What does it mean to socialize your puppy and why is it so important?
BIRTH TO 8 WEEKS OLD
The first 8 weeks are on the breeder. Part of the breeder’s responsibility is not only to medically and physically care for mom and pups but also to make sure the pups get a good solid start on their socialization. That being said, there are some limitations at such a young age. Until the pups have had at least their first round of vaccines, it can be very risky to get the pups out and about beyond the backyard. Ideally, a good breeder will bring people in, allow the pups to meet vaccinated, healthy and behaviorally appropriate dogs and expose the pups to all kinds of environmental stimuli and noises. These are all the reasons why you really need to do your research if you’re going the purebred dog through a breeder. You want your puppy to have physically healthy and friendly parents from a genetic standpoint but you also want to be sure the pups behaviorally healthy.
8-12 WEEKS OLD: THE FEAR IMPRINTING PERIOD
From 8-12 weeks old, the puppies are going through a fear imprinting period where good, positive experiences are essential. Traumatic events or just moderately scary ones are remembered for life. The puppy’s brain is a sponge during this period, taking in and remembering every new experience, good, bad, or ugly. Socializing with people If you want your puppy to be good with people as an adult, you have to put effort into socializing him to as many people as you can during the 8-12 week old period. Ideally, your puppy should meet 100 different people by 12 weeks old. It’s not as hard as you think – people will swarm your pup when you go out. Go to a mall, a sports game, downtown. Now here’s the deal – socialization doesn’t mean just throwing your dog into the arms of new people. It means creating positive experiences with those people. For some puppies, it’s a no brainer. People mean attention and therefore people are great! For others, people can be really scary so those puppies need more distance and high value treats to associate with the presence of people. If people mean the presentation of good things, people become pretty great. WHENEVER your puppy is around kids, you should be treating him. As much as your puppy may love people, kids are very often scary or can turn scary. They run, they scream, they get in the puppy’s face, they pull on ears, tails… they can become very concerning very quickly. Additionally, puppies like to nibble fingers, grab pants, jump, etc so if you can redirect with food, it’s a win-win!
Socializing with dogs
If you want your puppy to be good with dogs, same deal but also a little more complicated. While you do want to allow your puppy to socialize with dogs of all sizes and shapes, you also have to be a little more careful about health and the behavior of the other dogs. As important at socialization is at this early age, it’s also essential that we protect our pups from traumatic experiences because they will hold onto them for life. This is worth reiterating. During this critical period of socialization, puppies also go through a fear imprinting period where any scary experience sticks with them, more so than that same experience outside of the fear imprinting stage. So if your pup gets bitten by another dog, he will remember that experience and may either generalize fear and caution to all dogs going forward or to dog with similar traits, or in similar circumstances to the scary event (ie if your puppy was on leash, she may become scared of other dogs when he’s on leash, but be okay when off leash). Keep this in mind when thinking about enrolling in puppy classes as well. Many are pretty well run but just as many are not. Do your research and make sure the trainer in charge is qualified to be in charge of such a sensitive period in your dog’s life and that the environment isn’t overly chaotic.
Your puppy needs to experience different surfaces, different environments, cats, horses, cars, car rides, men, women, children, people with hats, an elderly person with a cane, wheel chairs, etc, etc. Again, pair the presence of these things either with lots of praise, play, or treats. Every time.
Now, I’d like to spend a little time discussing one particular difficulty puppies either have early on or develop over time. The vet’s office. Your puppy needs many vaccines during their first few months with you and the experience they have at the vet’s office can sometimes make or break their future behavior both at the vet’s office and with handling in general, as well as around new people. Your puppy’s genetic sensitivity will play a big role here but you can certainly overcome it if you try. Putting aside genetics for a moment, most of your puppy’s behavior at the vet is learned both from his experiences with handling up to this point and also by the way the vet and techs approach and handle your puppy early on. NEVER hesitate to bring your puppy to the vet just to socialize with the scale, the techs, and the waiting room. Any vet who doesn’t support that… well… look for another. Try to bring your puppy to the vet just for a social visit before the first exam and vaccine appointment. Bring high value treats to the vaccine appointment. Rarely do I see the owner’s bring their own treats. Don’t rely on your vet to provide the treats. Some veterinary offices will have good ones, like spray cheese, but many won’t. Many puppies are too overwhelmed at the vet’s office to take treats that are unfamiliar, so familiarize your puppy with a high value treat in a less stimulating environment. Use the cheese, chicken, turkey, ham, etc as a socialization treat when out in other public venues or when your puppy meets anyone new and then bring those beloved treats with you. When the vet comes in the room, treat your pup. This helps make them quick associations with the vet. If your puppy easily approaches the vet or techs, them giving the treats would be great. If your puppy is scared, it’s okay for you to give your puppy the treats to start with. Once the Veterinarian and Techs start their exam, the technician is a good person to hand the treats over to. If your puppy won’t take treats from them, plan to make a lot of social visits to the office in the very near future.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
I thought I wasn’t supposed to take my puppy anywhere until he’s fully vaccinated. So how
can I socialize?
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) has released a statement discussing the importance of early puppy socialization, preferably before the puppy reaches 12 to 16 weeks old. The AVSAB encourages owners to take their pets to puppy classes as early as possible, even before puppies have completed their full vaccination series. ( http://AVSABonline.org/) The risk of your dog’s quality of life being poor due to under socialization and lack of early training is of higher risk than the puppy who gets out and about before the vaccine series is complete. That being said, please consult with your vet because some puppies are higher risk than others. If your veterinarian says to wait, I would encourage you to bring the
linked article to his or her attention to cover all the bases. Basically, the risk of an under socialized dog having a low quality or shortened life span far outweighs the risk of pup who isn’t fully vaccinated to pick up disease. Don’t take your puppy to places where a lot of unknown vaccination status dogs congregate until your dog is fully vaccinated. Take your puppy to a pet store but put him in the cart. Take your pup to the park in a wagon. Make sense?
What if my puppy is fearful of people and runs away?
Then it’s time to take the socialization on as a full-time job. Break out the really high value treats. Treat your puppy just for existing in the presence of new people. Don’t force interaction. Find the distance at which your puppy is comfortable and reinforce the bravery You’re encouraging a lot of treats. Won’t this make my puppy rely on treats forever? Absolutely not. You’re pairing the presence of these potentially disconcerting things with something your puppy loves and needs, called a primary reinforcer. Your puppy relies on food for survival. Pairing good things with the presence of the new stimuli is called classical conditioning. Pavlov’s dogs, if you have any experience with Psychology. You can wean off the treats without issue. Never stop cold turkey but keep your puppy guessing – like they’re playing the slot machines. Sometimes they get praise, sometimes treats, sometimes play, sometimes petting. But remember, it is ESSENTIAL that your puppy gets socialized properly. You can wean off the treats later! This will not cause an addiction in your dog. If your dog is going to be food driven, it was going to happen naturally.