Recently I highlighted four areas to focus on with your new puppy in the first few months of its life to help it grow into a happy and emotionally stable dog in our chaotic human world (So you got a puppy?). The first and one of the most critical but often misunderstood of these is puppy socialization.
When I meet new puppy owners, I try to emphasize how critically important it is to properly socialize their puppy during the first few months of its life. So why is puppy socialization so important? The reason is that there is a narrow window of opportunity during a puppy’s early development, particularly during weeks 8-16 which is typically when a puppy arrives in its new home, that puppies are extremely impressionable and learn from their experiences what to trust and what not to trust. If your puppy perceives anything it experiences during this time as scary, negative or traumatic, there can be lasting, negative psychological consequences which have the potential to develop into fear, anxiety or phobias. This can lead to problematic behaviors such as reactivity and aggression in the future. So, the importance of properly socializing your puppy cannot be overemphasized.
Dogs Learn by Association
The good news is that dogs learn by association. This provides us with the opportunity to create positive associations with our puppy’s experiences during this critically important stage of its development. By pairing something positive like a yummy treat or a fun toy with something new that your puppy has never seen or experienced before, like a noisy vacuum cleaner or hair dryer, we can help the puppy learn that the unknown and potentially “scary thing” is actually a predictor of something good that it loves rather than something it should be afraid of. Many things that we humans know are “no big deal” can be perceived as very scary to a puppy. From a puppy’s perspective, the world is full of strange things that potentially could harm it for which it should be afraid. Loud noises such as lawn mowers, leaf blowers, sirens, thunder, fireworks, motorcycles, trains, screaming children, crying babies, household appliances, the buzzing of hair clippers. Or the sight of strange people, different animals, other dogs, fast-moving vehicles, big, loud intimidating men…things that a puppy could become afraid of if not properly socialized to them by pairing them with something positive is endless. Even the feel of different surfaces under their feet such as slippery floors that are hard for a puppy to walk on like those at the vet’s office. All of these things and many more are inevitably going to be a regular part of your puppy’s life. Therefore, it is your responsibility to expose your puppy in a positive way to as many of these things as possible during its first few weeks and months, while making every effort to pair something positive such as food or a toy with the experiences, ensuring that you are not overwhelming the puppy during the process. You must protect and grow your puppy’s confidence.
Is Your Puppy Confident or Unsure?
So how do you know if your puppy is confident or uncomfortable? You must learn how to read your puppy’s body language. Dogs communicate through their body posture – their ears, eyes, mouth, and tails. There is much to learn about how to read a dog’s body language to understand what it is feeling, which I will go into in greater detail in my next post. In the meantime, let’s address one other thing that coincides with this critical period of socialization that has been in conflict with the need for socialization in puppies – the potential that until a puppy is fully vaccinated, it is susceptible to contagious diseases. We do not want to subject our puppies to any possibility of contracting contagious diseases, some of which can be life-threatening like the parvovirus. So, how do you socialize a puppy while protecting it from exposure to contagious diseases? By all means, take your puppy with you to lots of different places so it has a variety of experiences while pairing all of these things with something good like treats. But, carry your puppy in your arms so that it does not have any contact with surfaces where other dogs have walked. Take a blanket or a puppy bed with you to put in the cart at a pet-friendly store for your puppy to lay on while you cart it around so that it does not have to walk on the floor where other dogs have walked. While carting or carrying your puppy around the store, ask strangers who walk by to give it a treat so that it can meet lots of different people while pairing them with something positive. Be sure to give it treats while it is moving in the cart so that you pair movement with something positive in order to prevent motion sickness or fear of riding in the car. Your dog is going to be taking many car rides in its future to the vet’s office and groomers, and hopefully to fun places on adventure trips with you! Another thing you should do is take it to the veterinary clinic for no reason other than to have a positive experience while there. Ask the vet techs or other people waiting with their dogs to give it treats and then go back home so that your puppy’s experience at the vet’s office is not only paired with bad things happening when it has to go in for medical reasons.
Improper puppy socialization can lead to dogs that develop fear.
While you are focused on socializing your puppy, please be careful not overwhelm your puppy by taking it to too many places all at once. Spread the experiences out, but do as much as you can while you are absolutely sure your puppy is having fun. Many people think they are doing the right thing when taking their puppy to experience lots of places, people and things, but often do not realize that their puppy is terrified in the process. When this happens, chances of that puppy developing fears at a later stage in its life are very real. Here is a great article explaining what can go wrong “when fine isn’t” while you are working on puppy socialization. Socializing a puppy is not as simple as just taking it to lots of places to experience new things, but understanding how your puppy is feeling during the process and being careful to protect its confidence, help it cope and reassure it when it seems concerned about something.
Dogs in Shelters are often a result of improper puppy socialization
In my experience, many dog behavior issues that people call me and trainers like me for could have been avoided with proper early puppy socialization. A common reason people site for surrendering their dogs at shelters is due to problematic behaviors. Much of these behavior issues could have been avoided if the puppy had been properly socialized in its critical socialization development stage. This is why it is highly beneficial for any new puppy owner to obtain the knowledge and services of a certified positive reinforcement dog trainer to help them when they bring a new puppy into their life. But a word of caution: be very careful when you select a dog trainer. The dog training industry is not regulated, and as a result, anyone can claim to be a dog trainer. Check their background, education, certification, credentials, references, and reviews carefully. Be sure they understand how dogs learn and how to read dog body language. Confirm that they use only positive reinforcement training methods which are scientifically proven to be most effective, rather than outdated methods that use force, intimidation, punishment, correction and harsh tools.
It is a big responsibility to help your puppy become a happy and well-adjusted adult dog living in our chaotic human world. But the effort you put in and the relationship you will create with your dog for many years to come will be well worth it!
Wendy Taylor is a certified professional dog trainer, graduate with distinction from Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training and Behavior, and a Certified Fear Free Animal Trainer. She helps create successful relationships between dogs and their owners in the Louisville, KY area.