If you’ve ever had a puppy or are thinking about getting a puppy you’ve probably heard that you need to socialize them. Socializing your puppies helps to ensure that they are behaviorally stable and confident as adults. However there is a right way and a wrong way to socialize your puppies and if done incorrectly it can backfire. So what’s the best way to socialize your puppy?
The definition of socialize is: to associate or mingle socially with others. When humans talk about socializing we usually mean we go to a party or out to dinner with friends. We don’t remember that we had to be taught to enjoy social settings as children. Our parents brought us to partys or gatherings and with us came a bag full of goodies (toys and snacks). Often we learned to play and share with others because of this bag of goodies. This socialization occured over several years.
The ideal time frame for puppies to learn to socialize appropriately is before they hit 12 weeks of age. Often when you bring your puppy home you’re lucky if they have known their mother and littermates. You’re really lucky if a breeder, foster, or shelter safely introduced the puppies to other situations in a positive manner. Most puppies, however, during their first 8 weeks are sheltered and may have experienced something traumatic, like being transfered from another state to be adopted. That means that you’ve got about 4 weeks to give them experiences that will last a lifetime. FOUR WEEKS!
Okay let’s go back to the example of human socialization, going to a party. When we get a new puppy we think that bringing them to a “party” is the best thing for them. Sometimes it is. However, the answer is: it depends on your puppy. A shy puppy would be overwhelmed at a party that an already outgoing puppy would thrive at. You see, the key to socialization is to make all experiences in these first weeks POSITIVE experiences. Neutral or bad experiences will be counterproductive and can actually create a fearful-aggressive dog.
I’ve also heard the opposite of the party socialization concept. I’ll get a phone call from a person experiencing aggressive behavior from their dog. When I ask what the socialization was like sometimes I hear, “Oh, he’s very well socialized. He plays with my other dog everyday.” Then I ask if he’s met any other dogs. The answer is usually, “no”. Sometimes this is the result of misinformation from vets, they fear the puppy contracting diseases from under vaccinating. However, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior disagrees with the practice of sheltering a puppy due to undervaccination. It can also be due to a lack of education for the guardian.
So how can you properly socialize your puppy?
Get in the habit of wearing treats or a toy that your puppy loves. Take your puppy places that aren’t too overwhelming for him. Allow him to meet friendly people of all kinds; men, women, children, and of different races. Also, allow your puppy to meet friendly dogs. Don’t know if a dog is friendly? Ask the guardian; “I’m giving my puppy good experiences with other dogs. Can he meet your dog?”
When you’re socializing him you can also make sure to pair any new experiences with something great. For example; the old man who walks with a limp, a cane, has a long grey beard, and wears a big black hat with sunglasses that approaches, your puppy gets treats. Those treats can come from you, or if your puppy is confident enough, the treats can come from the man. No behaviors are required other than your puppy must be able to eat the treats. If your puppy doesn’t eat, leave. Leaving in that situation is the best reward you can give your puppy and will teach a shy puppy that leaving is an option. For shy dogs, if leaving isn’t an option they learn the best defense is a good offense (growling, barking, snapping, and eventually biting).
If you do run into behavioral issues during and after this time period please consult an experienced trainer ASAP. They can help you sort thru all of the ins and outs of socialization to help you create a great family member.