You have your new puppy. You want to do everything right. Friends have told you that you need to "socialize" her.
Socialization is an important, yet often misunderstood concept in raising puppies. In the next few articles I am going to help explain what we, as trainers mean by socialization, what type of socialization exercises are beneficial to your puppy and which can be harmful.
In a nutshell, socialization means exposing a puppy to a variety of experiences, places, animals, other dogs and people in a manner that will not frighten the puppy, but rather allow her to gain confidence in these situations.
The roots of socialization start with understanding puppy and dog developmental stages.
As early as 3 weeks it is important to gently expose puppies to new textures, sounds, smells and gentle human handling. From 3-8 weeks, the puppies are learning how to communicate to other members of the canine community. It is vital that they remain with their littermates and mother during this crucial stage of development. They are learning the nuances of canine language and important lessons such as "bite inhibition." This occurs when a pup bites her littermate or mom too hard, and the littermate or mom might yelp and move away, leaving the biting puppy alone. Since the puppy wants to be part of her family, she will learn to control the force of her bite so as not to offend any further. Bite inhibition is one of the most critical skills a dog must learn. Dogs who do not have bite inhibition, or control of their mouth, will make serious mistakes as adult canines that may lead to abandonment by their human family into a shelter, and in tragic cases, euthanasia. Puppies who are separated from their litter and mother too early, such as at 5 weeks old, will struggle in the future with understanding how to interact with other dogs and with controlling the force of their bite. Puppies must remain with their canine family until at least 8 weeks, and some experts are beginning to suggest up to 12 weeks.
From 7-16 weeks the puppies are learning about the ancient relationship they have with another species...humans and our foreign world. This is a time when the puppies' minds are the most open and impressionable. Even as early as 4 weeks of age, it is good for puppies to be gently and kindly handled by human hands for a short time each day. As they grow to 7 weeks, exposure to the big wide world of people, places, other dogs, new smells, sights and sounds becomes even more important. Here is where well meaning people often err. The exposure to all of these new things must be done in a highly supervised manner where the puppy is not frightened. Because also at this time, between 8-11 weeks, is what is called the "fear imprint" period. During this stage of development, anything that frightens a puppy can have a lasting effect. If your puppy is showing signs of stress such as peeing, running away or shutting down, remove her from the situation. Fear does not help with socialization! Fear is the source of the majority of aggression in adult dogs. Dog parks are not recommended for socialization of puppies. They may pick up a disease and they may encounter an over- assertive or aggressive dog that will frighten them. Rather, carefully select the adults, children and other dogs that will interact with your puppy.
Things to do at this time to help your puppy can include: fun, social visits to the vet's office for treats (but not procedures unless necessary), touching her feet and toes, getting her accustomed to gentle grooming, making the bathtub a fun game, wearing different hats around, wearing big coats or backpacks, letting your puppy learn that other people mean good things such as games or food, having your puppy around calm, patient adult dogs who will tolerate puppy antics, but give gentle discipline for overstepping the boundaries of canine etiquette. Bring your puppy to new places, new environments, but always keep an eye on her stress level. Individual dogs vary. What is no big deal for one puppy might be very frightening for another. In short, keep it fun, secure and positive for these first three puppy months.
Louisa Morrissey is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) and owner of Skijor n-More. She is also a professional member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and a licensed Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer. www.skijornmore.com