The Truth About Socializing Your Puppy
Socialization doesn’t mean training your dog how to behave at cocktail parties. Socialization for puppies is about having your pup experience as much as possible about the outside world during its early weeks.
Well-socialized puppies are much happier dogs and love meeting new people and other dogs. If not properly socialized at a young age, some pups can grow into aggressive dogs that may bite or attack out of fear. This causes stress and fear in the owner, who reacts by punishing or screaming at the dog, which causes more fear and stress in the dog.
The process of socialization introduces a puppy to anything new to tantalize its senses, and shows the puppy how to handle new things in its environment. At about 3 weeks of age, when the ears start to open, a puppy becomes more aware of its surroundings.
Most people don’t bring a new puppy home at this age, so it’s up to the breeder or shelter to start the socialization process, which includes handling and exposure to new things in its immediate environment.
A Short Window Of Opportunity
Most experts agree that the window for socialization is extremely short – from about 3 weeks to 16 weeks. After that, a puppy’s opinions about the world have been formed and it’s more difficult to introduce the dog to new things without it being naturally apprehensive.
Socialization is important because it gives the dog a view of the world that it processes for a lifetime. If you make the view narrow, you’ll have a suspicious dog that has a hard time warming up to new people, doesn’t like other dogs or want to play with them, and is otherwise socially inept. Most puppy schools see dogs that come in for socialization help which have what is called a “socialization deficit.” People just get busy and think “they’ll do it later,” but there never is a later time.
Investing the time to socialize a new puppy pays off for the life of the dog. Under-socialized dogs may appear abused because they are fearful and don’t know how to get along in the world. Unfortunately, this is how many adolescent and adult dogs end up in shelters. Puppies that aren’t socialized or poorly socialized are more likely to be fearful, shy, anxious, rude or overbearing.
Poor socialization at a young age leads to a downward spiral in the bond between owner and dog. Puppies that are poorly socialized when they’re young have any number of undesirable behaviors – jumping up, barking, fighting – so their owners are embarrassed to take them out or let them meet people. The behaviors intensify, and eventually the owners may not even want the dog anymore.
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The worst possible thing you could ever do to your puppy is ignore proper (and early) socialization. All too many good dogs end up in animal shelters due to the owners not having the ability to understand how important socialization is to the behavior and development of their pet.
An extremely under-socialized adult dog at an animal shelter is likely to be put to sleep, according to Amy Powell, owner of Dog World Education and an animal trainer in Palm Springs, California.
“Not socializing a puppy can lead to aggression problems,” Amy says. “The dog may become fearful toward anything that it hasn’t been properly introduced to. Unsocialized dogs can live in fear of strangers, and there’s a chance that the dog may show aggression toward people.”
All experts agree that poor socialization can lead to aggressiveness, which can be difficult to change. Amy goes on to say, “If the puppy doesn’t get to meet someone wearing a hat, someone tall, a child, an elderly person with a walker, and other dogs, it will be aggressive when it grows up and faces these situations, and no amount of training will change that.”
Amy goes on to say, “I constantly see dog-aggressive, people-aggressive and fearful dogs whose biggest problem is that they were never properly socialized. Once a dog is 5 months old and hasn’t been socialized, it will never be normal – not with any amount of training.”
How To Start
The best age to start socialization is while the puppy is still with the breeder at about 3 weeks old. This is when their socialization period begins developmentally. From that age to about 4 months old is when a puppy is most accepting of new people, dogs, situations, smells, sights and sounds.
Socialization can be done at an older age, but it requires more owner involvement, because the dog will be past the happy-go-lucky period when it is so accepting.
Begin socializing your puppy as soon as you bring it home. A young pup is like a clean slate, so it’s critical to start offering it new experiences right away. The more the pup sees, smells, hears and touches, the more its confidence will grow.
Early socialization lessons should include exposure to various ground textures, such as cement, carpet, grass, linoleum and gravel. Be sure to include new sounds, such as vacuum cleaners, fans and radios, as well as new shapes and styles of toys. Expose your puppy to as many different types and sizes of people as possible.
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When taking your puppy out during its socialization period, exposing him to the various sights, sounds, smells, dogs and people, it’s important to watch out for diseases.
To minimize your pup’s chances of catching a deadly canine disease, such as parvovirus, distemper and canine influenza virus, use a bit of caution. Ask everyone to wash their hands before handling your pup, and be sure its canine playmates are vaccinated (or at least have started their vaccination series) and healthy, with no coughing, nasal discharge, fever, vomiting or diarrhea.
Also, because some of these diseases can be passed though contact with mucous or fecal matter on grass or other surfaces, don’t take your pup to areas with lots of dog traffic until it’s had all its vaccinations. You can then loosen up a bit after that.
Supervise any interactions that your puppy has with children of any age. Show both children and adults the proper way to hold your puppy (supporting the bottom) so it doesn’t become frightened. Every experience your pup has during socialization should be positive. (Also, remember that your puppy will get tired after romping around with other dogs or with a bunch of kids, so make sure that it has some quiet time soon after).
“We all have different smells and different ways of touching,” says Dorian Kingston, a socialization expert that works with many top-training dog facilities throughout the country.
“Just because your puppy met a 10-year-old child and had a favorable experience doesn’t mean that the puppy won’t fear a high-energy 4-year-old. Socialization isn’t about forcing your puppy to confront scary situations, but rather about creating pleasing associations with new events, people and places,” Dorian explains.
Another expert on the subject of puppy socialization, Carmine Gilbert, a dog breeder and owner of a private obedience school in Houston, Texas, says, “I recommend a lot of handling for puppies during the socialization period. My dogs learn early to love the touch of a hand. I also check their mouths, cut their toenails, and bathe and brush them.”
In addition, a trip to the veterinarian’s office or the groomer is a great opportunity for socialization. These are people that will need to handle and explore your puppy’s sensitive spots – ears, paws, mouth and rear end – all places that a dog would rather not be touched!
Make going to the groomer or the vet fun by taking the pup there and having the staff offer treats, even on days when your pup doesn’t have an appointment. Again, use care not to allow your pup to come in contact with any unhealthy dogs.
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At around 8 to 11 weeks of age, puppies go through what’s known as the fear imprint period (which happens again between 6 and 14 months of age). During this time, a pup may lose some of its confidence and trust, and become fearful of things and situations that it used to deal with easily.
Don’t overreact to this period in your puppy’s personal growth. It will mature through it and be just fine, as long as you do your part. Don’t become overly protective and isolate your puppy from the outside world. Just increase its experiences in small steps rather than giant leaps.
Choose controlled activities. It’s fine to introduce your puppy to new people, including children, but don’t toss it into the middle of a birthday party attended by 25 kids!
Proper socialization requires that you don’t coddle your puppy when its afraid of something that can’t harm it, such as thunder. If you baby-talk and soothe your pup, it’ll think there’s something to be fearful of, and it’ll repeat the behavior next time it encounters the scary experience.
Instead of praising for fearful behavior, ask your pup to do something, such as coming to you or responding to its name, then treat it for that. This essentially gets the pup’s mind off the situation. If you need to lure your pup out from under the bed, for example, then do so, but don’t give the treat until it has done another behavior you ask, such as sitting. If every time it thunders during a rainstorm, and you treat your pup for hiding under the bed, it’ll definitely go there at first sign of rain!
Socialization & Training Go Hand In Hand
Socialization and training go hand in hand – or paw in paw, in this case. Use socialization combined with training to teach your puppy basic commands as you expose it to new situations. Socialization isn’t just about exposing your dog to new things – it’s also about teaching your dog to behave politely in new situations and around new people and other dogs.
“I tell puppy owners to have their puppies sit whenever they greet a new person, and to treat playtime with other dogs as a treat that their dog has to work to earn,” says David Barrett, owner of a Norway private dog training school that specializes in puppies.
David goes on to say, “For example, when you set up a playdate with another dog, instead of letting your puppy pull and bark and act like a maniac before playtime, ask your puppy to sit, lie down or do a trick to earn the playtime.
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Because socializing your puppy goes hand in hand with proper training, clicker training is the perfect tool for socialization because the method is all about positive reinforcement, and socialization should always be positive.
A clicker is a noisemaker that can clearly mark the exact moment of a desired behavior, and in the beginning stages of clicker training, the noise is followed by a treat. For example, when a puppy sits, you click and treat for the sit. To improve socialization, for example, you might click and treat when the puppy moves slightly toward a scary object or noise.
Many novice trainers make the mistake of not rewarding positive behaviors. Positive behaviors that are rewarded will be repeated. If your puppy is lying calmly in its bed while you’re vacuuming, you might pause to click and reward. Chances are the puppy’s good behavior will be repeated.
I’ll give you a perfect analogy: If your boss gave you a 10 dollar bill occasionally when he saw you delivering his mail to his desk, wouldn’t you make a daily habit of delivering mail with the hope that 10 dollars would appear again? It’s exactly the same with your pup. The socialization process should be fun and rewarding for your dog, so don’t skimp on the treats and praise.
Your Puppy’s First Socialization Lesson
One of your pup’s first socialization lessons will be its introduction to its new family and surroundings. This should be as fun and stress-free for the pup as possible. To start, get the entire family to sit down in a circle with their feet touching, creating a little barrier, and putting the puppy’s crate in the middle.
Open the door slowly and let your pup come out of the crate at its own pace and go to each family member to visit and check out its new home. Some pups zip right out, but others are slower and more deliberate.
Be patient, and praise and pet your new puppy as it makes its way to visit you. As the pup gets more familiar, lay down flat on the door and let it crawl on you and investigate. Play with the pup, snuggle and plant kisses on its puppy nose.
You can use this same technique any time your dog meets new people. However, if you invite the whole neighborhood over to see your new pup, allow it to meet people one or two at a time so it gets used to the idea of strangers. It can be overwhelming for a new puppy to be immersed into a crowd of people all at once.
The information shared on this site is for information only. It does not take the place of professional advice from your pet’s healthcare provider.