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Socializing puppies is as important as ever. Here's how to do it safely in today's world.

At Small Door Veterinary in New York City, playgroups designed with the pandemic in mind have provided pet owners with a safe opportunity for puppy socialization. (Photo: Emily Faber, Sinclair Broadcast Group)

NEW YORK CITY (SBG) — On Tuesday and Friday evenings, a small group congregates in front of the sizable windows at Small Door Veterinary's West Village location. Any unsuspecting person wandering along Seventh Avenue at the right time may find their curiosity piqued by the gathering and slow their pace for a glimpse at the sights that drew others to the scene. The reward for such inquiry? An uninhibited view of several rambunctious puppies wrestling over toys and playfully pouncing on top of one another.

While the cuteness that results from giving a handful of puppies free range of a significant portion of the veterinary practice's waiting room certainly attracts passersby, many of those watching through the window on any given Tuesday or Friday are new puppy parents, pointing through the glass with pride each time that their pet does something particularly humorous or adorable. For some, the joy of observing one's puppy makes its very first friends is comparable to that of hearing about a child's social successes at school.

And just as it's important for children to interact with others in their age group, the opportunity for puppies to mingle biweekly at Small Door represents a crucial step in a dog's development process.

Depending on which book you pick up or whose blog you click on, the advice offered for training your new puppy may differ from one expert to the next. But it's generally agreed upon that there exists a sliver of time in a puppy's early days, typically said to last until the 16-week mark, during which socialization is crucial.

Spending time with other dogs is one aspect of socialization, but the term refers to something much broader than just introducing your puppy to potential playmates. As dogs get to know a brand new world in those first few months of life, it's necessary to provide them with exposure to anything that they may encounter later on in life. So yes, that means other dogs, but the list also includes all types of people, the sounds of your household and the streets outside, different surface textures, and a wide variety of environments with unique stimuli.

"We want our dogs to be good canine citizens, and in that first four-month period of life, it's really important to expose them to everything that they're going to need to be well-equipped as adults," said Dr. Jamie Richardson, medical chief of staff at Small Door Veterinary in New York City.

If your puppy has positive experiences early in life with, say, elderly people in wheelchairs, teenagers skateboarding in the park, men with bushy facial hair and deep voices, and shoppers of all different races pushing carts around home improvement stores, it's less likely that your puppy will be fearful of these specific situations upon reaching adulthood. Your puppy can learn that common sounds like vacuum cleaners, garbage trucks, and crying babies are not a cause for alarm and that unfamiliar places outside of your home can still offer a high degree of safety.

But especially in the early days of the pandemic, socialization proved to be more challenging than in the "before times" of visiting crowded public areas without hesitation and initiating interaction with others without restriction. Staying healthy meant staying inside, and as people became more accustomed to seeing only the walls of their home and very little of the exterior world, so did their puppies. Even for those in cities who had to venture outside to allow their dogs to relieve themselves, those brief journeys were absent of many of the sounds and sights once typical of densely populated areas.

At the same time, puppy adoption was on the rise.

"We have seen, across the entire world, a huge increase in both the adoptions of puppies and the purchase of puppies," said Dr. Richardson. "It's something that no one in the veterinary community really anticipated as being a side effect of the pandemic."

On the surface, adopting a puppy during the pandemic made perfect sense. A puppy could offer valuable companionship to a person experiencing pandemic-induced loneliness, while the pet owner, in return, could take advantage of their newfound free time to provide their puppy with endless attention. But with far fewer opportunities for socialization during those formative days of a puppy's life, raising a "pandemic puppy," as they've come to be called, is not nearly as simple as it may have seemed to those who jumped at the opportunity to become pet parents in the past year.

At its sunny West Village location designed to invite a stress-free experience with light neutral tones and cozy waiting room enclaves, Small Door Veterinary has attempted to help members navigate this challenge by offering puppy playgroups.

The playgroups actually began pre-pandemic and were just one of the many ways in which the membership-only veterinary practice has sought to create a more human-centric approach to pet care since opening in 2019. But while the initial playgroups allowed members to hang out inside while their puppies explored an enclosed area, this community-building set-up became too much of a health risk when the coronavirus outbreak hit New York City just several months after Small Door's opening. Determined to continue providing this vital socialization opportunity to their members at a time when it was perhaps most needed, the team at Small Door reworked the format of the playgroups with safety in mind.

"Our pandemic puppy playgroups were born where we're able to allow puppies to socialize safely in our space with all of the pet parents watching them and still interacting," said Dr. Richardson.

Luckily, Small Door's layout was already well-suited for a pandemic-friendly approach to the puppy playgroups.

The large street-facing windows that had always promoted a welcoming environment at Small Door became a way for pet parents to observe their dogs frolicking around the waiting room without having to enter the space themselves. Depending on their personal level of comfort, they still have the chance to chat with other members while wearing masks and standing an appropriate distance apart from one other in the fresh air of the outdoors. The current arrangement shows that fostering a sense of community is still very much possible while remaining cautious about the continuing presence of coronavirus in the city.

In all other ways, the puppy playgroups largely operate as they did pre-pandemic. Group sizes are purposely kept small to avoid overwhelming and overstimulating the puppies. Staff members are on hand throughout the 30-minute period to keep an eye on the group, occasionally encouraging the dogs to play with a toy or attempting to ease the nerves of especially shy puppies. And regular attendance at the playgroups, which currently meet on Tuesday and Friday evenings, is encouraged for puppies up to four months of age.

Right now, the playgroups operate only at the West Village location, but they'll be a fixture of the practice's soon-to-open Upper East Side outpost as well.

If you've recently adopted a new best friend, seeking out a playgroup similar to the one offered at Small Door is a good step to take in socializing your puppy. You may not stumble upon a situation quite as ideal as being able to watch your puppy in-person through a pane of glass, but as Zoom and other video communication platforms have fully infiltrated daily life, it's not uncommon for playgroups to enable pet parents to observe the sessions virtually.

But for anyone unable to find an appropriate group for their location or their financial situation, Dr. Richardson suggests turning toward friends who have fully vaccinated dogs of their own. "It is OK for puppies who are not fully vaccinated to be able to socialize with vaccinated dogs, as long as they're a good match," she said. "See if you can find friends with vaccinated, well-socialized dogs that are able to handle the energy of a puppy."

And given the fact that proper socialization involves far more than interaction with other dogs, there are plenty of other ways to ensure that your new puppy grows up to be well-adjusted to its surroundings.

"Besides puppy playgroups as a good way to socialize your pet, try to carry them safely around whatever environment you live in to get them used to things that are important in your life," said Dr. Richardson. That could mean driving around in your car with your new companion, taking longs walks in the park together, or situating your puppy in a shopping cart at pet-friendly stores like Home Depot.

At home, you can practice safe sound conditioning by playing common noises at gradually increasing volumes while your puppy is playing or eating. You can also set up different surfaces for your puppy to walk across, from the softness of a plush carpet to the bumpiness of loose gravel. If you're still limiting your interactions with other people, you can even dress up in different outfits at home to get your puppy acquainted with strangers wearing big hats or sunglasses, carrying backpacks or umbrellas, and walking with canes or crutches.

And despite the obvious challenges of socializing a puppy in the midst of a pandemic, social distancing measures can actually be beneficial to the process by allowing your puppy to observe other people and dogs from some length away, rather than having to worry about being bombarded by pushy people who will reach out to pet any cute animal that crosses their path without first asking for permission.

By taking these measures now, pet owners can ensure that their puppies are prepared for the gradual reopening of society. "I think the focus should be on getting them used to the sights, the smells, the sounds of their environment, as well as socialization with other dogs, so that we can safely get out into the real world," said Dr. Richardson.