There are two things on every new puppy owner’s mind: Housetraining and socializing. The former is obvious: Nobody wants a pup who potties on the rug. The latter is important because if a puppy isn’t properly socialized in the first 20 weeks of life to a variety of situations, there could be a lifelong fear reaction toward anything new as a result. That is now generally understood. But what properly means is not so clear.
The first critical developmental period takes place between 3-8 weeks of age. During that time a puppy should experience daily gentle handling, and be exposed to normal household activities, sights and sounds. S/he should be familiarized to a collar, leash, crate and car-ride, live in the house but also experience the great outdoors. In addition, mom-dog must have free access to her pups to nurse and wean naturally, and teach valuable early lessons in impulse control and deference.
Puppies started that perfectly are often temperamentally fairly balanced when they join their new family, but it is also true that dogs are not a clean slate when they are born: genetic predispositions can make one bolder, and the other more timid and cautious. The new owner must pay attention to that, because socializing beyond the pup’s comfort level, and without providing enough rest periods will, instead of preventing fear reactions, promote them.
Where should socializing take place? Not at the local dog park, especially with a young puppy. Off leash parks are typically unregulated, sometimes unclean, and not every dog is necessarily nice. A formal puppy class is a good idea, provided the training facility is up-to-date on current philosophies and takes a pup’s disposition into account. There, puppies should have opportunities to freely play, but ideally also meet friendly adult dogs. In fact, periodically meeting a variety of dogs should continue until a dog is socially mature, which is, depending on breed, anywhere between 12-24 months, with giant breeds even longer.
Arranged play dates with family and friends’ dogs is another good idea, and even a park where dogs are required to be on the leash, and where that is enforced, can be a great place to hang out. Sitting on a bench with the pup’s food ration watching the world go by is fabulous pressure-free socializing. Casual strolls in the neighborhood, and visiting dog friendly businesses, accomplish the same.
Obviously, where dogs are people are present as well, and the pup is automatically also socialized to the human kind. To expand that, invite friends and their children into your home, and take the pup with you when you visit them.
All that happens very matter of fact. Socializing is simply being in the environment together, allowing the pup to observe, process and perhaps investigate something new, but not forcing him/her if s/he doesn’t want to get closer, play with a dog or be touched by a stranger. Allowing a person or dog too close too quickly creates a feeling of unsafe – unsafe of dogs, strangers, being outdoors and even being with you, and that can set the stage for future behavioral problems including fear aggression.
So the take-away message is that proper socializing is an individual process rather than a set protocol. The pup’s emotional response to a new stimulus is paramount if we want him/her to feel good about it in the future. If you are unsure what is right for your puppy, consult your knowledgeable veterinarian, or progressive trainer and behavior expert.
By: Silvia Jay, Dog Behaviour Consultant