To Socialize or Not to Socialize – The importance of puppy socialization.
“Socialization needs to be done in a safe and positive way that will teach the puppy to be confident and unafraid of people, places, things, textures, sights, and sounds.”
Anthony De Marinis
Founder, The Gold Coast Dog
The Big Question
There is a lot of hesitation about socializing a healthy puppy as soon as it comes home. Many vets, shelters, and rescues scare people so much that some puppies don’t get to be exposed to the outside world until they are 4, 5 or even 6 months old! It is no wonder dog trainers and behavior consultants see so many puppies and young dogs who are nervous and afraid of new people, places and things as they continue to develop and grow. (As I wrote that I cringed and smacked my head!)
I can’t help but laugh and think about how you always hear the story about some kid who was raised by apes. Maybe it was Tarzan…I don’t remember. Even though he was human, he behaved like an ape, ate like an ape and probably bathed like one too! (Give the guy a break. It is not his fault he bathed like an ape! He never heard of soap and deodorant before… but I digress.) My point is that this human kid raised by apes had no social skills like a human because he wasn’t exposed to a human lifestyle. Instead, he was exposed to the jungle, living with apes. The same is true for our puppies! The longer you wait to expose them and the longer you shelter them, the worse it can potentially get!
Let me first simply explain what socialization is.
Socialization is the process of introducing a puppy to the world. The most critical socialization window is before 12 weeks of age but can last as long as 16 weeks of age. This is the most impressionable time in a dog’s life, where they can learn to love, hate and/or be afraid of anything. Memories, associations, social bonds, and relationships are forged during this time in a dog’s life, which can affect the way they interact with the world.
Early experiences have the power to influence a dog’s life. Puppies should be encouraged to explore and investigate their environment. During this time puppies should be exposed to as many new people, animals, environments, objects, textures, sights, and sounds as possible.
What Puppies Need
You might be thinking: “Anthony, does this mean my puppy can play with other puppies and go to a puppy play group?” Yes! Your young puppy can go to a clean and safe puppy play group run by a positive dog training professional. I would avoid places where there is a lot of dog traffic such as dog parks and pet stores.
Puppies should be encouraged to explore and investigate their environment. Socialization needs to be done in a safe and positive way that will teach the puppy to be confident and unafraid of people, places, things, textures, sights, and sounds.
Generally, the younger the puppy is when socialized, the quicker the puppy gains confidence. In order to do this, you should understand how to read canine body language and communication signals. This can help you understand if your puppy is comfortable, just tolerating it, or afraid.
Before I continue to move forward, here are some helpful links to understanding canine body language and communication skills:
According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), “Incomplete or improper socialization during this important time period (first three months of a puppy’s life) can increase the risk of behavioral problems later in life including fear, avoidance and/or aggression.”
Alone Time Is Important
Puppies should also be able to play, relax and nap alone without humans and/or other household pets. This is important in order to help prevent your puppy from becoming overly attached to you. The last thing you want is for your puppy to have isolation or separation issues.
Using a crate and exercise pen are great options to safely confine your puppy. (Puppies should be crate and pen trained so that they can enjoy being inside them.) Crates and pens can have the puppies bed, water, some safe toys and chew toy options.
Puppies can also play alone without their owners around by giving them interactive toys such as food puzzles. Some of my favorites are: Classic Kong, Dog Slow Feeder Bowl, Kong Wobbler Toy, Kong Tiltz Bowl, Kong Quest Wishbone and West Paw Toppl. There are many other options out on the market, so be sure to do your research and see what will be best for your puppy.
What age is best to start socializing and training a puppy?
If I had a quarter for every time I was asked this question I would have a plane on 24-hour standby! Puppies start learning at birth, despite what old school professionals may still believe. All animals, including people, start learning at birth. This means you should start socializing and training ASAP. (Assuming the puppy is healthy of course.)
In an interview and letter published by the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and Veterinary Behaviorist, Dr. Robert K. Anderson points out that “puppies brains appear to be particularly responsive to learning and retaining experiences that are encountered during the first 13 to 16 weeks after birth.” (APDT, Train Your Dog Month) This means that puppies should be getting properly socialized while at the breeder. This socialization should be continued with the puppies new owner after leaving the breeder. Dr. Anderson goes on to say “Many veterinarians recommend that new owners take their puppies to puppy socialization classes, beginning at 8 to 9 weeks of age. At this age, they should have (and can be required to have) received a minimum of their first series of vaccines for protection against infectious diseases.”
Lastly, Dr. Anderson goes onto say “Experience and epidemiologic data support the relative safety and lack of transmission of disease in these puppy socialization classes over the past 10 years in many parts of the USA. In fact; the risk of a dog dying because of infection with distemper or parvo disease is far less than the much higher risk of a dog dying (euthanasia) because of a behavior problem.” (I know your mind was just blown too, right?!!)
Dr. Anderson clearly knows what he is talking about! My only addition is to use some caution and socialize in clean and safe environments. Lastly, make sure you continue socialization after your puppies socialization stage is over. You should make sure to continue socializing your dog for the first year of its life.
I have provided my socialization instructions and checklist below. (I know how awesome of me, right?!!) So, what are you waiting for? Get to work!!! (and have fun!)
How To Properly Socialize
I want to make sure you and your puppy get off on the right foot. Therefore, I am sharing my socialization Game Plan and Check List. Follow the instructions to provide your puppy with a safe and enjoyable experience.
- Each socialization exposure must be a fun experience.
- Pair Treats with Exposure: Using tasty treats and/or play can make experiences less frightening and more fun. If your puppy seems nervous, use treats to help teach that there is nothing to be afraid of. (This is especially important for body handling and touching puppies.)
- Introduce your puppy incrementally (quality is better than quantity).
- Start at a low intensity, so your puppy is comfortable. Later you can slowly work up to increased intensity.
- Generalization: Just because your puppy has met one or more children and/or puppies, it does not mean they’re fine with all of them. Introduce your puppy to different people, puppies, and dogs in different places to help your puppy generalize.
- If your puppy is ever afraid or worried, allow your puppy to leave or retreat to a safe distance. If you feel that your puppy is uncomfortable, remove your puppy from the situation.
What NOT to do:
- Don’t expose your puppy to situations like a crowded area of people. Examples include loud screaming children, a family gathering (where everyone wants to squeeze, hold, and pet the puppy), a firework show, a high traffic environment, or any other situation that could potentially be overwhelming or frightening to your puppy. Take it slow and work up to these situations with your training professional.
- Don’t allow people to come running up to pet your cute and adorable puppy. Believe it or not, many puppies and dogs find it very threatening when people stand over them or reach over their head to pet them. Instead, allow the puppy to move towards the person to greet and sniff. If the puppy stays, don’t pet. Instead, allow the puppy to sniff the person’s body and hands. Eventually, the person can have the opportunity to pet the puppy in less threatening areas, such as under the chin, or on the side by the ribs.
- Don’t wait until it’s too late! Waiting to socialize your puppy can result in serious behavioral issues. It’s always easier to prevent than to change problem behaviors.
Use this checklist to start socializing your puppy.
Anthony De Marinis is a graduate of distinction from the Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training & Behavior. He is also a Certified Victoria Stilwell Licensed Positively Dog Trainer and a Fear Free Certified Animal Trainer. Anthony runs his dog training practice, The Gold Coast Dog full time and provides private training and behavior modification solutions using positive reinforcement methods. His website is: www.thegoldcoastdog.com
If you have additional questions regarding puppy socialization, feel free to contact me to see how we can help!