Coronavirus update: The pandemic has complicated this whole socialization thing. Click here for my thoughts on socialization in the age of social distancing.
*puts on best infomercial voice*
Would you like your puppy to grow up well-behaved and free of major behavior problems?
Are you looking for an effective way to burn off that endless puppy energy?
Would you like to have a fun time building an amazing bond with your puppy?
Have I got just the thing for you!
It’s called socialization, and it’s the best investment you can make for your puppy’s future, and your future mental health as a dog owner.
Dogs who are well-socialized as puppies bounce back quicker from things that startle them, are easier to train, and easier to live with in general.
Puppies who don’t receive proper socialization are at risk for developing all kinds of behavior issues, like:
- Fear or aggression
- Reactivity (aka that thing where dogs see another dog or person and go, for lack of a better term, completely apeshit)
- An inability to focus on you out in the world because all their energy is taken up by being REALLY OVERSTIMULATED! LOOK, A SQUIRREL! AND A LOUD CAR! AND THAT TREE IS BLOWING IN THE WIND! CRAZY!
Unlike obedience training, which can easily be done at any time in a dog’s life, socialization is more time-sensitive.
What is socialization?
Age 4-16 weeks is known as the Sensitive Socialization Period in puppies. This is when baby dogs form their opinions of the world, learn how to speak dog, and learn the basics of understanding humans.
Little Sparky’s brain is absorbing information like a sponge, and is completely open to new experiences. It’s a critical time for puppies and their new owners. What happens to a dog during this stage of development will have an impact on their behavior and personality for the rest of their life.
No pressure, or anything. (Well, maybe a liiiittle pressure)
You need to introduce your puppy to all kinds of things, people, animals, and places, and make those experiences happy and fun.
How to do it right
Socialization is my personal favorite part of raising a puppy. It’s all about having adventures! Just proceed carefully and deliberately, because the fact that a puppy’s brain is so impressionable during this time is a double-edged sword; bad experiences can leave as much of an impact as good experiences.
Here are some tips for successfully socializing your puppy, excerpted from Puppy Survival School:
At home, incorporate lots of new things into your pup’s daily life, in a chilled-out manner.
- Set up a “playground” to introduce new surfaces and textures. Use things like cardboard boxes and kids’ play tunnels. Build a pillow fort! This is your excuse to let out your inner child
- When the family hangs out in the backyard, push around large noisy objects (trash bins, garden carts, the kids’ ride-on toys, etc)
- Play weird sounds (thunder, car horns, cats meowing) on your phone/computer and let him listen
- Invite friends to stop by and play with the puppy
- Invite friends to bring their friendly, healthy dogs to visit
Out in the world, go on short, frequent adventures:
- Friends’ and family’s homes
- Walks up and down the street
- Hiking trails
- The lake or river
- Dog-friendly stores
- Restaurants with dog-friendly patios
- “Practice runs” to the vet’s office. No exams or needles, just quick visits to say hi to the receptionist
(If your puppy hasn’t had all their shots yet, carry them in public places, instead of letting them walk on the ground)
During the first visits to these places, just let the puppy get used to it. Let her explore at her own pace. Feed treats in these places, if she wants them, and watch for behavior you like so you can reward it. But you’re not asking much of the pup yet. You’re just letting her take it all in.
On later visits, once Sparky is becoming confident and relaxed in these places, you start asking for some of the basic training cues you’ve worked on at home. Practice sits, downs, and recalls.
The point isn’t to try to expose the puppy to literally every possible situation she might ever encounter, but to create positive associations with the concept of “new.”
The more positive experiences the puppy has, the more she learns that new things aren’t scary. She becomes an adult dog with an attitude of “oh, I can handle new things! I’ve seen so many new things before!”
Guidelines for success
You’re the puppy’s protector
You want your puppy to know he can use you as a safe home base. To learn that he can come to you if he gets overwhelmed. This teaches him that you are trustworthy and it builds your bond. And for a nervous puppy, it gives him the confidence to go forth and explore, knowing you’ve got his back. To this end:
Don’t force the puppy to do anything he doesn’t want to do
He can choose not to go up to a person/dog/object. If he wants to hide behind you or sit in your lap and watch, let him.
For example, don’t set the pup down in the middle of a mob of kindergartners and call it “socializing to children.” That could create the opposite lesson you want. Instead of “kids are great,” he either learns “kids are terrifying!” or, “kids mean SUPER CRAZY WILD FUN TIMES! WOOHOO I’M INCAPABLE OF BEING CALM AROUND CHILDREN!”
Lots of rest
Sparky should get plenty of downtime between socialization adventures, so his brain has a chance to process all the things he’s learning.
In every adventure, watch your puppy’s body language
You want him in a happy state for the vast majority of the experience. Try to avoid doing things that cause stressed, fearful, or overwhelmed body language. (We teach everything you need to know about body language in Puppy Survival School)
When in doubt, create distance
If the puppy does become stressed, fearful, or overwhelmed, calmly create distance between him and the thing that’s making him nervous. Take him away and let him observe from a distance until he’s relaxed again.
Socializing doesn’t always mean greeting
Sparky needs to ENCOUNTER a lot of people and dogs, but doesn’t need to MEET all of them. Puppies need to learn that we don’t interact with most strangers we encounter. This is an important detail that is often poorly communicated by us dog trainers (sorry, our bad).
No dog parks, please and thank you
Dog parks are bad for socialization for many reasons. Dangerous for under-vaccinated puppies, since you have no idea what diseases are lurking. And dog parks are full of dogs who are themselves under-socialized and therefore rude, obnoxious, or dangerous. You run the risk of everything from your puppy learning poor social behavior, to your puppy getting killed. If you want to do the dog park thing, save it for when your puppy is older, and has had a solid education in dog-to-dog communication.
If your puppy seems more afraid than a typical puppy, or barks at strangers, there are special considerations to, uh, consider
In this case, some standard socialization tactics may do more harm than good. Socializing the shy or fearful puppy is all about desensitizing them to things, which takes more time, patience, and structure. See: How Our Online Puppy Training Courses Can Help with Your Scared or Reactive Puppy
There’s lots more where this came from in Puppy Survival School
Through a combination of video and written lessons, you’ll learn:
- How to socialize a nervous puppy
- What to do about a puppy who barks at people
- How to introduce the puppy to new dogs and people
- Exactly how to do the “exposure without greeting” thing
- How to safely socialize before the puppy has had their shots
- What to do if something goes wrong
- How to teach your puppy to love car rides and thunderstorms
- How to decide if a “puppy preschool” is right for you, and how to pick a good one
And that’s just the socialization course! There are seven other courses included in the program, on everything from body language to biting.