Puppy socialization is the process of letting your dog become habituated or used to the behavior, body language and habits of other dogs and the various other species they will be living with. And it’s more far more important than you think.
We’ve all seen those pictures of large, ferocious-looking dogs being gentle and sweet with cats, bunnies and other cute things that, if encountered in the wild, would simply be a mouthful for the dog concerned. This happy situation is simply the result of puppy socialization. The dog has realized that the cute and tasty morsel is neither prey nor enemy, and is a part of his family. It is therefore not for biting.
Why puppy socialization is im-paw-tant
Dogs are not humans. They have a somewhat more limited behavioral repertoire than we do. When faced with the unfamiliar, they have a tendency to default to the most primitive of behavior: Fight or flight. As pet guardians, we want neither. Instead, we want calm curiosity. The kind that ends with a metaphoric shrug of the shoulders and an ‘oh well, no big deal’. It’s therefore important that dogs get used to humans, cats, bunnies, birds, lizards, and so forth at an early age. Enter puppy socialization.
Remember that in the higher mammals, the young learn much faster than the old. This is because their minds have a certain plasticity. It allows them to learn new behaviors much faster than their older counterparts. You can see the same thing happening with humans: children learn foreign languages very quickly, far faster than adults (to our eternal shame). It’s also the reason your teenage relatives have often worked out how to use whatever new technology you’ve just purchased before you have.
While a dog can learn to tolerate certain situations later in life, this is more difficult and requires great patience. There is also no guarantee that given the right (or wrong) set of circumstances, old reactions will recur. There will be false starts and failures and progress will be slow. Sadly, if the beloved family cat is the first feline your adult dog has encountered, one of those setbacks might cost your cat (or other small animal) his life.
Important phases of puppy socialization
3-7 weeks: In this phase, the puppy is learning the rules of being a dog from his mother and litter-mates. This is an absolutely vital stage. Unfortunately, they are often sold to their new owner at six weeks of age. Why? There is a false perception that they are more manageable and trainable at this age than at one week later. Please, do not sell or buy puppies who are only six weeks old unless you have the experience to provide your new pup with proper training.
7 – 12 weeks: This is when the puppy begins to realize that not every member of his family is a dog. He begins to learn human mannerisms and body language (why, for example, does your dog realize that you are not about to attack him when you bare your teeth at him in a smile? This is not a canine mannerism: he’s reading your body language).
This is actually a good age to adopt a dog. It is vital that, during this stage, the puppy is introduced to both adults and children in the household, as well as any other pets/neighbor’s pets that they are likely to encounter. Stimulation is the key during this phase. There are a few simple things you can do to make puppy socialization a walk in the park.
- Begin leash training on a harness. Some think that you should only start leash training when a dog is 6 months old. However, this perception is largely due to older, harsher (and woefully outdated) methods of leash training.
- Introduce him to the vet. It’s important that he not associate his healthcare provider solely with pain and unpleasantness. Take him to be weighed, let the vet and nurses pet him, give him treats, etc.
- Begin basic obedience training. Yes, now. At this stage, your dog’s curiosity and exploratory urges at at a maximum. Training your dog to able to come or stop on command could very likely save his life during this period.
- Take him for rides in the car. This will both reduce trauma if you ever have to transport him in an emergency and reduce the chance of carsickness later in life.
- Lay the ground rules. Decide, during this phase, whether he or she will be allowed on the furniture/bed, fed from the table, jump up on you, etc. Many people think they’ll simply train their dogs to stay off the couch later. Well, good luck to them. It will be much more difficult later on and might cause confusion. Dogs like universal rules and won’t understand that because they now weigh 100 pounds, the couch is off-limits. Decide exactly how he or she is going to fit into your life. Take cognizance of the fact that your puppy will be larger, stronger and smarter as an adult. A tenet to live by is: Start as you mean to go on.
- Try to keep negative experiences to a minimum. Scares received at this stage (a fight with another dog, a negative experience with a child) can have impacts well into later life.
If you miss out on exposing your puppy to new experiences and people during the critical period (which ends at 16 weeks), you risk having a dog who is incredibly nervous and highly strung around other dogs and strangers. Expect a great deal of reactivity, including barking, lunging, and growling. This behavior is fear- or anxiety-based and shouldn’t, under any circumstances, be punished. If you punish your dog for lunging and barking at the thing that scares her, the behavior will only get worse. And might find that she redirects on to you which can have dire consequences.
The punishment piled on top of the original fear may also cause her to be afraid of other, unexpected things, like the leash, geese (if they are in the dog park where she is punished for reacting to other dogs) and even children if they are in the vicinity.
Behaviorists dread cases like this because the problem is so easily preventable with proper puppy socialization. It takes a lot of hard work, dedication, commitment, patience and love for guardians to help their dogs work through these problems and change their emotional and behavioral response. Many people give up because it’s too difficult and just never take their dogs out and lock them up when they have visitors. Obviously, this is no life for the dog and is very distressing for everyone.
If you don’t have time to take a puppy to puppy school and take her out and about as much as possible to give her as many different positive experiences as possible – Don’t get a puppy. Wait until your life allows that kind of time, or adopt an older, more settled dog from a shelter.
While it true that with patience, care and expert training, a dog can be taught almost anything, it’s nevertheless very beneficial to them to receive the best possible grounding that they can. Socialize your puppy properly and you’ll both reap the rewards for the rest of her life.