Socialization is the first step in raising a well-behaved dog. During the first weeks of their lives, puppies go through a critical period of development. When a young puppy is exposed to new people, places, and situations in a positive manner, there's a good chance it will be able to be calm and accepting when experiencing similar situations throughout its life.
Properly socialized puppies are less likely to develop behavior problems as they grow into adults. Dogs who don't receive early socialization may react with fear or aggression when they are exposed to new things. It's much easier to teach your puppy to accept new things now than it is to retrain after bad habits develop.
Start Socializing Early
By the time it reaches about four months old, your puppy should be able to be comfortable meeting other dogs, handled by a veterinarian or groomer, and calm when approached by strangers.
Puppy socialization ideally should take place when your dog is between two and four months old. Because it has not received all of its vaccinations by this point, however, you should talk to your veterinarian about when it's safe to expose your puppy to new people and places.
It's important that your dog does not interact with unknown animals or walk in areas where unknown animals might have been. There are many diseases a puppy can pick up before vaccines are complete.
Introduce New People
Socialization should involve as many people and situations as possible. Introduce your puppy to a wide variety of people, including men, women, children of all ages, people in wheelchairs, and men with beards. You'll also want to expose your dog to people wearing all kinds of clothing like uniforms, sunglasses, raincoats and umbrellas, hats and gloves, etc. Before your puppy has gotten all of its vaccinations, you can begin to socialize it by inviting people to your home to meet him.
Expose Your Puppy to Loud Noises
Let your puppy see large objects fall or move. Expose it to noises like trucks and crowds of people. During these sessions, remain calm and reward him for remaining calm by offering treats as appropriate. However, don't go to extremes and expose him to frightening situations like fireworks.
Think of the ways your dog may be handled in its lifetime. A child could pull its tail; a veterinarian might need to restrain him, you may need to hold its feet to clip his nails. If you get your puppy used to being handled gently now, you will be less likely to have trouble handling it when it reaches adulthood.
Once your veterinarian approves taking your puppy to new places, you can begin socializing him outside your home. This is a good time to get him used to riding in the car, meeting other dogs, visiting the groomer and pet supply store, and taking walks in your neighborhood.
Can a Dog Trainer Help With Socialization?
Puppy training classes are a great way to enhance your puppy's socialization. Dog trainers usually refer to these classes as "Puppy Kindergarten." They should touch on the usual concerns of the new puppy parent, like housetraining and curbing destructive behavior. A good puppy kindergarten will also help your puppy to get comfortable with new people and being handled. Your veterinarian or local animal shelter should be able to help you find a good puppy kindergarten class.
Problems and Proofing Behavior
Socialization should always be kept positive. Allow your puppy to approach new things in his own time. You can use treats and praise to encourage your puppy to approach unfamiliar people and objects. Remember, never push your puppy past his comfort level, or he may become fearful of the things you are trying to get him to accept. This is a gradual process that takes consistency, and one experience at a time. Do not overwhelm your pet with dozens of new experiences in one day.
Mistakes to Avoid
Do your best to steer clear of these common mistakes when socializing your pup:
- Visiting the dog park too early: Dog parks are wonderful, but they can be overwhelming to a puppy. Instead of introducing your puppy to many other dogs all at once, start with a play date with one other canine friend and its owner. When the dogs become comfortable with each other (maybe even on their second or third visit) try a little off-leash playtime.
- Starting with too large a crowd: Instead of a music festival or parade, start with smaller outdoor gatherings like a dog-friendly cafe patio, a neighborhood park, or a friend's backyard barbecue. These social situations are much more manageable and are great ways to introduce your dog to smaller groups of people.
- Failing to make an escape plan: Even simple new experiences can end up overwhelming a puppy. Be sure to keep initial exposures to around 30 minutes, and always make an exit plan in advance so that you can easily leave a situation if it becomes too stressful for your dog.