In our Adopter’s Guide series, we’re helping you tackle every challenge puppy owners face so you can spend more time loving your pup and less time training her.
Did you know? Regardless of their circumstances, almost all badly behaved dogs have one thing in common: poor socialization.
As with humans, the early months create thought patterns that dictate a puppy’s behavior for the rest of his or her life.
This installment of our Adopter’s Guide series will teach you how to make the most of this decisive time in your pup’s life and make sure she grows up well behaved and anxiety-free.
What is Socialization?
During what’s called the “sensitive period,” a puppy’s brain is like a sponge, soaking up all her surroundings and drawing conclusions about what’s normal in the world. During this period, pups greet most everything with curiosity and neutrality. Until proven otherwise, the world is a safe place.
Like a human child, your puppy will develop a catalog of sights, sounds, smells, and experiences. If this range of experiences is wide, she will learn that “new” does not mean “scary.” She’ll carry this understanding with her for the rest of her life and be much less likely to greet unfamiliar situations with aggression.
When Should I Socialize My Puppy?
Right away. From the minute you get your puppy home, socialization begins!
Think of the “sensitive period” as a window of opportunity — when it shuts, it shuts for good. Measurements differ, but most experts say it lasts for the first 12 to 16 weeks of a puppy’s life.
Without good socialization, your puppy will grow up believing that going on the offensive is the best way to stay safe. This is how aggression begins.
How Do I Do It?
Socializing your puppy involves actively introducing her to as many sights, sounds, smells and textures as you possibly can.
To put it simply, take your puppy places! On a leash, in a car, in your arms, or in a child’s wagon if she’s heavy, take her everywhere you would normally go, and lots of places you wouldn’t.
Take her to the park, your neighbor’s house, your child’s school, your office. Visit a gas station, a farm, a construction site, a coffee shop…you get the point.
Teach her to use the stairs. Let her experience lots of ground surfaces, from grass and gravel, to pavement and metal gratings. As the seasons change, make sure she experiences falling leaves, snow, bright flowers and puddles.
Introduce your puppy to all kinds of people. It may sound silly, but make a special point of being multicultural. It’s not uncommon for dogs to develop insecurities around people of different races if they haven’t been exposed to them before.
Carry some high-quality treats with you and encourage polite passersby to stroke your puppy and feed her. People who use wheelchairs and walkers, delivery truck drivers, bearded men with deep voices, mothers with children, homeless people on the street — none of these folks should be unfamiliar.
The same goes for animals. Think about it: a puppy who plays with cats is far less likely to treat them as prey as an adult. If you live in the country, expose your pup to horses, cows, chickens, goats, etc. If you live in the city, take her to the park or to pet-owning friends’ houses.
When it comes to meeting other dogs, you’ll need to be a bit more cautious. Illnesses spread quickly among young dogs, so it’s important to make sure dogs are friendly and healthy before introducing her. Avoid dog parks until your pup’s vaccinations are complete.
Unfamiliar sounds can trigger fear in many young dogs. Make sure your pup hears police sirens, fire trucks, car horns, bird songs, music, obnoxious ringtones, banging pots and pans, doorbells, etc. If you don’t hear these sounds often, download free recordings from the Internet and play them at home every once in a while.
What About the Car?
Car rides are a normal part of doggie life and it’s crucial you get your puppy used to them. How? By taking things one step at a time.
First, set her on your lap inside the car and give her time to acclimate. Surround her with a favorite blanket or toy, and keep treats on hand.
Drive short distances at first, gradually increasing the time your puppy spends in the car. Start to take her on frequent rides to fun and interesting places, not just to the vet. Soon she will realize car rides are no big deal.