What is Puppy Socialization?
Socialization is a very important learning process through which puppies become accustomed to being around different types of people, animals, objects and environments. Puppies have a short window between 3-16 weeks of age when they are learning how to be a part of society and form opinions on what is scary and what is safe. In the wild, these opinions can be a key to survival. Once they reach a certain age (over 14-16 weeks), they can start to become more suspicious of things that they have not yet encountered, even if the new experiences are positive.
Why is Socialization Important?
Well socialized puppies become more confident, relaxed and happy dogs. They are better able to tolerate changes in their environment. Puppies who have been well socialized tend to have fewer behavioral issues as they grow. Poorly socialized puppies are much more likely to react with fear or aggression to new people (young and old), changes in their environment and other animals. These dogs are at much higher risk of euthanasia due to aggression.
What do you Socialize Puppies to?
Everything! The more things they become accustomed to, the more relaxed they will be in a wider variety of situations. When socializing puppies to people, they should be people with different appearances: tall, short, various ages, races and genders. Hats, glasses, beards, boots, and carrying different things can change the way people look to a puppy, so it is important to change the appearances as well as the types of people the puppy will meet. Common household items such as brooms, vacuums, plastic bags, bikes, kid's toys, and garden tools are all items that should be introduced. Surface textures such as concrete, grass, wood floors, carpet, stone, and water are another consideration. Go for car rides, go for walks, listen to different noises (trains, sound CDs with thunder, door bells, and horns) or add any other situation your puppy may encounter in day-to-day life.
What is the Proper Way to Socialize?
Proper Socialization introduces puppies to new people, places, objects and situations ONLY when you can control the experiences. It is VERY IMPORTANT that the puppy have POSITIVE experiences. During this learning period, they can also learn to be fearful from negative experiences. The wider the range of positive experiences they are exposed to, the better the chance that they will be comfortable in new situations when they are adults.
Start with handling your puppy often in a positive and fun manner. Belly rubs, scratching around their ears, touching their toes, and feeling around and in their mouth are all ways to help your puppy get comfortable with handling. If they get upset or seem fearful, stop and start again later when they are in a happy mood. Try shorter sessions until they are comfortable, then move on to longer periods of handling. Treats are a great reward when puppies are learning new things. Once they are comfortable with you handling them, start to introduce them to new people, everyday objects, surfaces, sounds and places. Try not to overwhelm them, but instead introduce one new situation at a time.
Begin introducing the puppy to a new experience/object from a distance. Give treats and a lot of praise. Gradually move closer to the new experience/object while continuing to praise and give treats. Allow the puppy to investigate at its own pace. Keep watch that the puppy is comfortable before moving closer to the objects. When meeting new people, have them give treats and let the puppy approach them. It is better to not let them pick up the puppy initially until the puppy is comfortable. Finish the new experience with a fun activity such as tossing a ball or a belly rub.
If the puppy is scared (the tail is tucked, ears, back, tries to bite or run away), it can set back the socialization. Start with moving away from the situation/object. Do not coddle the puppy- this merely reinforces to them that it is indeed a scary situation. Instead, change the situation by playing a game, talking silly to them, or have them do something instead like “sit” for a treat. Once the puppy is relaxed, start again, even slower, approaching the situation- praising and treating the whole time. Sometimes it is better to re-approach the situation after a couple days of positive experiences.
Where to Socialize?
Everyday events and objects are a good place to start. Special trips to a friend’s or family member’s house, a ride in the car or to the store can make great places to socialize. We do not recommend going to dog parks until puppies are fully vaccinated and out of the prime time of socialization. Dog parks can be overwhelming for a puppy, and it is hard to control the experience to ensure that it is positive. It is very important to socialize to both big and small dogs. This can be done in an appropriate setting with friends' or family members' dogs that are healthy and fully vaccinated. Puppy Preschools and Puppy Obedience Classes can offer socialization during the early months. Always be sure to research and choose puppy classes that use only positive reinforcement (no choke chains or prong collars) and are geared to puppies.
Vaccines and Disease Risk During Early Socialization
Socialization is one method of preventing behavior problems in dogs; however, some oppose socialization before 16 wk of age due to the risk of contracting infectious diseases. The objectives of this study were to determine if puppies that attended puppy socialization classes and were vaccinated by a veterinarian at least once were at an increased risk of confirmed canine parvovirus (CPV) infection compared with puppies that did not attend classes and to determine the frequency of suspected CPV infection in puppies vaccinated at least once that attended classes with trainers. Twenty-one clinics in four cities in the United States provided information regarding demographics, vaccination, CPV diagnosis, and class attendance for puppies ≤ 16 wk of age. In addition, 24 trainers in those same cities collected similar information on puppies that attended their classes. In total, 279 puppies attended socialization classes and none were suspected of or diagnosed with CPV infection. Results indicated that vaccinated puppies attending socialization classes were at no greater risk of CPV infection than vaccinated puppies that did not attend those classes. --Taken directly from AAHA- TRENDS March 2013
As this study shows, for a vaccinated puppy the risk of developing parvovirus is low. For a poorly socialized puppy, the risk of developing behavior problems including aggression toward other animals or humans, anxieties and phobias, and avoidance of social interactions is high. By controlling interactions between healthy, vaccinated dogs, the benefit of early socialization far outweighs the risk. We still recommend taking precautions by having the puppy have their first set of DHPP vaccine and Bordetella vaccines at least ten days before their first class. Also having the puppy in the home for at least 10 days before the first class gives the family time to bond with the puppy and start building trust. It allows the family to monitor the puppy for any signs of illness such as coughing, sneezing, runny eyes or nose, lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, lack of appetite or low energy. If the family sees any of these symptoms they should contact their veterinarian and avoid going to puppy classes until the symptoms have resolved. This helps keep a healthy puppy class. When researching a puppy class, make sure it is held in a location that can be thoroughly cleaned with disinfectants.
Puppy Socialization is not an all or nothing project. The more people and experiences you can introduce puppies to, the easier it is to help shape a happy and relaxed member of society. Just as children learn a new vocabulary by exposure, puppies can develop a vocabulary of experiences that they are comfortable with. Most importantly, through planned socialization you can control your puppy’s experience so they can have a strong foundation of positive experiences. When you put the work into positive puppy socialization, the outcome will be a happy, confident, and relaxed family member.
Socialization should be a lifelong event. Even after their primary socialization window has closed, continue to allow your dog to have new experiences. Variety is the spice of life! Each new positive experience will help your dog learn and build their confidence in new situations.
Watch this video from the AVMA on the importance of socialization through your dog's lifetime.