The importance of socializing a puppy can never be over-emphasized, but what exactly does it mean? And how does one go about it? Socialization is the process where a puppy learns to recognize and interact with other individuals of its own species, with people of different ages, races and genders, and with other animals that she is likely to come into contact with, such as cats and birds.
The dog will learn the skills necessary to communicate with and interpret the other animals’ intentions, avoiding unnecessary hostilities. Puppies learn to cope with stress and will suffer less as an adult in stressful situations. When talking of socialization, we need to get a puppy accustomed to different places, sights and sounds so that he becomes confident in new situations and gets used to as many different stimuli as possible.
There are certain periods in a puppy’s development that are more important than others. The most sensitive socialization period begins at around 3 weeks of age and begins to reduce by 12 weeks. Peak sensitivity is between 6 and 8 weeks of age. It is important to remember that puppies need continual social interaction to maintain their socialization and failure to do so will mean that they regress or become fearful again.
During the 6-8 month period is another sensitive time for socialization and owners and trainers can use this window to further train their dogs.
Early socialization is, of course, in the hands of the breeder and if they are conscientious and responsible they will ensure that the puppies are handled frequently, as well being exposed to normal household stimuli such as the television, vacuum cleaner, washing machine, doorbell etc. Puppies raised in a quiet kennel or room will have trouble adapting to a normal family environment and may take a little more patience in your methods.
So, now we know why and when socialization should be carried out, how do you do it?
- Introduce your puppy to new stimuli and other people and pets in a systematic and controlled way. The idea is that it should be pleasurable and fun, as behavior is being formed. They may be challenging, but if done in the right way, the puppy will learn that there is no threat and that he is safe to explore and meet new friends and situations without being fearful. This provides the best chance of him developing a sound temperament and capacity to cope in all circumstances.
- Once the puppy is at home with you, it is your job to continue carefully introducing him to different people, animals and stimuli. As you introduce the puppy to new people, places, objects and situations you must be in complete control of the experience. Avoid unfriendly dogs, adults, and children who do not understand how to be kind and gentle with animals.
- Invite friends to your house soon after you bring your puppy home to teach him that guests are friendly and welcome in his new home. Give your friends treats to give to the puppy so he is rewarded.
- Introduce him to one or two other friendly, healthy, fully-vaccinated dogs –he can join in with bigger groups once he has all his shots and has learned some dog social skills and has over-come any fear. Always be ready to intervene if your puppy is scared, threatened or being bullied by another dog.
- Evaluate your lifestyle and environment and assess what situations are lacking. If you live near a dog friendly beach, or a dog park take him there. Nowadays, pet stores allow you to take your pet too. Be sure they have had all their vaccinations first. Inform your veterinarian you plan to socialize your dog to new environments, possible dog populated.
- Make sure your dog meets some cats who are dog-friendly. If you do have a feline in your home, don’t force the relationship, it will develop on its’ own. Both puppy and cat will be curious and will work out their domains. Discourage your puppy from chasing the cat early on, avoiding a habit that will be difficult to change. Many dogs and cats cohabitate with great success.
- If your household has no children, introduce your puppy to some children who can regularly play gently with him. Always supervise them to ensure the children are gentle and that your dog is responding well and not becoming nervous or aggressive.
- Another helpful step would be to enroll in puppy socialization and training class. This provides a great opportunity for puppies to socialize with other dogs, for puppies to learn obedience training in a playful environment with plenty of distractions and also for owners to learn training and communication techniques
- You can still socialize your puppy by carrying him into different situations and taking him in the car, allowing him to see many different things in a safe environment and he will get used to trips in the car at the same time. Keep in mind to use the leash whenever your pet is in the car.
- Use treats and praise to reinforce good behavior. If your puppy appears fearful of a situation, simply change the situation (i.e. ask an approaching person to step back or pick up your puppy to get him out of a difficult situation) until he feels safe and secure once more.
Even though early socialization is important to your puppy’s success, always protect your his health. If your dog is not fully vaccinated, don’t put him down on the ground where there may be dog urine or feces, and don’t let him interact with other dogs that may carry disease.
All interaction with your puppy during the early stages of his life involves consistently rewarding desirable behavior which will increase the likelihood the dog will repeat this behavior. It will also help to prevent the development of undesirable habits.