Most puppy owners would agree that socializing a new puppy is very important. But, I’ve come to realize that there are way too many misconceptions out there regarding “socialization”. Some puppy owners believe that because they have another dog (or dogs) in the family, or because they have children in the family, that the puppy will get all the socialization it needs at home. Others believe that their puppy must complete it’s full series of vaccines before starting socialization. Many new puppy owners have the best of intentions, but time just seems to slip away and they never get around to socializing their puppies. I’m here to set the record straight – socialization is the single most important thing you can do for your new puppy!
In technical terms, socialization is the developmental process whereby puppies and adolescent dogs familiarize themselves with their constantly changing surroundings. Essentially it means that puppies have to encounter and be comfortable with all of the things you want them to accept gracefully as adults. That means all kinds of people, other dogs, other animals, noises and sights, etc. Once they reach a certain age—around 4 to 6 months—their ability to easily accept new experiences begins to wane. If they have not been well socialized by that time there is a much greater risk of developing all sorts of behavioral problems stemming from fear—aggression, agoraphobia, reactivity towards certain people, animals, or situations, etc. As a dog trainer, I can assure you that most of the behavior problems I am called out to “fix” could have been prevented with proper socialization. (The exceptions being puppies that have inherited problem behaviors form their parents, but that’s a whole other blog post!)
It’s our job to help our puppies make positive associations with the things in their environment. Teaching your puppy that the world is safe will help prevent behavior problems in the future. Remember, while now is a crucial time to socialize your puppy, the need to see and experience new things will continue throughout your puppy’s life.
Think about the things your puppy will see every week as an adult and make sure you visit those places, see those people, or experience those things now. Help him form positive associations by cheering and praising him when he encounters something new and when possible offer a treat, too. If he seems even a little bit nervous move a little distance away, give him treats, and then move on—anything he’s unsure about should be encountered in short bursts. Walk away from whatever it is and then walk back. As he sees or hears the “scary thing” start your cheerful happy talk praise and break out the treats. When you move away from it, go quiet and stop the treats. We want your puppy to learn that the presence of the scary thing is what makes you give him the food. He begins to associate the food with the new experience and realizes that “Hey, that new thing really isn’t so bad after all.”