COVID-19 has done a number on puppy adoptions, according to a Nielsen research survey. Even though the demand for companions has soared, the pups are losing out on crucial socialization skills, said STEP at UCF.

STEP at UCF is a club dedicated to educating the campus about the impact of service dogs and raising awareness on service dog etiquette. The STEP team said that even though the socialization portion of puppy raising has been delayed due to the pandemic, they have actually prospered. According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the socialization process is crucial for a dog's wellbeing. Though students still manage to find ways to fulfill the socialization requirements, there is a noticeable difference between pups raised pre-pandemic.

Ana Araiza, STEP at UCF's vice president said she has noticed that their pandemic puppies struggle more in the early months of their training.

"They tend to be more excitable and have a little more trouble settling," Araiza said.

With STEP partnering alongside Canine Companions for Independence and their puppy program, UCF students have been able to raise future service dogs during a 16–20-month period. Students need to complete a full year at UCF and earn a minimum of 15 puppy sitting hours to then be approved by Canine Companions for Independence to raise, train, and socialize a puppy.

Sarah Crabtree, STEP at UCF's former president said that puppies who develop socialization skills at a young age are less susceptible to being distracted.

"The biggest impacts COVID has had on puppy raising have to do with public socialization and the dog's distractibility and excitement levels," Crabtree said.

Crabtree said she has been puppy raising since 2017 and is currently raising her dog Schwartz II during the pandemic. She said she continues to pursue her passion for helping others by being a kennel technician at Canine Companions for Independence. 

Puppy raisers have voiced similar concerns when it comes to socializing their pups, all due to COVID restrictions. Sophomore biology major Chloe Werner said that introducing them to everyday things has become more of a challenge. With over 1,415 acres, the UCF campus is a great place for socialization, but since classes have gone virtual, it has caused setbacks for human interaction, she said.

"Classes are such a huge socialization experience because they are a place that the dogs can practice settling in one place for long periods of time, which is such a crucial component of being a service dog," Werner said.

It's very important to expose puppies to various people, places, and other animals during the socialization stage, animal behaviorist expert Liz Donovan said. When dogs go through this behavioral stage in their life it can be beneficial for them, leading them to become confident adults. Lack of socialization can lead to negatives such as separation anxiety and fear of human interaction.

For Crabtree, she said she has found Schwartz II to be more distracted or excited by other people and animals during the outings than the previous puppies she raised were at his age.

Werner expressed the difficulties she’s had with taking Bachata—the puppy she is raising— to public places and giving her the socialization she needs. 

“If someone had come up to us and asked me to pet Bachata I would’ve said yes, because I could use that as a way to train Bachata to stay calm and remain or sit down,” Werner said. “But because of the pandemic I don’t feel comfortable letting anyone pet her, so I haven’t been able to work on her remaining calm with people as much as I would like.”

Canine Companions for Independences' Puppy Program Manager Ashton Roberts said that it is dependent on the raiser and location that they are in which determines the restrictions that they might be under.

Although puppy raisers seem to find struggles taking their pups on outings, many take the opportunity when they get it—being as safe as possible Araiza said. Those who have in-person classes can have their pup tag along while following COVID guidelines.

Werner explained how looking at places with many COVID guidelines in place has given puppy raisers the comfort to expose their companions to different smells, sights, and sounds.

A big part of the puppy raising experience during the pandemic is being creative to make sure the puppies get those socialization skills in preparation for placement with a person with a disability, Roberts said. Though it might take a bit more work than before, STEP at UCF has proven it doable, Araiza said.

STEP at UCF's events will be conducted via Zoom from now on. Meetings will be held every Wednesday at 7 p.m. with guest speakers who specialize in service dog training and discuss raising a companion during a pandemic. 

“Raising during a pandemic is definitely tough, but it is still one of the most amazing experiences in the world. I would definitely do it all over again," Werner said.

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