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Socializing Your Puppy

You’ve heard the old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”? This is definitely the case when it comes to socialization for your puppy. His early experiences will shape his personality, how he deals with stress and how he reacts to the world around him.

What is socialization? It is the process of introducing your pup to new situations, animals, people and noises while he is young so that he becomes comfortable with his world…even something he finds frightening at first. This prevents fear or aggressive responses when he encounters these situations as a grown dog. Sounds simple but socializing a pup is really a big project and requires some planning.

What do you include in your socialization project? Well, look at yourself, your lifestyle and all the things in it: people, animals, places, sounds. To be well-socialized, your pup needs to be exposed to all these things and not just a quick run through the park but exposed long enough and often enough to be comfortable with them. You might look for ways to include such things as big trucks, playgrounds full of children playing, crying babies, cats, livestock, car rides, crowds of people, busy streets, rain, grooming, vet office visits, and any other experience your pup might run into in your daily routine.

When do you start socialization? There’s a window of time starting at 3 weeks old and ending at 12-16 weeks old when pups are most accepting of new experiences. Just look at an 8 week old puppy…they are exuberant, vivacious and run to meet new adventures…perfect for socialization. Meeting people is very important and a range of different types of people—tall, short, men, women, old, all ages of children.—the more, the better. After 12 weeks old, puppies become much more cautious of anything they haven’t experienced and it becomes harder to get the pup to accept and enjoy something new.

How do you begin? Go slowly. It is very important for your pup to remain confident and comfortable. Introduce your pup to new things under controlled conditions starting at home.

  1. Play on different surfaces: wood, carpet, tile, cement, grass, wet grass, dirt, chairs, table…

  2. Play with different types of objects: fuzzy toys, large and small balls (not small enough to swallow), toys that make sounds, different types of chew toys, cardboard, plastic soda bottles, milk jugs, car keys…

  3. Play in different locations: on a box, in a box, in a tunnel, over a log or bridge, in a bathtub, front yard, lake, car, kennel, veterinarian office (just to say hi), grooming salon (just to say hi)…

  4. Expose him to noises: vacuum cleaner, washing machine, music, clapping, children playing, doorbell, motorcycles, big trucks…Get the idea?

Now, it’s time to get the show on the road…but…

What About Disease Risk with a Young Puppy? Most puppies, just like human babies, aren’t fully protected against diseases they are vaccinated against until they have had all their shots. This is caused mainly by interference from the antibodies a puppy gets from its mother. The problem is that if you wait until the pup’s immune system is developed, you will miss the crucial socialization window.

How do you keep your pup safe and still socialize him? Use creativity and common sense. Don’t take a young pup to a dog park or anywhere unvaccinated or sick dogs might frequent. (Remember: Dogs carrying disease may not show any symptoms.)

If he’s small enough, carry him around town and let strangers pet him and give him treats. Take him to soccer games or birthday parties (if allowed). Drive around with your pup—down country lanes where he can see and smell farm animals, through a car wash or a drive-thru. Sit on the bench outside a busy mall and let passers-by talk with and pet your pup. Attend a puppy class. Invite family and friends over and have a puppy party. (Remember: Always watch your pup and don’t overwhelm him.)

Hint: Practice calling your pup to you in a confined area of your house, or backyard. Teach him to come with treats and praise. NEVER chase your puppy when you are training him to “come”. He will think you are playing a game and this will be hard to break. If anything, run away from your puppy and when he chases you, offer a treat as a reward.

What if he shows fear or nervousness? Make sure he remains as safe and comfortable as possible. Watch your pup’s reactions. Meeting a bunch of strangers or encountering a garbage truck can be overwhelming and you must be able to back off of the situation if he becomes frightened or nervous. Never force him to approach anyone or anything. Let him explore his world on his terms. For example, if a playground full of noisy children seems to scare your pup, back away some distance from the action and let him watch for a while and then slowly advance as his comfort level allows. Use praise and treats to help convince him that his world is a great place to be.

How long should your pup’s sessions last? Puppies get tired very quickly, so don’t overdo it. Watch your pup and let his reactions tell you when the session is winding down (usually 5-45 minutes). Make sure your pup is well-rested and confident going into a new situation and always end a socialization experience with petting, treats and praise. You want him to remember it as a fun experience.

Ounce of prevention…or pound of cure? Your goal is for your pup to grow into a dog that is relaxed around strangers, gets along well with other dogs and adapts easily to new experiences and situations. Without all the time and effort you put in with your pup during this precious socialization window of puppyhood, you could end up with a poorly socialized dog, fearful and reactive, who can’t cope with being outside of his home.

Give your pup the best possible start by making sure he has early, safe and positive experiences with a variety of people, places, surfaces, sounds and temperatures and you will be rewarded with a wonderful companion. After all, an ounce of prevention is so much better than that pound of cure later.

Happy Tails!

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