When your puppy first comes home, his mind is a blank slate. He knows nothing about the world except what you show him. Puppies are not born understanding the world around them- what traffic is, what objects such as worms or leaves are, or how to cope with people, cars, other pets or noises. These are things that you must expose your puppy to, ensuring that he has positive experiences with each exploration. All the sights and sounds we take for granted in our world are novel to a puppy…he’s never seen any of it! Introducing him to things in his environment is no small task but it’s the most important thing you’ll ever do for your puppy.
Puppies Need to be Socialized Between 4 and 16 Weeks of Age.
A puppy’s brain is most accepting of new experiences between 4 and 12 weeks of age, making this the critical period for socialization. The socialization period closes at 16 weeks of age and if socialization doesn’t start until after this period, the puppy may be socially handicapped for life. After four months of age, it’s much more difficult to influence a puppy’s opinion and attitude.
The puppy can still learn, but it is infinitely harder because the puppy has to first unlearn inappropriate responses such as fear or reactivity and then learn new behaviors (I am safe in this situation). For example, if a puppy is not exposed to crowds prior to four months of age, he may be so paralyzed with fear of the sights and sounds that crowds make, it may be impossible, or at best, uncomfortable for him to cope in this situation.
If the puppy is exposed to crowds prior to four months of age and introduced in a positive way, he will accept crowds as “normal in his environment” and will not be reactive or nervous when confronted with them. The key is to expose your puppy to the things he’ll be exposed to during his lifetime and to do it while he is very young. Introducing your puppy to new stimuli and experiences is critical to having a well-adjusted and behaviorally healthy adult dog.
Prevention is far better than rehabilitation! A properly socialized puppy is well adjusted and makes a good companion. It is neither frightened by nor aggressive towards anyone or anything he would normally meet in day-to-day living. An un-socialized dog is a liability.
Typical behaviors of an unsocialized dog include fear and stress disorders, fear biting and fearful aggression. Unsocialized dogs cannot adapt to new situations and a simple walk around the neighborhood can panic your pet creating hiding behaviors, pulling on the leash to get away from the “scary thing” or offensive aggression (lunging on leash, biting or acting like Cujo to scare the frightening thing away). Don’t let this happen to your dog. Start socializing your new puppy NOW!
Puppy Socialization Vaccinations and Exposure Risks
Enrolling your puppy in a puppy socialization class is ideal and is typically safe. This is a wonderful opportunity to get your puppy out of the house on a regular basis and expose him to new situations and experiences.
People are sometimes warned not to take their puppies out in public until they are fully vaccinated for fear that the puppy might catch disease. But times have changed and veterinary behaviorists now recommend that you get your puppy out and socialize him safely as soon as he’s completed his first round of shots. The life-long behavioral consequences of not socializing a puppy prior to 16 weeks by far outweighs the small risk that puppy may catch something contagious. Behavioral problems are the number one reason dogs are euthanized in this country. Many of these problems would not have presented in the dog if he was properly socialized in puppyhood. Read the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior position statement relative to puppy vaccinations and socialization.
The chances of your puppy contracting a disease are rare but you do want to minimize risks. Only take your puppy into controlled environments until he is fully vaccinated. Facilities that hold puppy classes are usually sanitized and prepped specifically for puppies. Puppies are also typically separated from regular dog traffic. Dog parks, dog beaches and any other environment where dogs can run free should be avoided. Numerous diseases are transferred via infected urine and feces so avoid places where puppy can accidentally run through pet waste. Pet stores and boutiques are great places to socialize your puppy but carry him or put him in a cart, not on the floor, until he’s fully vaccinated.
Where Puppy Socialization Begins
Puppy socialization should begin at home. When you first bring your pup home, visit your vet for a wellness check. If all is well, begin acclimating your pup to the sounds, sights and smells of his new environment – your home and yard. Be patient with puppy and remember that he’s never seen household items like mirrors, TV’s, a remote control, etc. His vision will still be blurry and his brain and hearing still developing. While you’re introducing puppy to all the items in your home and yard, plan a puppy party. Invite everyone you know to your home for a “meet my puppy” event. Invite the gang over to watch a sporting event so that puppy can see and hear people having fun and getting loud! After a few days, it’s time to introduce puppy to the world around him and all the wonders contained within it.
The car ride itself is a novel experience for puppies so don’t travel too far the first few times puppy gets in the car. Head into town, carrying your pup around. Bring lots of treats, and ask everyone you see if they want to meet your pup to offer him a treat. There are very few people in this world who can resist a puppy! You want your puppy to think that loud noises, funny smells and silly people roaming the streets are perfectly normal!
If there’s heavy traffic, keep your puppy at a safe distance and deliver treats to your puppy as it passes. If your puppy is reactive or nervous, he’s too close. Increase the distance until he is completely non reactive. If a fire engine or ambulance goes by, treat and sound happy. Truck or bus backfires? Treat and act silly! This will get your puppy used to all the noises and potentially scary things that he will inevitably encounter. If you expose your puppy to street sounds and traffic in a positive way he’ll be comfortable walking down the street with you despite loud noises and other distractions.
Where to Socialize Your Puppy
Dog friendly, open air shopping centers are ideal for puppy socialization. If you live in Raleigh, the Lake Boone Shopping Center is pet friendly. Stop into Unleashed, the Dog Store to introduce your puppy to dog-loving humans and friendly canines and have lunch at the pizza shop next door. This environment allows your puppy to have new experiences while on leash. Quail Corners Shopping Center is also dog friendly. Relax in the patio section of It’s a Grind, coffee shop where treats are available for humans and canines alike and let everyone walking by meet your puppy.
Can’t find a shopping center near you? Most Starbucks and Panera locations have outdoor seating where you can sit with puppy. You can enjoy a beverage and your puppy can see traffic and meet lots of friendly strangers.
Dog bakeries also make a rewarding (and yummy) socialization outing! These specialty bakeries can be found in most cities. If you’re in the Raleigh area, Bone Appetit, Three Dog Bakery and Gourmutt’s can’t be beat for friendliness and scrumptious, homemade treats!
Your veterinarian’s office is also an important place to visit. Puppy’s early experiences there are surrounded by vaccinations (ouch!) so counter-balance this with positive experiences! Stop in a few times and let puppy hang out by the counter for a few minutes. Feed him lots of treats and let him get loved on by the staff and waiting clients. Now that’s a positive experience!
Banks can also be a great training ground for socializing a puppy. Many banks will let you carry your puppy in and may even offer him a biscuit. Your bank doesn’t welcome dogs? Take your puppy through the drive-thru so he can have that experience as well! Speaking of drive-thru’s, these can be especially traumatizing for a dog who’s never seen one before. Take your puppy through several drive-thru’s such as the bank, drug store or fast food restaurant.
Human parks (not dog parks) are an excellent place for socialization. Pack a picnic and hang out with puppy on the grass where he can see a variety of people out walking, jogging and biking. Another benefit to parks is the exposure to multiple flooring surfaces. A typical park offers grass, concrete, gravel, and pine straw. Parks such as Shelley Lake in Raleigh offer all of this plus wood-plank bridges, a playground where puppy can meet some kids and experience the lake and all of its wildlife. This is a socialization extravaganza!
Make play dates for your puppy where he can socialize one-on-one with a safe and friendly dog. Your puppy should meet and greet numerous dogs in his critical socialization period (30-50 is not unreasonable). Playing with the same dog repeatedly, will not give puppy the social skills or confidence he needs.
Avoiding Scary Situations
Be careful not to give too much attention if your puppy acts fearful in a situation that is normal. If a bicycle races by and your puppy cowers you will be tempted to pet him and reassure him that “it’s ok, you’re alright, its ok”. If you do this, you are unknowingly praising puppy for his fear and rewarding the behavior. It’s best to be silent, not to acknowledge the reaction and move on. When the next bicycle (or other scary thing) comes near, increase the distance between “it” and the puppy and offer a food reward to puppy so that he redirects his thoughts from fear to yummy treats.
From 16 weeks through at least one year of age, it is imperative that you make every effort to expand the puppy’s environment and expose him to new things. Puppies should be around as many different people and animals as possible. Take them with you when you go for a walk, shopping, or even to work. Encourage your children to bring their friends over to meet the new puppy. Take an obedience or training course where they will meet other dogs… all of this is important.
Socialize Your Puppy to:
- People and children of every size, shape and color, especially people wearing hats, backpacks, sunglasses, beards and uniforms.
- Other animals but especially dogs, cats, squirrels and rabbits.
- Odd sounds and sudden, loud noises. You may want to pick up a Puppy Desensitization CD for this purpose.
- Things that move and make sound are critically important and include: cars, bikes, skateboards, roller-skates, rollerblades, strollers, vacuum, motorcycles, garbage trucks, mail trucks and buses. City life including car traffic and crowds are essential!
- Don’t forget to assess your family’s hobbies and entertainment preferences. If you’re golfers, introduce puppy to the golf bag, spiked shoes, golf hat, etc. If you’re boaters, introduce puppy to the boat several times before taking him out on the water. Baseball fans? Let puppy watch his family throw and hit balls. Even better, take puppy to a local children’s game and sit in the bleachers with him for 20 to 30 minutes. This is a great new experience for puppy. You can typically find a baseball, soccer or football game every weekend! Anyone up for basketball? Find a public court and sit with puppy (not too close). Let him watch the moving ball and all the frenzied action while you feed him yummy treats and play games.
The bottom line is to involve your puppy as much as you can in your daily activities. He will become well-socialized and besides, spending quality time with your puppy is the reason you got him in the first place, right?
For more specific puppy socialization checklists view our Puppy Socialization Checklist Article
The goal of all dog training is to provide peaceable solutions to everyday problems so that pets and their owners live harmoniously. Paws in Training provides dog and cat training services in Raleigh, Apex, Holly Springs, Cary, Fuquay Varina and Garner, N.C.