reactive, don't bring your them to a busy outdoor restaurant patio or farmers' market. Pick outings that will be fun, safe and successful for your individual dog and their training and comfort levels. For dogs who are reactive or nervous, scent walks are a great way to build confidence and venture out in the world.
Just like reentering the world and starting to go places might feel strange to you, it will likely be a little weird for your dog if they have been living under Covid restrictions for a significant amount of time. When you take your dog on outings, pay extra close attention to how your dog is responding to being in the car, being out in a new environment, and so forth. This is a good time to work on your dog body language reading skills and get familiar with what your dog does when they are comfortable vs. uncomfortable.
Start small with short outings to a local pet store, a dog-friendly park, or a natural area like a river or beach with lots of space for you and your dog. Have treats out and ready and whenever your dog watches you, is calmly looking at things around them, or otherwise offering a behavior you like, praise and treat. This will help build value in engaging with you and make your dog more likely to offer that attention in the future.
While on your outing, go at your dog's pace, and if possible, leave while they are still eager and having fun. Plan for your first outings to be on the shorter side. The goal of the outing should be for it to be fun and successful for your dog, not to see how long you can stay out. Short and fun training sessions are more successful and meaningful than long training outings where your dog gets tired or overwhelmed.
Sometimes outings won't go as planned—a park or beach might be more crowded than you anticipated, or your dog might not behave the way you expected. That's ok! Try not to get frustrated, and instead, in a cheerful voice, get your dog away from the situation that is overstimulating, and try again somewhere else on a different day.
If you got a puppy during 2020 or 2021, it's likely that their socialization was fairly limited. Puppies naturally go through fear periods which can be exacerbated by limited contact with the world outside their home. Even adult dogs who may have previously been well-socialized will likely be a little bit rusty when it comes to their public manners and socialization. Just like we might feel a little bit rusty with how to engage with other people, our dogs have to relearn what it's like to be around people and other dogs.
Don't be in a rush to let your dog socialize with other dogs or people. You might need to do a bit of retraining and re-socialization to help your dog adjust to all the new distractions of being around other dogs and people. When on an outing, treat and praise your dog for engaging with you, and for any calm behavior as they see new dogs and people. Stay at the distances where your dog is able to be calm and comfortable. If your dog seems overwhelmed or at all stressed, take a literal step back and give your dog a bit of extra space in order to be comfortable. (If you know or suspect you have a reactive dog, consult a qualified trainer before doing any socialization steps.)
Advocate for your dog's comfort
Any time, but especially as you are taking your dog on these first outings, go at your dog's pace when it comes to greeting people or other dogs. One of the benefits of social distancing for shy, nervous, and reactive dogs is that it encourages people to give each other extra space. It's always ok to put your dog's comfort first and to say "no" to people who ask to greet your dog, or introduce their dog to yours. It might not seem that way from social media, but not all dogs enjoy engaging with people they don't know.
Additionally, many dogs don't appreciate being approached by other dogs they don't know. When it comes to allowing your dog to greet other dogs or people, go at your dog's pace. Even if your dog was previously very social, go slowly with reintroducing them to doggy friends.
As exciting as it is to start being able to go out into the world again, it's important to keep your dog's comfort and safety in mind. Follow all your local mandates in your area, and plan your outings to make sure that your dog is going to be safe and comfortable. Start with short outings and build up to longer day trips, and go at your dog's pace. If your dog becomes overwhelmed or stressed, take a break by giving your dog space from the area that is overstimulating.