Socialization is hugely important to a puppy. It is their way of learning how to deal with living in a human world, filled with all sorts of curious noises, sights and smells. Socialization helps your puppy be comfortable in all kinds of otherwise stressful situations. But there are lots of caveats when it comes to socialization: when should I start, how should I go about it, where should I take my puppy? Hopefully I can point you in the right direction, and help you to give your puppy a good start to their new life!
Socializing is teaching your puppy about new sights, sounds and smells that overwhelm them in their early days. A passing bus or a strange man on the sidewalk can be frightening to a dog if they have never seen or heard them before. Socialization is a process that teaches a puppy that these things are okay and will not hurt them, and help them to become comfortable with the world around them as they grow into adulthood.
Dogs naturally go through a period when they are young where they are open and curious about the world. This is a great time to expose them to new things. When they are slightly older, however, dogs become instinctively cautious, approaching new experiences with hesitation and more thought. Naturally, this helps them to avoid potentially dangerous situations that they would have faced outside of their life with you.
Socializing helps to harness your pup’s curiosity when young, and help them be safe and happy when things get a little rougher.
Well socialized dogs prove to be happier and more relaxed as pets. This is because they are able to adapt to a wider range of environments and situations. Poorly socialized dogs have a tendency to react to new experiences with either fear or aggression. Trust me when I say that a fearful dog is not always a peach to own, especially when it comes to meeting other dogs and people.
Though the amount of socialization is up to the owner, the more you socialize your pup, the better their odds of being relaxed and happy with new exposures. More safe exposures add up to a much happier relationship between you and your dog!
You and your pup. And the mailman, sidewalk strangers, the old woman at the bus stop, 15 of your closest friends and all their kids, your neighbor Jim, even the bus driver or the lady handing you food at the drive thru. When it comes to people, you want to get your puppy exposed to as many types of looks, personalities, ethnicities and ages of people as possible. Especially people with hats, scarves, hoodies, any kind of unique style that may throw your puppy off later.
When it comes to dogs, a little discretion is important. Puppies are very susceptible to disease and illness, and their little immune systems cannot cope with a lot of the sicknesses that older dogs may carry. Make sure if you bring your new puppy around dogs they are dogs that are fully vaccinated and healthy, and of course make sure they are okay with puppies. Remember, puppies are super rude, and not all older dogs will be okay with that.
(Author’s note: Dog parks do not constitute good socialization. For one, if your puppy isn’t FULLY vaccinated, DO NOT TAKE THEM TO THE DOG PARK! Your pup could contract Parvo, kennel cough, or any of the other dozens of illnesses that dogs carry. Second, puppies are rude and don’t have very many boundaries. Don’t put them in a situation to piss off a mature dog and get bit. Just don’t do it.)
Our trainers used to say “a puppy should have 100 new exposures per day”, and even if that sounds a bit overwhelming, every new moment to a puppy is a new exposure.
Everywhere. Seriously. When we got Pickle, I took her everywhere. I took her on car rides, carried her around the neighborhood (read below to see how), brought her to friend’s houses, took her on trips to Grandma’s, to the hardware store, EVERYWHERE!
Our best strategy (and the one we owe Pickle’s sweet demeanor) was taking her to Chuck’s Hop Shop, a dog friendly bar in our neighborhood. When she was young we would hold her in our laps and limit her interactions with dogs, but we encouraged everyone to hold her, even the bartenders. Pickle adapted to all the sounds and smells, and became very comfortable with being handled by dozens of people and a short time period. This did wonders for her socialization!
Puppies handle new exposures best between 8 weeks and 12 weeks. They are really curious and their senses have come alive! Of course they may be young for random dog interactions, but there are ways around that (keep reading).
The trouble happens around 16-20 weeks. Puppies enter a phase called their “fear stage”. They become more cautious of new things and it becomes harder to introduce them to new exposures. The more work you do when they are young the easier your life will be during this time.
Here’s the big one. How is it possible to safely get your puppy 100 new exposures everyday, and fit them into a small window where they will appropriately help the pup?
First, throw a puppy party. Have your friends and family come over to your house with the sole purpose of showering your puppy with love, attention, treats and love. Encourage soft wrestling and face playing, grabbing at paws and ears, and making sure the puppy is comfortably okay with these things. When Pickle first came home we invited people over for a Seahawk game, and our little puppy got more face time than ever before. Right off the bat she was becoming comfortable with loud noises and sudden movements, and with the quirkiness of humans.
Being outside is a little tougher. Before Pickle was fully vaccinated, I did a lot of carrying (did wonders for my biceps). The ground has a bunch of bad bacteria that puppies could become sick if they sniff or ingest. Pickle spent a lot of time in my arms as we walked, or in my lap if we visited a dog friendly bar. Luckily, she was so little and cute that she spent a lot of time in other people’s arms as well, so the human side of her socialization happened really young.
For doggie interaction, we signed her up for a puppy play class, where she could run around and romp with dogs her own age. Even 30 minutes a day was enough to wipe her out and teach her better habits when playing with other puppies.
When she got a little heavier, Kira bought her a little duffel bag type carrier that I could put her in when we went on walks. Pickle could lay down and soak in the sounds and smells from the city, or she could poke her head out of a hole in the top that allowed her to meet people on the sidewalk. I highly recommend any one with a small enough dog get one. Funny how many places I could take her when people thought I was just carrying a gym bag!
After Pickle was fully vaccinated, we started going on longer walks and having more exposures. She could meet strange dogs, teaching good introduction methods (we’re working on it) and having her on the street, closer to the smells and sounds of traffic and strangers. She also became more visible, so there were many more pets and hand outs from people passing by, which made Pickle happy. It helps that I am a dog walker, which puts her around dogs for at least 2 hours a day, 5 days a week.
Lastly, remember not to push your little one to hard. If your pup expresses a lot of stress during a new experience, either tone down the amount of exposure (turn down noise, remove a stimulant) and/or praise the crap out of them. For example, if you are at the park around lots of screaming kids, monitor how your pup is handling it. If they seem stressed, flood them with treats and comfort, and if that doesn’t work, sit further away from the commotion. The goal is to develop comfort, note generate fear.
Socializing your puppy will help them to adapt to new places and sounds. They will approach new experiences with confidence, not hesitation. It will also teach them to handle places like the dog park in a safe and appropriate manner. Owners will experience a better relationship with their dog and will be able to approach more situations with safe and happy expectations. So get out and get friendly!