Nothing is more fun than introducing a litter of puppies to the world. Interactive playtime with balls, squeaky toys, climbing obstacles, and games of hide-and-seek helps puppies put a paw print forward on socialization. Add in children and adults of all ages, backyards and basements, carpet and concrete, vacuum cleaners and hair dryers, and puppies will be well on their way.
Puppy socialization focuses on that sliver of time to shape puppies toward becoming confident, well-mannered, and cooperative adult dogs who will enjoy interactions with a wide variety of people, animals, activities, and environments. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recommends that ideally, socialization should begin during the sensitive period of between 3 and 14 weeks of age for puppies.
Providing positive and diverse experiences for a puppy at this time is a big help in preventing them from developing fearful responses and some behavior problems, and helping them live low-stress, happy lives. That’s why it’s especially important to ask any breeders you are considering buying a puppy from what detailed plans they have for the socialization of their puppies. And the importance of socialization continues when you bring your new puppy home.
“Puppies develop at a fast pace, so there is a small window of opportunity to affect positive development,” says Pat Hastings, co-editor of “Another Piece of the Puzzle: Puppy Development.” By the time they are 8-to-9 weeks old, puppies are ready to explore the world, although their exposure should be limited to areas where they will not come into contact with unvaccinated dogs since they have not yet gotten all of their puppy shots. Socialization should include regular positive interactions with people, other dogs and cats, and other animal species, as well as participation in puppy classes that focus on socialization and are supervised by knowledgeable trainers.
Help Them Bounce Back
As puppies explore, Hastings considers “bounce-back,” the ability to recover from first being afraid, as one of the most valuable behavioral traits a puppy learns. Socialization reduces the number of things in the world that frighten a puppy by continually providing the experience of first being afraid and then recovering. The more experiences a puppy has during critical socialization periods, the less bothered the puppy will be throughout life when confronted by new objects, animals, and people.
“The bounce-back is critical, which is why you must never feed into a puppy’s insecurities,” says Hastings. Although when introducing new experiences, you should try not to overwhelm your puppy, “you have to let them figure it out for themselves without interference from you. If you ignore it, they usually will, too. The next time, they likely will not give it a second thought. This is the bounce-back.”
According to AKC Chief Veterinary Officer Dr. Jerry Klein, puppies that grow into confident dogs are exposed to people of different genders, ethnic backgrounds, sizes, and ages. Beards, hats, backpacks, umbrellas, uniforms, and wheelchairs introduced slowly and gently help puppies see the world as non-threatening. Take short car rides, stop in at the vet’s office, walk by a playground, and go to a shopping center. Introduce these experiences kindly and gradually in small amounts or from a distance, and use praise, treats, and a positive tone of voice to convince your pup that these things are great.
Dog owners should also gradually and gently handle the feet, ears, mouth and all parts of a puppy’s body so he won’t be afraid to be touched by a stranger or a vet.
Purina Senior Behavior Scientist Ragen T.S. McGowan, Ph.D, agrees. “During this important developmental window, puppies’ brains are highly receptive to learning about the world around them. Especially for puppies with less bold temperaments, the key is to introduce them to novel things in the most playful and positive way possible.”
Although puppies are born with the ability to be cooperative social partners with humans, socialization is the key to success in helping them develop confidence and the ability to handle new situations. Opportunities that are missed during the critical socialization period put puppies at risk of becoming shy, fearful, defensive adult dogs.
Step Up the Stimuli Gradually
In addition to socialization with people and other animals, introducing a pup very gradually to different aspects of the environment can also help him develop into a confident, happy dog. This includes walking on leash in areas where there are lots of people, children, cars, strollers, and bicycles; and on a variety of surfaces such as concrete, metal, sand, and linoleum; and around different noises and smells.
“During socialization, make sure to provide praise, play, and/or treats to reward positive engagement between your puppy and the people, pets, places, or things to which you are introducing him or her,” McGowan says. “Take baby steps to introduce your puppy slowly to new things.”
In a nutshell, the more puppies experience, the more accepting they become. In reality, socialization lasts the entire life of a dog. At different stages of his life, a dog may react differently to objects and people, so it is critical to be aware of his reactions and adjust in a gentle, patient, and loving manner to his needs – while at the same time continuing to reinforce good social interactions.
“Socialization requires creativity and must occur during this critical period of development,” Hastings says. “There is no substitution for intensive and ongoing socialization for all puppies.”