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 seniors, backyards and basements, carpet and concrete, 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. “Puppies develop at a fast pace, so there is a small window of opportunity to effect positive development,” says Pat Hastings, co-editor of “Another Piece of the Puzzle: Puppy Development.”
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 things a puppy experiences during critical socialization periods, the less bothered the puppy will be throughout life when confronted by new things.
“The bounce-back is critical, which is why you must never feed into a puppy’s insecurities,” says Hastings. “You have to ignore puppies’ first fear reaction and 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 research by behaviorists, a dog’s behavioral makeup is 35 percent genetic and 65 percent due to socialization, nutrition, health care, training, and management. In other words, socialization cannot change temperament, but it certainly plays a role in behavior modification.
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.
Animal behavior studies have shown that puppies exposed to increasingly complex stimuli, or enrichment, sought out complex environments and were dominant over “stimulus poor” puppies. Those that lacked enrichment were inhibited, fearful, and looked for less complex environments, and often compensated with self-destructive behaviors such as chewing and licking.
“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. It should be consistent and firm but also gentle, patient, and loving.
“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.”