Saturday, April 2, 2011

What is puppy socialization anyway?

I’ve been training dogs for quite a while and occasionally get reminded that not everyone lives in my world.  Recently, I was talking to a prospective new puppy owner about what to expect and what she was going to have to think about before her new puppy came home.   I think I said something to the effect of, “..and of course you’ll need to get the puppy out to get socialized.” , and the look on her face indicated immediately that she thought I was either daft or speaking another language.  I paused and she said, “What exactly do you mean about socializing my puppy?”  I realized in that instant that many of us are so wrapped up in repeating the mantra, “You must socialize your puppy.”, we’ve almost lost sight of what it means.
First let me give a brief explanation of why socialization is so important.  Puppies go through a critical developmental period from about 3 weeks to about 12 weeks where they are most amenable to experiencing new things.  This period is called the Primary and Secondary Socialization period.  This period is tied to the development of social patterns and provides a foundation for many adult behaviors. 1   In short a dog that is not exposed to a variety of stimuli during this critical period is at risk of developing behavior problems later on.
So it’s really, really, really important to carefully expose your 7-12 week old puppy to lots of stimuli.  This doesn’t just mean taking the puppy to a puppy class once a week, it means taking the dog for rides in the car, walks on all different substrates, into the city, out in the country, meeting people of all shapes and sizes, and generally experiencing every possible place you might expect your dog to go when they are grown.  If your new puppy is going to be expected to be your first mate on your boat, make sure you let him walk around on it BEFORE you take them both out for a sail.  If your new pup is going to be the team mascot, don’t wait until they are older to introduce him to the team.  While you need to get your puppy out to see as much as possible it doesn’t mean that you should OVER expose your dog. Keep your trips short and enjoyable!  I have seen people who run their dogs ragged with an all-day outing or force their dogs to get near things (big loud trucks, kids on bikes) that are clearly very scary.  There are also concerns about letting your partially vaccinated puppy play in areas or with dogs that may not be vaccinated against common dog diseases.  For this reason among others, dog parks are NOT a good place to socialize young puppies  So begin socializing early, but do so with care.  Puppy play dates with puppies of similar age, that are current on their vaccinations, in an area that is safe and secure is a great way to get things going.  Just remember it doesn’t begin and end with interactions with other puppies.  The best guide I’ve seen for helping people socialize their puppies is the Puppy Rule of 12 by Margaret Hughes.
Socialization also does not begin at 7 weeks or end at 12 weeks.  Breeders can do a lot to help a dog develop resilience in their adulthood by developing a program of early handling, brief interludes of separation from the pack, taking the puppies on rides in the car, introducing them to crates, etc.  2
If you got your dog from a shelter  you may be wondering, “What about my dog, I didn’t even get him until he was 12 weeks old!”. 
As your dog gets older his tendency to be more fearful increases but this should not deter you from getting your dog out to experience as much as possible.  It should, however increase your vigilance to make sure the experiences your dog is getting are positive.  Dogs younger than 6 months of age should avoid dog parks with lots of older dogs.  Make sure you have an ample supply of yummy treats on hand to help your dog associate new things with good treats.  Never, ever force your dog to approach something it fears, no matter how silly it may seem.  Instead, let your dog choose the distance they want to keep and help them associate that very scary (garbage can, paper vending machine, snowman, etc.) with something good by rewarding them for trying (even if it’s just looking at it).
Puppy socialization should begin early (at 3-4 weeks) and continue through your dog’s 2nd birthday, and please make sure the socialization is safe and enjoyable for your dog.

1.        Steven R. Lindsay, Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training  ( Iowa State University Press, 2001), Vol 1, 47
2.       Steven R. Lindsay, Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training  ( Iowa State University Press, 2001), Vol 1, 58-61