How to Socialize a Puppy

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Dr Donna Spector

First, why is it important to socialize your puppy?  Dogs are social animals by nature and truly enjoy the company of other dogs and people if care is taken to socialize them properly. As puppy play times, doggie day cares, dog parks, and other dog-oriented activities have gained in popularity with dog owners, having a well-socialized, well-behaved dog is critical to their enjoyment of such activities.  

Socialization is important for many reasons including dog-bite prevention. A well-socialized dog is less likely to bite out of fear or aggression.  More dog bites occur due to fear than true aggression. Even well-socialized dogs can be provoked to bite if uncertain of its surroundings.  Every new situation presents a dog with a decision: fight, flight, or accept.  The better socialized your dog is, the more likely he will be to curiously explore his new situation—whether it is a stranger, the vet, a new neighborhood dog or child or fireworks on the Fourth of July. 

Socialization is pretty simple—it only requires that you spend time with your dog in various situations.  It certainly takes time and patience on your part, but any dog, young or old, can do it!  With socialization, you reduce the risk of dog bites and make your dog a happier and less anxious dog in every day situations. 

Dogs are born in social groups called litters.  They learn about status, communication, calming signals and bite inhibition from birth until they leave their mothers at about eight weeks of age.  So, by the time you bring a puppy home, they have already learned the basics of socialization.  They need you to reinforce the lessons by practice, practice, practice!  Socialization is not just for puppyhoood—the lessons should continue throughout life. 

Puppies have a critical learning period and the most effective socialization is done by 12 to 14 weeks of age.  It is important to expose them to new things, noises, situations and people during this time.  Always make sure your puppy has a familiar face and soothing voice accompanying him into these new situations. 

When it comes to experiences, don’t limit your puppy to places and people – be creative! You never know what situations he will be expected to cope with throughout his life.  Here are a few tips:

  • Take your puppy as many different places as you can.  Make sure they get a chance to get their feet wet to avoid fear of water.
  • Get them familiar with riding in the car to places other than the vet (and to the vet!).
  • Introduce them to as many different people as possible (people wearing hats, glasses, coats, costumes; people of different races; children of all ages; children in strollers or on rollerblades; people in wheelchairs; people riding bikes; etc.).
  • Introduce them to things like balloons, flowers, the vacuum, washer/dryer, hair dryer, stairs, elevators, cats, doorbells and other potentially startling noises. 
  • Practice handling their ears and feet so they will not be fearful at the vet’s office or will allow you to clean their ears and clip their toenails as part of routine health maintenance.  Don’t forget to open their mouth and start brushing as well—it must start now to be successful throughout life!

While introducing all of these new experiences, you should reinforce positive behavior using praise and small treats as rewards.  It is important not to coddle him if he is afraid.  If you immediately rescue him when he is feeling a little timid, you are showing him that he is right to be afraid and you are reinforcing that fear. It is far better to ignore the fear and encourage your puppy to explore what he is afraid of (using treats can help!) or you may end up with an adult dog who is afraid of everyday situations.  A fearful adult dog is more likely to bite and act unpredictably.

Once your puppy is 12 to 16 weeks old and has had some booster shots, you should consider enrolling him in a puppy class. (Ask your veterinarian about this timing for your particular puppy.)  Puppy class is a great way to start your puppy off on the right paw to becoming an obedient dog.  These classes also provide more new events, people, and dogs to add to his list of positive experiences – especially if you’ve done your homework and have found a training class that uses positive reinforcement and allows the enrolled pups to play together for a few minutes each session.

Negative experiences during this critical learning phase can impact your dog for the rest of his life so take the time to research training classes, veterinarians, puppy play times, and other potential experiences you plan to share with your pup before he is introduced to the new situation.  Taking time to socialize your puppy will never be time wasted…you will both be happier and enjoy each day to its fullest!

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