I’ve been training puppies in New York City for years now and every time I meet with a new puppy owner I always ask them what efforts they’ve made thus far to socialize their dog. It appears there is a serious need to spread the word about the benefits of early puppy socialization… and how to do it properly. I frequently get the response, “Socialization? You mean take the dog outside? Oh no, we can’t do that. The dog hasn’t had all of his shots yet and we’ve been told to keep him indoors.” Sometimes, I get people who tell me that the dog’s socialization program has been going really well. They’ve been taking the dog everywhere and when the dog shows fear of something novel, they force the dog to confront the thing that scares him. Other times I’m told that the dog’s had “extensive socialization,” but only limited to family members and to the other dogs in the family.
I can’t blame owners for being confused. There’s a lot of conflicting information out there.
For those who find it difficult to embrace early puppy socialization it’s mostly because there’s a perceived danger that taking out a puppy who has yet to receive all of his vaccines may compromise his health. You see, a dog’s “critical socialization period” (the first three month’s of his life when a dog should be given positive exposure to different sights, sounds, people, and all other things that make up his world) is also the time when he has yet to receive all of his vaccines. Dogs are generally not fully vaccinated until they are 16 weeks old. So, people are seemingly left with making a choice between their dog’s physical health and their dog’s behavioral well-being. The fear of disease can often be so great that puppies don’t really get to experience life until they’re four months old. Just recently I worked with a dog training client in Brooklyn who kept her puppy indoors against my advice. When the dog was finally allowed to walk outside in his busy neighborhood, he started responding fearfully to traffic noise. Now the owner wishes she had started the socialization process early.
For those who do want to socialize their dogs at a young age, sometimes it’s not knowing how to do it properly that’s the issue. Socializing your dog in the wrong manner can also be detrimental. When exposure to novel stimuli is not a pleasurable experience for your puppy, but rather one that induces fear, it can be worse than not socializing him at all.
So, what is the real deal on puppy socialization and how do you do it right?
I mentioned that there is a “critical socialization period” for puppies when they are three months or under. What this means is that during this time dogs are more sociable, more willing to explore things that are new to them whether it be people, places, or things. Positive experiences during this time teach them that certain things and types of situations are safe. What dogs are exposed to during this period and how they are exposed to them can color the way they perceive things when they become older. As a result, negative experiences during this time can also have a huge impact. Under socializing or poorly socializing a dog can create behavioral issues including fear and aggression.
The best time to start socialization when you acquire a puppy is when he leaves his litter at 7 or 8 weeks of age to come live with you. Yes, during this time your puppy will not have been fully vaccinated, but he should have maternal immunity and the protection he received from his first round of shots. That along with precautions on your part, early puppy socialization is feasible without posing great risk to your dog.
Some wonderful ways to provide socialization training for your puppy include:
- Puppy playgroups and/or puppy kindergarten classes: In New York City, you often find these at doggy daycares or veterinarian’s offices. All canine participants should be at the same stage of vaccination. The facilities at which these gatherings are held should be well sanitized. These are great places to positively expose your dog to other dogs as well as to people outside your immediate family and circle of friends.
- Sound effect CDs: They have audio recordings now that are specifically made for dog socialization. Sounds include things like thunder, cars honking, and airplanes taking off. Start playing these noises for your dog in your home at a volume that does not create a fearful or nervous response. To ensure a positive association is being made with these noises, provide special playtime or treats during these sessions.
- Inviting your friends over: Having a wide variety of friends come visit you in the home one or two at a time means plenty of exposure to different people. From someone who carries a cane to someone who’s 6’4″, your dog will learn that people come in all different shapes and sizes and it’s even better when they have treats! Make sure that your dog willingly approaches your guests rather than forcing the guests onto your puppy.
- Use a towel or a carry bag: Either of these would provide a good place for your puppy to sit when letting them explore the neighborhood. Since there is a potential for picking up a disease walking on the street, rather than never taking your dog outside, bring a safe surface where they can hang out. That can be in your carry bag or a on large clean towel. It’s best to avoid places like dog parks since they cannot be sanitized.
- Massage exercises: Teach your dog right from the get go that being cradled and massaged is enjoyable and relaxing so that they learn to like being handled.
- Introduce your dog to every day things: These are things you most likely take for granted, such as the stairs and the elevator, the blender going off, the microwave beeping, the hair dryer being turned on, car rides… the list goes on and on.
- Start on basic manners: Use positive reinforcement methods such as clicker training to create a positive association with training, to help build a good bond between you and your dog, and of course to instill some good puppy etiquette.
- Be careful: If your dog is showing fear, don’t push it. You’re taking socialization at your dog’s pace. Consider consulting with a Certified Professional Dog Trainer like myself.
To read more about puppy socialization, check out these other resources: