What Is Puppy Socialization?
Here’s the deal with socialization. During what’s called the “sensitive period” of very early life, puppies learn about what’s normal in the world. They’re not immune to fear or even trauma, but in general they accept whatever they have a pleasant encounter with. It’s almost as if they develop a catalog of sights, sounds, smells, and experiences that fall under the heading of “safe.” As a special bonus, if the range of pleasant early experiences is wide and varied, the puppy also seems to learn that “new” does not necessarily mean “scary.”
For example, when I adopted my dog Juniper as a nine-week-old puppy, I socialized him carefully. But I lived in a walk-up apartment at the time, and one thing I forgot to introduce him to was elevators. I never gave them a thought till the first time Juni and I stayed in a hotel. He had a moment of surprise when the room started to move. Then his broad experience of the world kicked in to reassure him that this novel situation was okay. So was that huge metal cart with all our luggage on it.
When Should You Socialize Your Puppy?
I urge you to play it safe–socialize diligently from the minute you get your puppy home.
The catch about socialization is that it’s a window of opportunity and when it shuts, it slams shut. Different experts will give you different closing dates, ranging from 12 to 16 weeks old. Individual puppies will vary, too. I urge you to play it safe–socialize diligently from the minute you get your puppy home. Without good socialization, your puppy will likely be shy and skittish as he grows up. And with experience, he may learn that going on the offensive can drive away the things that frighten him. Enter those many clients with their lunging, snapping young dogs.
Undersocialized Dogs Are Often Fearful, Aggressive, and Inflexible
Badly socialized dogs seem brittle rather than flexible–they respond to change and novelty with fear, taking nothing in stride. They may do well in a familiar context, then fall apart when their family moves to a new home. I have worked with dogs who could not go outdoors in the daytime, when the streets were busy with people and noise. Other dogs can stand to walk outside, but only just–they slink with their tails down and they pull frantically toward home. Some bark and lunge at everything. There are no guarantees in life, so I can’t promise you that high-quality early socialization will prevent a hundred percent of behavior problems a hundred percent of the time. But the odds of trouble do go way, way down.
Minimize Health Risks While Socializing Your Puppy
An aside here about physical health. Some veterinarians, understandably concerned about the risks of infectious disease, advise adopters to keep their pups indoors till all vaccinations are complete. If that’s your vet, direct him or her to the position statement on this issue by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. The statement points out that behavior problems are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years old and that “the risk of infection [is] relatively small compared to the chance of death from a behavior problem.” Puppies are somewhat protected by antibodies they got from their mothers and by their first set of vaccinations. Besides, good socialization doesn’t require you to plop your pup on the ground and expose her to every dog and garbage pile on the street.
How to Socialize Your Puppy
Here’s what to do. Take your puppy places–by car, in your arms, or in a child’s wagon if she’s too heavy to carry. Take her to a mall, to a hardware store, to the bus station, to a train station, on a train if possible. Take her to a gas station, auto body shop, florist. Step into the vet’s waiting room and out again. Visit a park, farm, construction site, police station. Encourage her to scramble among rocks and logs. Let her experience many surfaces underfoot, from grass to concrete to leaves to metal gratings. Teach her to use stairs, starting from the lowest step and working your way up till she can navigate a whole staircase comfortably, up and down.
Introduce Your Puppy to Many Kinds of People
Introduce your puppy to all the kinds of people in the world. Our country is still racially and culturally segregated. Many a client has confessed to me with embarrassment that his or her dog reacts strongly to people of races other than the client’s own. So make a special point of being multicultural. Carry some high-quality dry dog food. Encourage polite children to stroke your puppy and feed him a treat. People who use wheelchairs and walkers, delivery truck drivers, bearded men with deep voices, nuns, homeless people collecting bottles from the street–none of these ordinary folks should be extraordinary to your dog.
Familiarize Your Puppy with Other Animals
The same goes for animals. A puppy who grows up knowing cats is less likely to treat them as prey when he grows up. If you live in the country, exposure to other domestic species may come easily; if you live in the city, work with what you’ve got—police horses can be viewed from a distance and paired with treats if your puppy is skittish about them. As for other dogs, screen them! Your puppy should meet dogs and puppies who you know for a fact are friendly and healthy. A well-run puppy manners class or play group will help. Avoid even well-managed dog parks until vaccinations are complete.
Get Your Puppy Used to All Kinds of Sounds
Many dogs are afraid of unfamiliar sounds. Make sure your pup hears police sirens, fire trucks, the repetitive beep a truck makes when it’s backing up. Birdsong, music, rolling steel gates, obnoxious ringtones. Banging pots and pans, doorbells, intercoms. Gunfire and similar sharp, cracking sounds are often culprits in dog phobias; download free recordings from the Internet and play them as background music one day.
What to Do if Your Puppy Is Shy
Say you’re introducing your puppy to a friend with dark glasses and a headdress, and your puppy shies away. Take a deep breath, relax, and let your puppy retreat. Ask your friend to sit down and ignore the puppy. Let your pup approach at his own pace, while your friend pays him no mind. Praise your puppy softly and warmly when he explores. Avoid luring him forward with food–it’s important that he stay within his comfort zone. If he relaxes completely near your friend, she can offer him a treat; if that goes well, a scritch comes next. If your puppy remains a bit skittish, don’t push—just repeat the meeting later or another day.
Follow the same pattern for anything or anyone your puppy doesn’t take in stride: let him retreat to a distance where he feels safe, then venture forward in his own good time. Praise his bravery but do not lure.
If you find that your puppy is easily spooked in many circumstances or by many kinds of people, speak with a behavior specialist right away. Early behavior is often highly malleable and the quicker you intervene in any potential problems, the higher your odds of fixing them.
FindSounds.com is only one source for free sound files. Obviously, exercise caution in choosing sites to download from! You can also obtain sound effects CDs from the usual online retailers. The “Sounds Good” series of CDs, specially tailored to socializing puppies and to counterconditioning fears, is available at Dogwise.
Dee Ganley, CPDT-KA, “Puppy/Dog Socialization,” is among many good guides available online.
“Early Puppy Socialization Classes: Risks vs. Benefits” (a roundtable discussion in Veterinary Medicine, Dec. 1, 2009)