Puppy socialization is something I think about a lot because I’m a trainer and I run puppy socialization classes here in Victoria BC. But what socialization is, and how it can be accomplished is at the forefront of everything I do because I think it is misunderstood and mishandled by many new puppy owners.
What is Socialization Really?
Socialization means habituation – getting used to environmental elements through exposure. For our puppies this means exposure to places, people, things, smells, other animals or events.
Animals that are not socialized have a default setting – they avoid, or fight, anything new or different. Once the socialization period is over for wild animals, they are comfortable approaching and living with things that they have been exposed to, but they spook at things that they have not been exposed to. This protects animals and ensures that they don’t become someone’s lunch by being overly curious. A wolf that spies you in the woods should shy away and leave – that is normal behaviour. But, it is not normal or desirable behaviour for domestic animals that live with us. And unfortunately, too often, it’s the behaviour we get when our puppies have not been socialized properly.
Don’t kid yourself - all puppies need socialization. Whether your pup’s breeder says she’s “never had to socialize one of her puppies and they all turned out fine”; or whether the Kennel Club description of your chosen breed says, “gentle temperament, never aggressive”. When it comes to socialization, you must err on the side of “what is the worst thing that could happen if I don’t expose my puppy to this?”
What “should” you do to socialize your puppy? This:
Socialization should be about Novelty
You should be introducing your pup to things he hasn’t seen, heard or experienced yet. I hear this all the time: “I’ve taken my puppy to my brother’s place a few times, and she did great with him.” That’s excellent – your pup is 10 weeks? Now you’ve only got about 99 more people to go before your window of opportunity rapidly starts closing….GO!
Your puppy must meet *unfamiliar* people and dogs; go to new places and see new things, not the same ones over and over again.
Socialization should be Positive
While socializing your puppy make all the novel stuff extremely positive. Always ask yourself – was this experience positive (best), neutral (okay) or negative (yikes!) for my puppy?
Some puppies do fine with just neutral exposure to stuff – nothing bad happens, but nothing good happens either. Many puppies need more than that. And the problem is that you don’t know what your puppy needs in terms of exposure until they’ve reached adulthood and you start to see their behaviour fall apart.
How can you make things positive? Try pairing people or situations with something your puppy loves. Man with a beard, a booming voice and wearing a poncho and sunglasses walks down the street? Woo hoo! The cookies start flowing, or the tug toy comes out – whatever it takes for your puppy to beg that guy to come back again for another pass.
Often what you think will be a positive experience for your puppy can quickly take a downward turn. Be aware, and ready to keep the exposure upbeat by giving your puppy distance from the scary thing. Do not force interaction when your puppy says it’s too much. When you try a re-introduction, stay within your puppy’s emotional comfort zone. Positive exposures will do more for your pup’s socialization than negative interactions.
Socialization should be Extensive
Think outside the box about types of people or experiences. Has your puppy experienced different floor surfaces, stairs or ramps; people in wheelchairs, on crutches or walkers; has he walked through a tunnel, crawled over a log; met cats or horses?
You may say – I don’t have cats. But I bet your neighbour does. How do you want your dog to react when he sees them on the street? Or you may be thinking, “I live in the city, I’m never going to see a horse”. Really? Been to downtown Victoria lately? Or to Beaver Lake on a Sunday morning? Or maybe you live on a street in Fairfield – I’m always surprised when a horse drawn carriage ambles down my small street.
And guess what else? Babies are the not the same as toddlers, or elementary school-aged kids or rowdy teenagers. Your puppy needs to meet and learn to like all of them.
Socialization should start ASAP
Socialization is urgent! Start today! The socialization period in puppies begins at 3 weeks. Unless you have bred your puppy yourself you will not be able to do anything about her socialization until she gets to you. The closing date is up for grabs and is argued about by lots of vets and trainers. It could be as early as 12 weeks or as late as 18 weeks. My guess is that it depends on the breed and its particular rate of physical and emotional development. If you’re lucky, you’ll get your pup at about 8 weeks, and then you are guaranteed at least four weeks to really focus on your puppy’s habituation to the big, wide world.
Now you’re freaking out because your vet told you that your puppy shouldn’t go anywhere until her vaccinations are complete – at 6 months! That’s way too late! As a trainer, this has to be my pet peeve. Your puppy’s behavioural health must be balanced with her physical health. I’ve never had a puppy become ill due to attendance at my puppy class. I have never heard from other trainers that puppies have become ill due to their puppy classes. With my most recent puppy we were out and about on our first field trip on the second day I had her.
Skip the high risk areas like dog parks and beaches for now. Instead, head for your friendly neighbourhood coffee shop for the out and about stuff. If you’re worried, hold your puppy in your lap, and just let the socialization opportunities come to you. Invite friends and family over to your home (kids and all!) and go over to theirs. Get into a quality socialization class for some of the dog-dog stuff in the safest environment possible and you’re well on your way.
Socialization should be based on the temperament of your puppy
Good socialization should build the shy puppy’s confidence and tame the wild puppy’s bravado. Your program of socialization should go as quickly or as slowly as your puppy’s personality dictates. If you’ve got a shy or fearful puppy, there is no point diving into an intensive program in which he gets overwhelmed and becomes more fearful. I’ve had scaredy puppies in my classes – my own puppy was one of them. It’s not that a fearful pup shouldn’t attend a quality puppy class, but strategies need to be implemented to protect that puppy’s emotional state. Maybe you have the opposite problem - you have a puppy that is wildly friendly to everything he meets. Then your socialization job is to help that puppy become less frantic about interactions. I have told puppy class clients that their pup is done with socialization. Puppy play is no longer the priority – working on impulse control would be a better strategy. It all depends on the temperament.
This article is the first of many that I am planning to write under the umbrella of a “Puppy Foundation Series”. I’ve got lots more ideas for articles to help you survive puppyhood. Take this survey and let me know what you’d like to learn about next: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/J5M7TPT
If you’ve got something to say about puppy socialization, then leave a comment below – I’d love to know what your experiences have been. And if you know someone with a new puppy, help them out by sharing this article.