Anyone who has owned a puppy has probably heard of the term “socialization.” But do we understand why it is vitally important? Simply put, socialization is giving your pup careful, positive exposure to all of the things that he might encounter as an adult dog. A well-socialized dog can accept change and enjoys having new experiences, is friendly to people and other animals, and isn’t frightened by new environments or things she hasn’t
seen or done before.
Whether or not your puppy is socialized will have a critical effect on your dog’s adult behavior. Without it, your puppy will not grow into the friendly, confident dog and the enjoyable companion you dreamed of. Incomplete or improper socialization, according to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), can increase the risk of behavior problems later in life including fear, avoidance, and/or aggression. Dog behavior problems are the greatest threat to the dog-owner bond and are the number one cause of relinquishment to shelters. Behavior problems, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.
Socialization is best accomplished during what we call the pup’s “sensitive period” for socialization, which begins at around 3 weeks and ends around 12 weeks of age. The beginning of this period is marked by the puppy being able to see and hear and thus able to distinguish “familiar” and “unfamiliar.” The end of the period coincides with the pup’s normal, increasing fear of the unfamiliar. This is the time period of the pup’s life when sociability outweighs fear so it is the easiest time to expose the pup to new things.
So, how do put this information into action? Starting at 3 weeks of age, breeders/early care-takers can carefully expose the pup to everyday sounds like the vacuum, telephone, TV, music, etc., as well as everyday smells, and sights, textures and basically, the hustle and bustle of the family’s day to day life. Early, gentle handling from birth has even been shown to improve learning ability and to create a more emotionally stable puppy.
The puppy will also learn crucial information during the time spent with its mother and littermates, including bite inhibition and reading/interpreting canine body language. For this reason it is developmentally good for pups to remain with the litter until about 8 weeks of age. This leaves four weeks for the adoptive family to complete the socialization process.
We want our puppy to meet and have positive experiences with all kinds of people in order for the pup to generalize the idea that people overall are okay – kids of all ages, men, women, people with hats or funny coats, people in wheel chairs, people wearing uniforms, wide and thin people, all races and all ages. Get creative. Dr. Ian Dunbar, veterinary behaviorist recommends introducing the puppy to 100 new people during this sensitive period. Older pups and dogs are less able to “generalize” so this early exposure is critical. “Positive” means that we strive to never overwhelm the puppy or frighten the puppy and we use treats or play to create a positive association with the people puppy meets.
We want puppy to meet and create a positive association with any animals the pup may encounter later in life. Likewise, we want to take the puppy places and do things he will experience later in life as well, always striving to not overwhelm the puppy. How do we do this safely? While puppies’ immune systems are still developing during these early months, the combination of maternal immunity, primary vaccination, and appropriate care makes the risk of infection relatively small compared to the chance of death from a behavior problem according to AVSAB.
Puppy socialization classes are a great way to not only socialize the pup with its peers and people alike,
but to also teach the pup valuable obedience skills. Get creative and find fun, safe ways to help your pup learn about the world. Although those first three months are critical, strive to continue your pup’s socialization throughout life. There are a lot of helpful books to help you help your puppy put his best paw forward.
Doctor Dunbar’s Good Little Dog Book, by Dr. Ian Dunbar
Before and After Getting Your Puppy: The Positive Approach to Raising a Happy, Healthy and Well-Behaved Dog, by Dr. Ian Dunbar
Puppy’s First Steps: The Whole-Dog Approach to Raising a Happy, Healthy, Well-Behaved Puppy, by Faculty of The Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, Edited by Dr. Nicholas Dodman Raising a Behaviorally Healthy Puppy: A Pet Parenting Guide, by Dr. Suzanne Hetts and Dr. Daniel Estep Puppy Primer, by Brenda Scidmore and Dr. Patricia McConnell