Why is Socialization Important for Puppies?
People, animals, and environments that a dog is not exposed to as a youngster will be unsettling for her as an adult. This is precisely why many adult dogs become reactive, aggressive, or fearful. Raising a puppy in a social/environmental vacuum is more often the cause of behavioural problems in an adult dog than is abuse or being attacked.
Socialization is far more complicated than simply exposing a puppy to other dogs. Poorly executed attempts at socialization can be about as harmful as not trying at all. Below are important points to consider when bringing a new puppy into your home:
When to Start?
Your pup might appreciate a bit of quiet time while she is getting her bearings in her new home. Keep in mind, though, that the critical window of socialization ends around 16 weeks of age and it is important for your pup to have as many good and varied experiences as possible within this timeframe. Time is of the essence! Even if your pup spends the first day in and around your home, she will be exposed (and socialized to) daily living experiences – this might include the sounds of pots and pans, the television or radio, the windshield wipers in the car on the way home, and voices and movement around her. Once she is settled she’ll be ready to meet with other new experiences, as outlined below. Sign up for a puppy socialization class that starts approximately 7-10 days after her first set of vaccinations. Read this open letter from vet RK Anderson regarding common concerns about vaccinations and socialization.
Positive Experiences Only
To gain benefit from properly executed puppy socialization, it is important that every new exposure is strictly GOOD. If a puppy is brought to a dog park and picked on by older dogs, the puppy is going to learn that dogs can be frightening. If a puppy is walked next to a roaring transport truck, the sound will terrify her. If a puppy is introduced to children who poke and prod her, she will learn that children are a source of discomfort and fear. For a puppy to grow into a comfortable, confident, and resilient adult dog, her formative years should be filled with great experiences.
Counter Conditioning Makes Everything Better
Counter conditioning is the way to go to ensure that your pup is having good experiences. In a nutshell, counter conditioning is pairing something Bad with something Good in such a way that the Bad thing predicts that the Good thing is about to happen. Your dog’s emotional response to the Good thing (“yey!”) becomes associated with the previously unpleasant thing, causing it to be less unpleasant. (To learn more about counter conditioning, click here.) For example, if a puppy is afraid of a busy street, this busy street can be associated with incredibly tasty treats. It’s important to note that this fearful puppy should be exposed to new experiences incrementally. In this example, the owner may stand 20m away from the corner of the busy street and feed a bit of cheese every time a car goes by. Gradually, as the pup becomes comfortable through associating the car with the appearance of cheese, the distance from the corner can be decreased. This method is also a great proactive approach for pups who do not appear concerned at all. If they learn that every new experience is followed by something tasty, they will be more easily convinced that the world is a great place to be. (If you are experiencing difficulties with a fearful/reactive pup, please seek help, as this paragraph does not contain a full training plan.)
More than Just Dogs and People
Socialization with animals and people (social contact) is very important, but equally as important is socialization with environmental stimuli. This means that a pup should be helped to make positive associations with noises, objects, movement, and footing. Examples of noises could be fireworks, roaring trucks, yelling, hammering and sirens. Examples of objects could be fountains, overhangs on buildings, umbrellas, and statues. Examples of movement could be anything moving at a quick speed past them, such as traffic, bikes or the flapping of a flag. Examples of footing could be linoleum, sewer grates and open stairs. The list goes on!
Variety is the Spice of Life
A variety of experiences is important. A puppy who grows up with only greyhounds as companions may think a Bulldog quite strange or even frightening if she meets one later on in life. A pup raised with a white family and socialized only with their white friends may find an Asian person to be concerning if introduced later in life. A pup who has had contact only with the other family dog will not generalize this comfort to other dogs she comes across later in life. A dog raised with no contact with children cannot be expected to happily accept a new baby, friend’s toddler or a child reaching for them on the street. Being introduced to a large variety of people, dogs, other animals, and environmental stimuli is a very important aspect of socializing a puppy.
Puppies are not Blank Slates
Despite popular conceptions, puppies are not “blank slates”. An eight-week-old puppy has already had a world of influence before being brought home by her adoring family.
Genetics are a tremendous influence when it comes to how a pup will make sense of the world around her. A dog bred to the breed standard of “aloofness” or “guarding instinct” will be more difficult to socialize. They have been bred to be suspicious of those outside their immediate circle, and thus creating positive associations will be more difficult than with a pup who was bred to a more gregarious and outgoing breed standard. This holds true for dogs not bred to a particular standard, such as mill dogs or backyard bred dogs. The genetics from which they emerged will have tremendous impact on their ease of sociability and resilience to stress.
A pup’s prenatal environment will impact her resistance to stress, as well. If a bitch is stressed through her pregnancy, her pups will be less resilient to stressful situations than the pups of a bitch who was not stressed. If a bitch receives inadequate or improper nutrition, this will also negatively impact on her pups. In the Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Procedures and Protocols (ed. Steven R. Lindsay), he describes experiments on rats that demonstrated how “exposing gestating female rats to intense fear-eliciting stimulation resulted in unstable and emotionally-reactive offspring.”
A pups postnatal environment – even before her ears and eyes open – will impact her later in life. If she has no exposure to handling and the associated minor stress early on, she will be less tolerant of it later. Take a look at this video explaining US Military experiments on early neurological stimulation of puppies, or this article for a written description. A breeder’s work is never done when it comes to setting up their puppies up for success. A good breeder will safely expose their litter to as many experiences as possible during the two months or so that the pups are in their care. This includes handling and restraint, sound, social contact, changes in footing, etc.
Play it Safe!
Properly executed socialization not only means keeping your pup mentally/emotionally safe by having great experiences with a large variety of social contacts and environmental stimuli, it also means keeping her physically safe. Do not enter a heavily dog-travelled area such as an off leash area until your puppy is fully vaccinated. A dog park is no place for a young puppy. Not only is it a good place to teach her that other dogs can be unpredictable and potentially dangerous, it is also a good place for her to pick up parasites, bacteria or viruses – including parvovirus. A puppy class is a much safer place for your pup to play with other pups of her own age who will be more receptive to her puppy antics. Have play dates with other puppies or adult dogs who are known to be in good health and who enjoy the company of puppies. Find that balance between keeping your pup safe, but that promotes the extensive socialization a dog will need to live comfortably in our hectic human-centric world.
Puppy Socialization Position Statement by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior
The Perfect Puppy in 7 Days by Dr. Sophia Yin. Ebook
Puppy Primer by Patricia McConnell. Ebook.