Here are a few real life examples of responses from new puppy parents when asked about plans to socialize their new puppy:
“My vet/breeder told me not to socialize my puppy until he’s had all his shots”
“I have another dog at home so my puppy is getting socialized”
“Our puppy goes to the dog park. He is sometimes afraid of bigger dogs but he has to get used to it”
While al of these people gave socialization some thought, none of these answers will result in a well socialized pup. Misconceptions on what socialization means and how to go about it abound. While there are different definitions of the term, when it comes to puppies socialization means exposing your puppy to a wide variety of experiences, people, other animals, places and things AND making each new experience a pleasant one.
The reality is that far more dogs are surrendered to shelters and euthanized for behaviour problems than lost to poor health. When done right, socialization is like a ‘behaviour vaccine’ that will ensure your puppy grows into a mentally healthy and happy dog. Add a little positive reinforcement training for a dog who is a pleasure to live with!
1. Choose a breeder who understands the importance of early socialization: Your puppy’s first 8 weeks with the breeder is half of his critical period for socialization. Your breeder should be giving your pup a headstart by exposing him to the 4 S’s: a variety of Sights, Sounds, Surfaces and Species.
2. Start early: Your puppy’s window for socializing is pretty much closed by the time he reaches 16 weeks of age. That means that if you wait until he’s fully vaccinated before introducing him to the world at large it will be too late. Start creating new and positive experiences right away – invite people of all ages and shapes over, go for car rides, leave out boxes, knapsacks, umbrellas, vacuum cleaners, skateboards and encourage him to explore at his own pace. Be generous with praise and treats to create Good Feelings about it all.
3. Be safe: Carry your puppy where other unknown animals may have been until he has had all his shots. Introduce him only to dogs you know to be healthy, up to date on shots and puppy-friendly. I know lots of really nice dogs who have zero tolerance for young pups. Off leash dog parks should be avoided before the age of 6 months as the risk of a bad experience is too great and could have lifelong repercussions.
4. Be confident: If you’re a Nervous Nelly your puppy will learn to be more wary. Use cheerful tones that exude confidence rather than sweet and soothing tones that can sound more unsure.
5. Learn to read your puppy’s body language: The goal of proper socialization is to ensure that your puppy feels good about what he gets exposed to. You’ll need to be able to recognize even mild signs of fear or stress so that you can change the experience into a positive one before it’s too late. A good place to start is Dr Sophia Yin’s free download of Body Language of Fear in Dogs. For a more in depth understanding of what your dog is trying to tell you I highly recommend Sarah Kalnajs’ the Language of Dogs DVD.
6. Socialize your puppy individually. If you have an older dog who is helping to show your little one the ropes that’s great but do make the effort to take your puppy out solo as well to ensure that he is able to handle things on his own.
7. Be thorough: round out your puppy’s early socialization by spending time daily on handling and grooming activities as well as preventing possessive behaviour. Puppeis aren’t born loving begin brushed, bathed or having their ears cleaned and nails trimmed. Start gently with a brush stroke or two (or foot squeeze) while giving him some yummy treats to create a pleasant association with these activities. Prevent possessiveness by using treats to trade him for anything he may have in his mouth and toss a treat or two near his dish while he is eating to convince him that humans around his food dish are a Good Thing. You can read more about this in Teaching your puppy to share – preventing possession issues. And don’t forget to teach your puppy that being all by himself is OK too. Start with just a few minutes at a time and associate your departures with something wonderful (see the Art of Kong Stuffing)
8. Give your puppy a choice: Never force your puppy to interact with someone (or something) that scares him or makes him react aggressively. Instead remove him from the situation and slowly work on building his confidence
9. Avoid punishing your puppy: painful or fearful experiences during this critical stage can cause your puppy to have lifelong behaviour problems such as fear-based aggression.
10. Enrol in a good positive reinforcement puppy socialization class: Progressive schools will take puppies as early as 1 week after their first set of shots and will maintain rigid safety standards by disinfecting floors and requiring proof of vaccinations. If your vet or breeder isn’t on board with this you can share with them the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behvaior (AVSAB) Position Statement on Puppy Socialization. Unfortunately ‘positive reinforcement’ has become a bit of a buzzword and in an unregulated industry and you’ll need to assess for yourself how valid the claim is. If you need guidance, check out the AVSAB’s How to choose a trainer. Remember that you only have ONE chance to socialize your puppy and he is relying on you to be his advocate.