Everybody who has ever loved a puppy knows how impressionable they are when they are babies. A puppy’s mind is so malleable, and there is so much for him to learn! The time between the ages of four and sixteen weeks are probably the most important of a dog’s life- this is when they are learning what kind of place the world is. This is the time when they are the most accepting of new things, the most adaptable to the weirdness that is the world we live in. After the age of 16 weeks, that window closes. Everything past this point is not the same. Yes, you can teach an older pup or an adult dog how to adapt, but it is not with the natural acceptance of a pup in his prime socialization period.
There also exists during this same time a fear period, which happens generally between the ages of eight and twelve weeks. During this time, anything that scares or traumatizes the puppy can be especially damaging. A pup will typically be more suspicious and worried in general during this time, so it is important to show him what a great place the world is in a way that he finds fun, rewarding, and– most importantly– safe.
Many people think of socialization as being with other dogs or with people only, but it is so much more than that! You want to expose your pup– in a positive way!– to anything he might encounter in the future. Think big. Think outside the box. But also think keep it fun. Keep it safe. You do not want to scare your puppy. You do not want to put too much pressure on him to interact with new things if he is timid or shy. Too much pressure can make it into a bad experience. Remember: with socialization, it is all about making it a positive experience!
People. Socializing your baby puppy with a wide variety of different people will set the stage for him to be as friendly and outgoing, as welcoming and accepting, as possible when he grows up. You want to give him positive experiences (think tasty treats! think toys and play!) with people of all ages, from toddler to the elderly. You want to expose him to people of different ethnicities. You want to expose him to men with facial hair and women with sunglasses. You want to expose him to people in uniform, to people who use a cane or a walker to get around, to people wearing hats or carrying umbrellas. Dogs are not good at generalizing– just because he’s met one person does not mean that he has come even close to meeting them all. The more rewarding and fun experiences you can give him with all different types of people, the happier a dog he is going to be.
A great place to do this is at a shopping center. You’ll meet all different types of people there. Just hang out outside of the stores and, as long as your pup is happy and comfortable, invite and encourage people to come over and meet him. Tiny tasty treats can go a long way into making strangers more inviting. Remember to keep track of your puppy’s emotional state, however. If he is cringing away or trying to hide, you are pushing too hard and need to back off. Maybe have someone toss treats to him from a few feet away instead of approaching closely. Maybe find a place with fewer people or less commotion. You do not want to push your pup out of his comfort zone. This needs to be a happy thing for him, not a stressful one.
Different environments and different footing. Oh the places you’ll go! You want to introduce your pup to them young. Take field trips. Let him walk on dirt and grass, on sidewalks in town, on wooden decks and slippery floors. Some stores, especially hardware and feed stores, will let you bring your pup inside– just make sure that you ask first. There are all kinds of things for him to see and hear and experience out there. Use your imagination!
Sounds. The world is full of sounds, and they can be scary if the dog is not used to them. Get your pup used to the sounds of the world– the vacuum cleaner, the sound of traffic while you’re walking down the street, the sound of a band playing in the park or the radio blaring.
Gentle handling. Puppies don’t come automatically tolerant of being handled and manipulated in the ways we need to do for grooming and healthcare. They don’t necessarily come with the desire to let you look in their ears, look in their mouths, touch their feet and trim their toenails. Now is the time to start teaching them! You can save yourself so many headaches down the road by touching your puppy all over now, but doing it slowly so as not to scare him or intimidate him, all the while popping tasty treats into his mouth so that he associates the strangeness of having all his parts checked with Good Things For Dogs. Now is the time to get him used to having his nails trimmed, to being bathed, to being groomed, especially if he is of a grooming-intensive breed.
And last but certainly not least, other dogs. Socializing your pup with other dogs is possibly the most fun part of all of this– puppies are so much fun to watch when they’re playing– but you need to be very careful with how and where you do this. You want to expose your puppy to dogs that you know to be safe and healthy. You want to create a safe and controlled environment– not one that could become scary or dangerous. And you want to keep in mind that your pup needs socialization the most during the time when he’s not fully vaccinated, so you want to control who and what he is exposed to from a health standpoint as well.
Puppy class is a fantastic option for this. I cannot say enough good things about well-run, positive-reinforcement-based puppy classes. A good puppy class will confirm current vaccinations for each puppy, minimizing risk of exposure to diseases like Parvo. A good puppy class will manage interactions between puppies so that no puppy is allowed to bully or be bullied. The controlled interactions will give puppies the socialization they need but without much of the risk of getting hurt or scared. This is exactly what puppies need!
Dog parks, on the other hand, are not a good place at all for socializing your pup. In a dog park, you have no proof of vaccination status. You don’t know what diseases or parasites are lurking there in the dirt and the grass. You also have no idea what kind of temperaments the dogs coming into the park at any given moment are going to have. There is such a great risk of your puppy being hurt by an intolerant adult dog, or scared by excessively rough play. These things can have lifelong implications if they happen at the wrong time or to the wrong puppy. It is just not worth the risk.
So the take away from all of this? Get your puppy out in the world. Show him all there is to see and teach him that it’s all good. Be free with your rewards. Be creative in your adventures together. And above all, have fun with him!