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Proper socialization is arguably the single most important ‘training’ you’ll ever do with your puppy.
There is a small window of opportunity for new puppy owners to properly socialize their puppy, and the things that their puppy experiences in that short amount of time will impact that dog for the rest of its life!
Thankfully, socialization isn’t difficult and most dog owners will socialize their pets without even realizing that’s what they are doing.
The Goal of Puppy Socialization
Most people think that socialization means playing and interacting with lots of other dogs, but that’s not the case at all!
‘Proper Puppy Socialization’ is about getting your puppy used to new environments: sights, smells, sounds, people, and situations so that they are not as easily spooked, fearful, or lacking confidence when they are grown.
Puppy Socialization: the process of learning to adjust to other animals, people, or things around a dog’s environment, accept these things and behave in a friendly manner around the creatures encountered in this environment
Socialization is very important for the health and well-being of your dog. A poorly socialized dog is a risk to others and to themselves.
Incomplete or improper socialization during [the socialization period mentioned above] can increase the risk of behavioral problems later in life including fear, avoidance, and/or aggression…Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age. – The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behvaior
Needless to say, It is crucial that during the first few months of your dog’s life, you set them up for success by properly socializing your puppy to the world around them.
What Proper Socialization Looks Like
When introducing your puppy to new things, you always want their experience to be positive.
This can mean using treats, praise, affection or play to reward your puppy for calmly engaging with new things.
Socialization does not always require your puppy to interact with something.
They simply need to be exposed to it.
For example, your puppy doesn’t need to greet or play with every strange person or dog they come across.
However, they DO need to behave appropriately around strange people and dogs.
In many ways, socialization is also about training your puppy how they should interact with the world.
As you are socializing your puppy, It’s important to think about the associations you’re building and what behaviors will develop from them.
How to Socialize a Puppy: Timeline
All puppies experience a critical period of socialization during their first three-four months that will set the foundation for the rest of their lives!
As your puppy reaches different milestones in their life, their socialization needs will change.
Your puppy is still with their mother during these first two months of life, learning how to socialize with their siblings and gaining new skills that will shape their early psychological development.
Proper socialization during this period is crucial for your puppy because their brain is still at the earliest and most impressionable stage of development!
This is why most reputable breeders, veterinarians, and nearly all dog clubs across the globe will recommend not separating a puppy from his mother or siblings before eight weeks of age!
This offers enough time for the little one to develop and learn their first, and all-important life skills.
Separating a puppy from its family prior to 6-8 weeks can cause irreparable psychological damage to the dog that could last for the rest of its life.
A good breeder will do their best to capitalize on this oh-so impressionable period by socializing their puppies to a variety of things while they are in the breeder’s care.
Programs like Puppy Culture and Early Neurological Stimulation (ENS) are just two of many puppy rearing techniques reputable breeders use to set their puppies up for success in their future homes.
You’ve brought your puppy home and the socialization responsibilities now belong to you!
Coincidentally, (and unfortunately) your puppy will be entering their first fear period around 8-11 weeks of age.
Your puppy will begin to develop a cautionary response, so it is extremely important you ensure every interaction your puppy has is fun and positive.
While you don’t want to overwhelm the pup by moving too quickly with too many encounters at once, try to introduce the little one to as many people, animals, things, as you can, while maintaining a fun yet controlled environment.
When you first bring your pup home, allow him to adjust to his new surroundings and human family members before you begin introducing them to strangers and strange places.
Note on Vaccines:
Your pup probably won’t receive their final set of core vaccines until 16 weeks.
Until then, they are susceptible to certain diseases, Parvovirus being one of the worst, most contagious, and most deadly to puppies that contract it.
Risks of socializing an un-vaccinated puppy?
Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.
Ask your vet ahead of time what the risk of contagious disease is in your area.
This will inform your approach to socialization.
If you live in an area with a high risk of parvovirus:
- consider getting a puppy backpack or buggy so you can still expose your puppy to the outside world while keeping them off the ground and safe from potentially dangerous diseases.
- arrange play-dates with fully vaccinated dogs in secure spaces.
- Look for puppy classes that require partial vaccination and sterilize their facilities regularly.
The Do’s Don’ts of Puppy Socialization
Do Enroll In Puppy Classes
Enrolling in puppy classes is one of the best socialization opportunities available to new puppy owners.
It allows your dog the opportunity to interact with strange dogs and people in a controlled and safe environment, and the tools and skills you learn along the way will benefit you and your dog long after the classes have ended.
Benefits of Puppy Classes:
- Your dog needs new experiences!
- Gets your dog accustomed to meeting new dogs and people.
- Your dog will learn how to focus on you in the presence of distractions.
- Training classes increase your bond with your dog!
- You might be training incorrectly
Don’t Punish Your Puppy
Though your pup will certainly cause you frustration at times, ensure you ALWAYS use positive reinforcement (praise, rewards, encouragement) techniques with everything!
Never yell, punish or discourage your pup in any way for anything.
Make sure you raise him in a very supportive, calm environment.
Punishment or aversive-related techniques can frighten your pet, which is all the more harmful to a developing puppy.
Most professional behaviorists today rarely recommend these when training adult dogs, but absolutely never with puppies.
It’s important to remember — if the puppy does anything wrong, it’s your fault. Not the dogs.
Don’t Socialize With Other Dogs in Dog parks
While it’s tempting to think of dog parks as a great place for dogs to play and get out excess energy, it’s often a bad place to socialize your puppy.
Strange dogs are unpredictable, totally uncontrollable, and bad experiences early on can be traumatizing to a puppy.
Meaning ill-behaved or overly aroused dogs can set your puppy off on the wrong foot, cause lifelong fear, or even teach them bad play habits.
Unvaccinated dogs also pose a risk to your puppy.
Dog parks are notorious for spreading parasites and other communicable diseases which an unvaccinated puppy can easily catch.
If you’re going to go to a dog park; first ensure your puppy has completed all vaccinations, go during a ‘slow time’ meaning a time when not many dogs are present to ensure your puppy is not overwhelmed or, and supervise your puppy at all times, make sure that you are able to swoop in and redirect any tense situations to prevent negative experiences the best you can.
TLDR: Always visit dog parks with caution.
Socialization Never Ends
Just like ‘most’ humans will continue to encounter many things throughout their life, dogs should continue to participate in enriching activities long after their socialization period is over.
Regardless of how “well-socialized” your dog may be, they will inevitably come across new/different things throughout their life that they have never experienced before.
Hopefully, you’ve created a solid foundation during their socialization period so that your puppy is ready for whatever life throws at them.