Puppy Socialization

March 11, 2014

   Socialization has two aspects. It is about the positive way a puppy adjusts to the different elements in her life, such as people, dogs, new places or surroundings. It is also about the way the owner encourages the puppy as she goes through this adjustment. At 3-12 weeks old, a puppy may still be finding it hard to socialize. This is because she is only beginning to develop her senses, which add to her feelings of insecurity. Young puppies feel the need to run back to the safety of their mother and litter when they feel the need for added security. This behavior is normal and expected. At this stage, puppies are beginning to create social relationships with the rest of the litter and their mother.

   Basically, they are learning to be dogs at this age. Young puppies can be easily overwhelmed by what they perceive through their senses. Everything they touch, see, feel, taste and hear is new to them. They are naturally curious but still hesitant. While they are still very young, you should protect the puppies from becoming too stimulated. Too much excitement or activity around them can overwhelm their senses, leading them to become fearful of the things around them. As much as possible, they must be given a peaceful and quiet space, at least for the first week or so. As they mature, they will go through a natural “fear period,” where they are fearful of things that are new to them.

   The "Fear Period" Fearing things that are unfamiliar to them is a useful defense mechanism that is necessary for a puppy’s survival. It is the only way for them to avoid predators. In the wild, a wolf pup only socializes with its litter, its mother, and with other members of the pack until it reaches the age of about 12 weeks. A domestic puppy must be allowed to socialize first with her mother, her litter, and later with the larger community. While you need to limit the excitement in those first weeks, you should also make sure that your puppies are getting lots of contact with humans, so that they are learning to live amongst them and behave accordingly.

   The puppy should learn early to accept that humans will always be a part of her life. Otherwise, a puppy that is not given enough exposure to humans will grow up fearing them. She may not be able to adjust socially and that could affect her emotions and trainability. It is almost impossible, and very expensive, to change this kind of negative attitude. It is for this reason that wild dogs that have been captured can never be domesticated or tamed. Having no previous experiences of socialization with humans, they tend to become aggressive -- even violent -- or run away. To put it simply, dogs must be raised by humans from the time they are puppies in order for them to adjust to being domesticated and to live peacefully with humans.

 

   Your pup is healthy and she has her first set of vaccinations and a deworming. Should you...

    a. Take her to the dog beach or dog park?

    b. Enroll her in puppy classes and take her out with you?

    c. Keep her at home until she has all of her vaccinations?

   If you answered "b" you answered correctly! There is an extremely important time period in a puppy's life called the socialization period (3-16 weeks). If you expose your puppy to the things in her environment during this time using positive methods, she is less likely to be afraid of them later. If you don't expose your puppy during this time, she is more likely to be fearful and often aggressive as she develops. Your puppy should get out in safe situations in which there is a low risk of disease after her first vaccine and deworming. Part of socializing your dog is exposing her to other dogs. Often, this is the most difficult part of socialization. Unless you have friends or know people in the neighborhood with gentle dogs, finding a way to expose your pup can be a challenge.

   People will oftentimes seek out the dog beach or the dog park to socialize their pups. This can be risky for lots of reasons. You can’t verify the health status of the dogs that go there. Because public dog parks are open to anyone, the dogs there don’t have to be dewormed or vaccinated. Because your pup has not been fully vaccinated, she is more prone to severe disease than an adult dog. She needs to be interacting with dogs that are healthy. Just as positive experiences during the socialization period have a big impact on adult behavior, so do negative experiences.

   One dog bite or one pack of dogs chasing down your puppy during this period could cause permanent damage. That could create one of the most common behavior problems, at least in my practice: reactivity to other dogs. Let’s review. You need to take your dog to meet other dogs before she is 16-weeks-old. Nothing like making it more difficult than it has to be! But wait, there are solutions. Make play dates with dogs in your neighborhood. Enroll in a puppy class so that your pup can play with other pups. While your pup may not be able to play with the pups during class time, often the instructor will let the pups loose after class. If that isn’t possible, make plans to meet before class or to meet at your house for the pups to play. Visit friends with dogs so that your puppy can meet new dogs and go to new places.

   It is important for your puppy to play with adult dogs as well as other pups so that she learns about the different play styles of different breeds. Enroll in play sessions at a daycare or a pet supply store. Often, these types of businesses have play sessions for puppies only 1-2 days a week. Although they may be rare, there are also private dog parks. A private dog park is a "key swipe" dog park, where the dogs are screened behaviorally and medically before being admitted as members. I wish there were more of these, actually. You have to get your pup out, but do it the smart way so that her experiences are positive. Have fun!

 

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