Congratulations! You have just brought home your new puppy and life is about to get really fun! You're probably extremely excited about your puppy and have been researching how to housetrain her, what toys she might like, and brands of puppy food.
What you may not hear about, or even think to learn about is proper puppy socialization. And while you may know nothing about it, socialization should be of top priority for your to do list for your new puppy; right next to regular veterinary visits and a proper vaccination protocol.
So....what is socialization?
Young puppies go through many development phases on their road to becoming an adult dog (See our blog post on the developmental stages in a dog's life.) When they are 3 weeks of age, they enter into their social period, which is a critical period of development where your puppy learns to communicate with and relate to other dogs, humans and the environment in general. This is the most influential learning period in your dog's life!
There is agreement amongst professionals that the socialization period starts at 3 weeks of age, but there is debate as to when this period ends and the socialization window closes. The general consensus is that the socialization period ends between 12-20 weeks of age. Based off of this knowledge, the earlier you start socializing your puppy, the better it is for her!
Once the proverbial social window closes, it becomes more difficult for your puppy to adapt to the greatly changing world around her.
Many pet owners understand that socializing their puppy is very important early on, but may not know how to properly do so. Socialization goes much deeper than simply providing your puppy with ample opportunity to play with other dogs.
During the socialization period, puppies should be positively exposed to novelty daily. Exposure should be fun and positive for your puppy - which means some planning on your part. Simply showing your puppy new things doesn't necessarily translate into a positive experience; it could be a neutral stimulus to your dog. However, pairing that novelty with lots of praise, tasty treats, and play with their favorite toy makes that novel stimulus positive and exciting for your puppy.
During socialization, you don't want to wait for your puppy to show signs of fear before fishing out your treats or that tug toy. Be proactive and control what your puppy learns. If your puppy is curious about a new person, take it one step further by showering them in praise and dog treats so that the next time your puppy meets a new person, they are happy and excited to do so.
Here is a list of key things you should focus on socializing your puppy to:
Your dog is going to live a long life (some will live over 15 years!) and you cannot foresee potential moves or lifestyle changes. Be sure to make the point of taking your dog to novel environments, including ones that may not be regularly frequented by your dog at this time in their life.
If you live in a rural neighbourhood, be sure to take your dog to visit suburban neighbourhoods, and visa versa.
If you like to frequent the same parks or trails on a daily basis, mix things up and go to new parks, or walk different paths.
When in the car with your puppy, try going through the drive-through; the weird voice on the speaker, and the person "popping" up in the window can become the cue for treats and praise for your pup!
Make visits to veterinary clinics and grooming shops just because, and allow your puppy to greet the staff members at their will (eating treats all the while, of course.)
During your puppy's social period I would encourage you to try and introduce them to one new person every single day. Ensure that these introductions don't just occur in your home, but in all the novel and exciting environments we just discussed above. Have your puppy spend 15-30 seconds with the new person, receiving gentle petting (if the puppy is happy about this) and treats from that person. Then, reward them for returning back to you with their favorite treat or toy; this can help to teach your puppy to 'check-in' and offer eye contact to you regularly.
Crowds can be quite overwhelming to dogs, so be sure to start at a healthy distance while your puppy gets comfortable, and gradually work closer as your puppy is happy to do so. Take a short 'walk through' of the crowd before moving back away, so that you're not overwhelming your puppy.
Be sure to introduce your puppy to people of various ages, sex, and ethnic backgrounds. Kids can be very unpredictable and frightening to many dogs, so be sure to introduce your puppy to kids of all ages. You should be focused on your puppy during all social encounters, but especially when they are greeting children. People with handicaps or implements such as wheelchairs, canes or crutches may be startling to your puppy, so make sure that during such introductions you let your puppy explore at their will (never force a puppy towards something that they are worried about.)
How about people in uniform? Police officers, fire fighters, even the Telus guy with his belt of tools! If your puppy never experiences these types of people as a puppy, they could be quite worried about them as an adult!
Social interactions with other dogs are critical for teaching your puppy important social skills, including communication, reading body language and rehearsing important play skills.
Don't stop at just one dog; introduce your puppy to a whole slew of them. Old, young, big, small, you name it!
Let's not forget about other animals that may be in your dog's environment at one point or another in her life: cats, birds, ducks, horses, cows, deer, chicken, moose, etc. Reward your puppy with treats and praise at the sight of any new animal!
4. Surfaces & Structures:
During your travels to various environments, seek out different surfaces and structures to ensure your puppy is happy to explore them and eventually walk over them. Surfaces like grass, gravel, linoleum, plastic or wooden surfaces, etc. and structures like stairs, bridges and tunnels that you may encounter on your adventures. You can toss a handful of treats over the surface and then allow your puppy to explore at her own rate.
When introducing your puppy to new stimuli, especially sounds, your goal is that your puppy is never startled by the sound. Purchasing a sound CD or downloading a soundtrack of various sounds can be beneficial for socialization. Start the CD at a low volume to start, and as your dog is comfortable you can gradually turn up the volume. Sounds such as thunderstorms, fireworks, kids playing, traffic, gunshots and household items (hair dryer, vacuum, blender, etc.) are important for exposure purposes.
Novelties are anything new that do not fit into one of the above categories! Think: strollers, bikes, skateboards, statues, etc. There are no limits. If it's new to your puppy, use it as a social opportunity and make it a fun, positive introduction and experience for your puppy!
Health Risks & Concerns:
One of the main concerns with a young puppy are health risks. A puppy in it's socialization period has a very naïve immune system, and is not yet fully vaccinated, leaving it more at risk of contracting contagious diseases such as parvovirus or distemper. When socializing your puppy it is extremely important to use common sense and minimize your puppy's exposure to disease whenever possible. Avoid public places where stray or unvaccinated dogs might roam. Ensure you know the health and vaccination status of any dog your puppy meets; and if a dog is unvaccinated, do not allow a greeting to occur.
Most contagious diseases are spread via body fluids, such as feces. Most dogs prefer to eliminate on the grass, so when out exploring with your puppy, stick to asphalt or concrete surfaces. Avoid areas that have high dog traffic, such as the dog park or popular walking trails.
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviorists have a position statement on Puppy Socialization (and the socialization period) that states:
"During this time puppies should be exposed to as many new people, animals and environments as can be achieved safely and without causing over-stimulation manifested as excessive fear, withdrawal or avoidance behavior."
So, while it is important to protect our puppy's from disease and harm while their immune systems are maturing, it is equally important to expose our puppy's to novel stimuli during the critical time period. Socializing your puppy is like vaccinating them against behavioral problems. Behavioral issues such as fear and aggression can lead to relinquishment to shelters or worse, death, in extreme cases.
Puppy classes are a great start when it comes to socializing your puppy; group puppy play, and exposure to various people in a novel environment checks a lot of boxes off of your socialization checklist! An appropriate puppy class should require puppy's to be up to date on their current vaccination protocol (with a minimum of one vacation) and should not allow sick or unwell puppies into the class.
For more information on socialization, puppy classes, or other dog behavior, please visit check out the "Our Services" tab on our website, or contact us @ email@example.com
Click here to read the full position statement on Puppy Socialization by the AVSAB.