Socialization is the process whereby a puppy is given the opportunity to communicate and build relationships with other dogs, with people of different ages, races and genders, and with other animals, such as domestic and farm animals. Through socialization, the puppy will learn the necessary skills to interact with people and other animals, thus avoiding unnecessary stress or nervous aggression. The dog will also learn to cope with a variety of social situations and will be less likely to overwhelmed by stress as an adult. The term “socialization” often includes habituation, that is, where a puppy is introduced to different places, sights and sounds so that she becomes confident in coping with new situations and gets used to as many different stimuli as possible.
There are specific times in a puppy’s development that are more sensitive than others. The most important socialization period is between 3 weeks of age and around 12 weeks. Peak sensitivity is between 6 and 8 weeks of age. It should be stressed that most dogs will need continued social interaction to maintain their socialization and failure to do so will mean that they may become fearful and display nervous aggression. The period between 6 and 8 months is another important time for socialization and owners and trainers should use this time to reinforce socialization and introduce their dog to more surroundings, people and animals.
So, having looked at the advantages of socialization and the periods when it is most effective, we must now look at how to put it into practice. As a general rule, your puppy be introduced to new stimuli, people and animals in a careful and controlled fashion. Bear in mind that these formative experiences will affect the behaviour of your puppy for the rest of her life, so you must make them pleasurable and fun. They should give your dog something to think about, but if carried out in the right way, your puppy will learn that there is no threat and she is safe to explore and meet new friends and situations without being fearful. This will give her the best possible chance of developing a good temperament and capacity to cope in a large variety of situations.
The earliest part of a puppy’s socialization is carried out by the breeder, so if you choose a good breeder you can have confidence that they will have ensured that the puppies were handled frequently, as well as being exposed to normal household stimuli such as the television, vacuum cleaner, washing machine, doorbell etc. Puppies who are raised in too quiet an environment may have trouble getting used to a normal family environment.
So when you get your puppy home with you, it is your job to continue carefully socializing her with different people, animals and other stimuli. Remember the importance of introducing the puppy to new people, places, objects and situations only when you are in complete control of what is going on. A frightening experience will often be detrimental to your puppy’s confidence and development – avoid aggressive dogs and adults or children who do not understand how to be kind and gentle with animals. It’s a good idea to invite friends to your house soon after you bring your puppy home so she can quickly learn that guests are welcome in her new home. Give your friends small treats to give to the puppy so she is rewarded for successfully interacting with them. Try introducing her to one or two other friendly, healthy, fully-vaccinated dogs – she can join in with bigger groups once she has all her shots and has learned some interactive skills and has over-come any initial fears. Be vigilant during these sessions and always be ready to intervene if your puppy is scared, threatened or being bullied by another dog.
When socializing your puppy, it is important to evaluate your home and surroundings and assess what situations are lacking. For instance, if you live in the country, take your puppy to town and gradually and carefully let her become accustomed to crowds of people, noise and cars. Conversely, if you live in a town and these things are no problem, take your puppy to the countryside so she can see and smell farm animals and become accustomed to their proximity. In the same vein, make sure your dog meets some cats and other domestic animals who are dog-friendly. Don’t let her chase them as this will start a life-long habit that will be difficult to break. If you have no children, be sure to introduce your puppy to some children who can regularly play gently with her. Always supervise them to ensure the children are gentle and that your dog is responding well and not becoming nervous or aggressive.
During the process of socialization, it is important to always protect your puppy’s health before she is fully vaccinated. Don’t put her down on the ground where there may be dog urine or faeces, and don’t let her interact with other dogs that may not be vaccinated or may carry disease. You can still socialize your puppy by carrying her into different situations and taking her in the car, allowing her to see many different things from a safe environment – she will also get used to trips in the car at the same time. Use treats and praise to reinforce good behaviour. Do not comfort your puppy if she is fearful as this can be interpreted as praise for the wrong behaviour. Simply control the situation by asking people to back off or control their dogs, until she feels safe and secure once more.
All interaction with your puppy at this age involves consistently rewarding desirable behaviour which will increase the likelihood the dog will repeat this behaviour. It will also help to prevent the development of undesirable behaviour.
Another helpful step would be to enroll in puppy socialization and training class. This provides a great opportunity for puppies to socialize with other dogs, for puppies to learn obedience training in a playful environment with plenty of distractions and also for owners to learn training and communication techniques.