Why is Puppy Socialization Important?
No one wants to be that ‘parent’ of the young dog who is always the naughty boy or girl at the park – the dog to avoid or possibly worse the dog that won’t interact as they are afraid and nervous.
These behaviors aren’t necessarily down to an innate mischievousness or some act of vengeance on the part of the puppy they are likely down to lack of puppy socialization and training.
Unlike human children, who it could be argued have an extended period of development, puppies are on a breakneck journey to adolescence. Yes, some breeds mature quicker or slower than others, but early socialization is vital for all.
In this post, we’ll look at what socialization involves, what type of things do puppies need to be exposed to, when and how much socialization is required.
If you have a new puppy don’t wait weeks to start socialization otherwise you may end up being that ‘parent.’
What is Socialization?
Let’s look at the dictionary definition of socialization:
- A continuing process whereby an individual acquires a personal identity and learns the norms, values, behavior, and social skills appropriate to his or her social position
- The act or process of making socialistic
So in puppy terms being well socialized means learning the skills to become a dog that seeks and enjoys the companionship of others and is friendly, sociable and outgoing.
Puppy socialization is achieved by exposure to the experiences, sounds and smells of daily life to master what is normal and consequently anxiety free. To meet and interact with living beings whether humans or other dogs and animals to understand how they communicate and how to behave alongside them.
A puppy that successfully learns their position in their household and broader world, is friendly and confident will not only enjoy a fulfilling life but will also develop a mutual relationship with their owners that will grow during their lifetime together.
Puppy Socialization Checklist
Before we delve into what you can do and when in a puppy’s development the infographic below summarizes areas where socialization can be targeted – a puppy socialization checklist if you like.
Puppy Socialization Schedule
Before A Puppy Comes Home
A reputable breeder should know the importance of socialization and have included this as part of their puppy’s early experiences. This will take the form of extensive handling and introduction to ‘normal’ household noises etc.
Ideally, the puppies will be introduced to children, other people, the postman anyone that the breeder can get to interact.
These early experiences will be conducted around the relative ‘comfort blanket’ of their mother (at a minimum), father and siblings.
Young puppies will learn a lot from their mother and also their siblings through normal interactions at feed times and during play.
These interactions, such as nipping each other’s ears during play are normal and begin to teach a puppy the levels of ‘rough and tumble’ that is acceptable. These checks and balances are removed when the puppy leaves their litter, so you have to become that arbitrator of behavior when they come home.
When A Puppy Comes Home – 8 to 12 Weeks of Age
A puppy will typically leave their litter for their forever home at around 8-9 weeks. The following month is really the golden period for a puppy who will be like a sponge soaking up the experiences and instructions during this period. The ground rules, and socialization over the next month will frame your dog’s behavior going forward.
That’s not to say a dog can’t be socialized outside this period but it will be potentially much harder, depending on what they have experienced in their life and especially during their early months.
Put simplistically a puppy can’t have enough socialization. You will, however, have to work around the constraints of immunization in this period. Until a puppy has received their vaccination at around 12 weeks, you won’t be able to fully explore the outside world.
So what things can you do to turbo charge your puppy’s socialization?
People – You should introduce your puppy to as many people as possible. Dr Ian Dunbar the well known dog behaviorist suggests a puppy should meet 200 different people by the time they are 12 weeks old.
This may seem like a huge number, but there are ways to help boost the numbers. Obviously get all the family and friends you can to come round and see your new dog. Most won’t need much encouragement in any case. Having as many varied people as possible is the key, toddlers, young children, older adults, different ethnicities, wearing different clothes, etc. etc.
Guests can handle, play and train (reward) your puppy. Having new people treat your puppy if they behave well is a great way to condition your dog on how to act but to also get them familiar and happy in the presence of a varied selection of people.
You don’t have to be confined to your house though. Yes, you don’t want to put your puppy on the deck until fully vaccinated but you can carry (assuming the puppy is at a manageable size) them with you. Picking the kids up from school or carrying your puppy when on a shopping trip with a partner or friend are great ways for your puppy to meet a large number and variation of people. These excursions can also help your puppy get used to your car and travel.
Exposure to Noises, Smells and Routine – don’t hide your dog away when vacuuming, using your hair dryer, washing etc. if you exude a worried aura because you are concerned your puppy will be scared they will pick up on that and associate your anxiety with the action you are undertaking. You are your puppy’s guiding light so if you just get on with activities in a calm way they will assume that it is cool you are vacuuming, it may make a noise, but it’s no big deal. If a puppy becomes agitated by the sound just reassure them and continue. In no time it will only be an insignificant strange thing that their owner has to do periodically.
So, in summary, don’t stop doing anything or be worried, these are everyday sounds/smells, etc. that your dog needs to experience and get used to.
If you are lucky enough to have a backyard, it is a great socialization area. Supervised play and exploration enables your puppy’s senses to be saturated with a multitude of smells and noises. They will also likely experience a number of different surfaces that they won’t have come across in the house. Acclimatization allows your puppy to gain confidence. The garden is also an excellent training area. Conducting training in the garden helps your puppy enjoy and accept the area and will help eradicate potential problems like excessive barking or digging that a bored or under stimulated puppy or older dog can engage in.
You may be able to expand your puppy’s know-how by taking them on short ‘walks’ in your arms. We live relatively close to a motorway/freeway that is a busy route with traffic pretty much 24/7. On a couple of occasions, I carried Charlie out to a bridge near our house and stood there, Simba like, for a few minutes so that he could get used to the somewhat amplified noise of traffic.
Other Dogs/Animals – it may be that you already have pets within your household. Most animals will get along fine when introduced sensibly. By ensuring this is a good experience it will encourage curiosity and bonding.
If you don’t have any dogs then getting a friend with a well behaved vaccinated dog to come over is a great way to help socialize your puppy. You must remember that your puppy is possibly experiencing meeting a dog (outside their immediate family) for the first time, so you want this to be a positive experience. Supervise the introduction and play. Your puppy is unlikely to take the rough and tumble and duration of play that an older dog can sustain so don’t let things go too far. You don’t want to over stress young limbs with excessive jumping, rolling, etc.
Once comfortable in the new dog’s presence it will probably be your puppy that is over exuberant. Well trained older dogs will teach the puppy what is acceptable so these sessions are precious to ‘normalize’ your dog’s behavior and set them up well for future interactions. It is lovely to see your dog drop to the ground, amiably, tail wagging in anticipation of meeting a new friend.
Training generally is a great way to engage your young puppy, teach them the behavioral expectations and consequently they become comfortable doing what you want them to in different areas with different levels of distraction. This will stand you in good stead for when you can fully explore outside the confines of your home.
From Final Puppy Injections
A week or so after your puppy’s second shots the world is your oyster. Walks are a source of adventure. You should seek out paths next to roads, tracks next to animals in a field, and generally, areas where you will meet other dogs. These are great opportunities to hone leash walking skills that should have been worked on during the 8 to 12 week period.
Introduce your puppy to different environments where they might meet other people/dogs such a park, woods or beach if you are lucky enough to live near such areas. These will be further chances to widen your puppy’s horizons and also an opportunity for you to ‘proof’ your training with significant distractions. A long line on your dog in these scenarios will enable them to have some freedom to roam but also for you to control them and work on recall and other commands.
It is crucial you exercise your puppy but not excessively. Their bones are still developing so should not be overused. It is easy to dismiss some of the guidance as your ball of energy looks like they could go all day but it is a case of getting the balance right. If your puppy still seems full of beans after a walk, then a training session in the house or food puzzle will stimulate them mentally that will also have a tiring effect on them and encourage them to settle.
For structured dog interactions then puppy classes are a good idea. Typically in these sessions, your dog will meet others, numbers dependent usually on the size of the venue. This in itself is useful especially if you have been unable to get your dog to reach as many dogs as you would have wished them to meet so far. You will then be taught and practice simple commands to conduct with your dog. If you have done well during the puppy’s formative weeks, you should be ahead of the game, but it is still useful concerning working under distractions – many dogs in a relatively confined area is a great way to test and develop your dog’s obedience.
How Much Socialization Does A Puppy Need?
The flippant answer is as much as humanly possible. Effective socialization is critical and the more experiences you can expose your dog to the better. The only caveat is around exercise and play – just remember your dog is developing and there will be plenty of opportunities further down the line for your dog to also enjoy the company of their furry friends.
Just have fun during your puppy’s development. Doing it well pays dividends for years to come. Have you guided a puppy through its early months? Were there any experiences that proved a challenge initially for your puppy or things you did that they loved and helped them mature effectively? Let us know how you got on.