The Importance of Puppy Socialization
The most common training problems in adult dogs are, surprisingly, the result of poor socialization during their puppy months. Dogs that show aggression to other dogs, are afraid of wet grass, and those who don’t like nail clipping or baths, are all behaviors that could have been prevented with socialization.
The question is, though, what is socialization, how can it prevent all these behaviors, and what is the best way to go about it? All these questions, and more, are answered below:
What Is Socialization?
Socialization sounds like a complicated process, but actually it is just purposefully exposing your puppy to as many sights and sounds as possible. By introducing your puppy to different sensations, such as walking on wet grass and car horns, you are desensitizing them to the stimulus through repeated positive exposure. When not given the opportunity to experience these things in a calm and positive way, many puppies grow up not knowing how to react to these new environments and develop behavioral problems as a result.
Between the age three to ten weeks, puppies start to have a fear response to new stimuli (Howell, King, & Bennett, 2015). This is the perfect age to start positive experiences to other people, pets, and sights, so that the fear response does not remain. It is only through repeated, positive exposure, with lots of treats, praise and toys, will the puppy lose this negative reaction. While it might seem complicated, socialization is as simple as going for a daily walk to a new location every day.
Why is Early Socialization Important?
Many owners leave the animal shelter, puppy in arms, to the mantra, “Socialize, socialize, socialize,” but why is socialization so important for puppies? Essentially, this early socialization experience will shape your pup into their adult dog personality. When given a range of experiences, either through touch, smell, sight or hearing, puppies are given a chance to develop healthy responses to these stimuli for life. When these experiences are had, however, also shapes who they will become.
Studies have shown that puppies socialized early in life will display less inappropriate aggression and fearfulness later on (Howell, King, & Bennett, 2015). In fact, it is believed by many researchers that there is a period between three to fourteen weeks, that marks the window for socialization. Experiences encountered after fourteen weeks, such as vacuums, humans or cars, will automatically receive a fear response and be more difficult to desensitize dogs to. While not conclusively proven, many researchers believe that puppies not exposed to human contact before fourteen weeks old will never reach the depth of relationship possible when socialized early.
In order to help your puppy grow into a happy and confident dog, early socialization is critical to forming positive lifelong experiences.
What to Focus on and How to Do It:
A big concern for many pet owners is how to socialize a puppy without exposing them to dangerous illnesses before they are fully vaccinated. While this is a valid concern, it is still advised to venture out with your puppy immediately after their first round of vaccinations. A study with the Journal of American Animal Hospital Association found that the risk of a puppy contracting the parvovirus when enrolled in a puppy class, having already received their first round of vaccinations, was not any higher than puppies who waited to receive all their shots (Stepita, Bain, & Kass, 2013). When combining this with the small exposure window to create positive experiences, getting out there with your pup and making good memories becomes key.
Many dog trainers recommend lists of activities to include with your pet that are similar to sensory play with toddlers. Playing on wet grass, walking across metal surfaces, getting used to crowded streets and having positive experiences with all different types of people will all contribute to your puppy learning to love these environments. While you can go through these lists step-by-step, simply including your pet in your everyday activities is the first step to good socialization. Take them in car rides, walks to the market, visits to family, and long walks in the city will be incredibly useful experiences as your puppy grows.
While they are on these socialization trips with you, always bring plenty of treats and show them positive attention, so that they feel reassured these scary new things are positive. Never force them to continue when they are afraid, but let them slowly become used to new sights and sounds, along with plenty of praise. By pairing these new experiences with positive rewards and patience, the puppy will be able to have positive associations to things that they may have become afraid of later.
If you would like a resource list of experiences to include in socializing your puppy, here is a good list to start with when including your puppy in daily activities.
By Lauren Pescarus
Howell, T., King, T., & Bennett, P. (2015). Puppy parties and beyond: the role of early age socialization practices on adult dog behavior. Veterinary Medicine: Research and Reports,143-153. doi:10.2147/vmrr.s62081
Stepita, M. E., Bain, M. J., & Kass, P. H. (2013). Frequency of CPV Infection in Vaccinated Puppies that Attended Puppy Socialization Classes. Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association, 49(2), 95-100. doi:10.5