So you’ve got a new puppy and out you go into the world to socialize him, because you’ve heard that’s something you must do before it’s too late. Does that mean you’re supposed to have your pup meet 147 new dogs and people in the next two weeks? What’s it all about?
Puppies pass through a number of critical stages of development and from 3 – 12 weeks they are in a socialization stage where they are open to accepting new experiences and new types of social interaction. If they are isolated from social interactions and new experiences during this period, they will be more fearful and more asocial as an adult. Indeed, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has published a position statement on puppy socialization which urges puppy owners to carefully expose their pups to a variety of new experiences during that critical period.
A variety of new experiences – not just playing with other puppies in a puppy class (although that can be part of a good puppy class). Handling your puppy’s mouth and feet – trimming toenails, going to a supermarket parking lot, seeing a horse, walking over a pile of wood, all these are new experiences. It will be your job to make new experiences fun and positive for your pup, using treats and play to help him feel good about all the new stuff he encounters. “Socialization” may not be the best word to describe this process – how do you socialize with a slippery floor or with the sound of garbage truck? Maybe puppy exploration is a better term, and you can do much of this at home and in your neighborhood.
Handy checklists of puppy experiences are found at Dr. Sophia Yin’s website and in the excellent book, Puppy Start Right by Martin and Martin. The checklist format allows you to easily keep track of new experiences that your puppy is exposed to. Categories in these lists include: different environments, objects – natural and man-made, scary sounds, unusual surfaces, different animal species, vehicles, and people of all different appearances.
Take it at your puppy’s pace – when your puppy is exposed to a new experience, you need to carefully observe his reaction. Is he confident and eager to explore, or is he a bit hesitant and withdrawn? If your pup is showing signs of fear – tail tucked, ears back, shaking, freezing, or withdrawing – you need to move your puppy away from the scary stuff. Don’t do too much at once, and keep the sessions short, ending on a positive note if possible. Don’t think that you have to check off every single thing on the list, it is more important to have a variety of experiences that are positive for the puppy, and to try to do something new each day.
Think about all the things at home that your pup needs to get used to: vacuum cleaners, people at the door, stuff going by the window. Find the distance where your pup notices, but is not alarmed by the vacuum cleaner, and give him treats just for acting “normal” with the vacuum running some distance away. At home you can also work with one crucial category – objects with wheels. Many dogs either chase, or are afraid of, things with wheels – bicycles, skateboards, strollers, cars. Start with the wheeled object standing still, and let pup approach it from a distance, and give him treats noticing it and acting “normal”.
Playing with a favorite toy when visiting a new environment (on leash, of course) in your neighborhood will also help your pup to feel comfortable in a new place. Visit your veterinarian’s office lobby, visit a quiet part of a shopping mall parking lot, wait near a bus stop and experience the environment there. If your puppy is not interested in the toy in the new place, the environment may be a bit overwhelming. Give him a chance to explore a bit, perhaps retreat from the “newness” a bit if possible, and present the toy again.
Between 8 – 10 weeks of age, puppies do go through a fear period when they can react more strongly to traumatic events. Be aware of this and avoid “big” events during this time, such as shipping or travel, or visiting a very noisy, disruptive environment. And, of course, your pup should have started the series of appropriate vaccinations before you take him out in public. Avoid areas with lots of dog traffic that are not regularly sanitized until your pup has finished the puppy vaccine series.