Most people I talk with would like a dog who gets along well with other dogs and people; a dog who can pass by novel stimuli such as bikes and skateboards with little or no reaction; a dog who can participate in family outings with enthusiasm and confidence. The key to such favorable behavior is Early Socialization (ES).
The primary goal of ES is to provide our puppies with the social skills necessary to become friendly, confident, well balanced dogs who can adjust to a wide variety of environments.
It’s important to begin socializing our puppies as early as possible. The optimum window for socialization is short, lasting from right around the time our pups open their eyes at 2-weeks of age to 18-weeks of age. After 18-weeks of age puppies become less open to new experiences and begin to gravitate toward the familiar rather than explore the new, making socialization more difficult as a dog ages. This does not mean that socialization should end at 18-weeks, but rather that “Early Socialization” is likely to have the greatest impact on your dogs’ social development. Ideally, our dogs would have the opportunity to socialize on a regular basis throughout their lives; this cannot be guaranteed, however, so it is important to provide your dog with the opportunity to socialize as often and early as possible.
Dogs who have not been properly socialized are often afraid of the world and strangers.
The effects of a poorly socialized dog can be devastating and can result in a dog who is emotionally crippled.
In order to properly socialize your pup, include the controlled introduction of your puppy to the types of people, animals, places and things your puppy is likely to encounter in adulthood. I use the words “controlled introduction” because it is very important to closely monitor the introductions and ensure they are pleasant so they do not result in fear reactions later. We do not want to force our pups into situations they fear, instead we should try to jolly them up if they are fearful and proceed as their comfort level permits. It is equally important to introduce your pup to influences outside of your home and neighborhood even if there are lots of people and animals close by. The key to the socialization process is in preparing the pup for encounters with the unfamiliar and subsequently making these events ones that the pup can handle with ease.
Provide a variety of experiences and include pleasant introductions to:
- Other puppies and dogs
- Other animals
- New situations, places and things
- People outside the family, especially children
It would be hard to over emphasize the importance of Early Socialization as countless behavior problems in dogs have been attributed to the lack thereof. If you have a puppy under 18-weeks of age I hope you will make socialization a high priority.
Puppy Socialization Ideas
Plan to take your pup some place new at least once a week!
Vet Visits – take some really special treats and blanket to the vet office. While in the waiting room you can play a little game where your pups finds treats or you could play vet and provide treats to your pup for staying still as you examine him. Put the blanket on the examination table to keep your pup stable and comfortable during his first few visits to the vet.
Visit a Kids Playground and/or Sporting Event – (little league, soccer match etc) – let your pup experience the sights and sounds of people in fast action. Do not let your pup get overwhelmed by the approach of too many children.
Visit a Garden and/or Lumber Store – there are lots of strange noises and objects in these places that may make your pup suspicious at first. Go slowly and stay very ‘matter of fact.’ Provide an occasional treat for shows of bravery.
Beach Adventure – let your pup dig a hole to china and get used to the site of and sound of waves. If your pup is brave you might let him play with the waves a bit. Make sure he doesn’t get overwhelmed by the waves.
Walk Around the Beach Boardwalk – this is a great place to introduce your pup to lots of different noises thanks to the train, arcade and rides. There’s also a skate park nearby and lots of other activity to expose your pup to.
Experience an Art and Wine Festival – stay off the beaten track a bit, sit in a shady spot and let your pup take in the experience.
Woods/River Adventure – challenge your pup so that he must occasionally climb over small logs. Go up a hill, down a hill, over some rocks and maybe down a small bank. The perfect setup is where he goes across a small creek. He gets wet up to the chest. He scrambles up the bank to follow you. He goes through a thick carpet of leaves that crunch when he walks. Encourage him all the way. Praise him for meeting the challenge.
Teach Pup to Swim – you can do this a couple different ways.
Carry him as you wade out to knee deep water, point him toward shore and gently let him go. Be sure he gets his head up and he heads for shore. Have someone on shore encouraging him in a positive way.
Entice your pup into the water by going in yourself and encouraging him to follow or by throwing a favorite toy in the shallows.
Do not throw him in! When you are through get him out and dry him off. Don’t let him get chilled.
Party/BBQ – have puppy accompany you to a friends party or host one of your own. Reward your pup for sitting or keeping four on the floor when greeted. Do not allow your pup to jump on guests. Step on the leash or hold his collar to preventing jumping.
Café/Restaurant Patio Adventure – sit outdoors with your pup and watch people come and go.
Take your pup on a Picnic – throw the blanket down close to a path where your pup can watch passersby.
Visit Friends – be sure to keep a very close eye on your pup so he doesn’t get into trouble! Even though your pup may be potty trained at your home it doesn’t mean he’ll be a good at your friends.
Welcome The Mailman/Delivery People – always take advantage of the opportunity to have a people in uniform give your pup a treat.
Attend a Group Dog Training Class or Puppy Socialization Parties
Visit a Farm – let your pup watch and smell other animals.
Take a Train or Boat Ride Together
* Make sure all experiences are safe and positive for the puppy. Each encounter should include lots of praise. Slow down and increase distance if your puppy is scared!
General Rule of Thumb – by the time a puppy is 18 weeks old, it should have:
- Met 100 different people of different ages, ethnicity and style.
- Met 100 different puppies/dogs. Make sure to ask if adult dogs are friendly before you allow an introduction.
- If a dog snaps at your pup – laugh or talk in an uplifting voice and move away – do not sooth or coddle your pup.
- Teach your pup that greeting other dogs is a privilege not a right. Do not allow your pup to say hello to every puppy or dog you pass. Teach your puppy that introductions are only allowed with permission. When you would like to give your pup permission say something like “okay – say hello”. If you would like your pup to pass a dog say something like “pass-by” and keep walking.
- Experienced many different environments: beach, stores, café, busy street life, quiet parks, busy parks, bridges, schools, different peoples homes, groomer, doggie day care, etc.
- Played with many different objects: fuzzy toys, big & small balls, hard toys, funny sounding toys, wooden items, paper or cardboard items, milk jugs, metal items, water bottles, etc…….
- Been exposed to different noises (ALWAYS keep positive and watch puppy’s comfort level – we don’t want the puppy scared): garage door opening, doorbell, children playing, babies screaming, big trucks, Harley motorcycles, skateboards, washing machine, shopping carts rolling, power boat, clapping, loud singing, pan dropping, horses neighing, vacuums, lawnmowers, birthday party, etc…
- Been exposed to fast moving objects (don’t allow to chase): skateboards, roller-skates, bicycles, motorcycles, cars, people running, cats running, scooters, vacuums, children running, children playing soccer, squirrels, cats, etc…
- Experienced many different challenges: climb on, in, off and around a box, go through a cardboard tunnel or under a sheet, climb up and down steps, climb over obstacles, play hide & seek, go in and out a doorway with a step up or down, exposed to an electric sliding door, umbrella, balloons, walk on a wobbly table (plank of wood with a small rock underneath), jump over a broom, climb over a log, bathtub (and bath) etc….
- Been purposefully handled every day till 18 weeks of age. Touch and restrain the puppy just like the vets and groomers will, hold under arm (like a football), hold to chest, hold on floor near owner, hold in-between owner legs, hold head, look in ears, mouth, in-between toes, hold like a baby, trim toe nails, hold in lap, etc…
- If your puppy squirms when restrained continue to hold with gentle but firm pressure until the puppy stops struggling – then release. This will teach the pup that squirming doesn’t get rewarded – relaxing does.
Cynthia Edgerly, owner of Bingo! Dog Training in Watsonville, California, is a Professional Dog Trainer & Certified Dog Behavior Consultant.