Socializing your Puppy

Do you want your new puppy to grow into a confident, well-adjusted adult or a quivering wreck who snaps at visitors?

OK, this was a loaded question, but the matter of socialization is a crucial one.

Without adequate socialization a puppy will grow up frightened of their own shadow. That’s as it maybe, but often nervousness manifests itself as aggression and that fearful dog becomes a fear-biter.

Two puppies socializing

In case you hadn’t twigged already, the critical ingredient that’s key to deciding the fate of two identical puppies, is socialization.

Socialization is all about building confidence in novel situations so the puppy grows up into a confident, bombproof adult. This goes back to how dogs learn about the world around them. In the wild, puppies are on a steep learning curve because if they don’t learn the difference between safety and danger pretty quickly, it could be the difference between life and death.

To allow for this rapid learning, Mother Nature designed the young puppy’s brain to be plastic and an impression easily made.  For example, in those situations which he encounters that were pleasant, such as balls are fun to play with, then he’s liable to grow up recognizing balls are good fun rather than something to avoid. This window of opportunity or ‘socialization period’ is wide open until three months of age, and slowly shuts between then and 18 weeks of age.

After this time, objects not previously encountered are liable to be labelled as ‘suspicious’ or ‘potentially harmful’ and something to be avoided. Thus a puppy that’s isolated in young life grows up assuming everything dangerous. Not a good look!

Two Border Collie Puppies playing with a stick

Breeders and Socialization

Hey, wait a minute! If the socialization window is wide open until only three months, but I collect my puppy from the breeder at eight weeks of age, this means I only have four weeks to socialize him properly. I have less than one month to expose my puppy to cars, traffic, umbrellas, big dogs, cat…you name it, so he accepts them as normal. Yep, that’s about the measure of it.

Which is why it’s so very important you select a puppy from a breeder who takes socialization seriously. A breeder that raises the litter within the family home and exposes the litter to the hubbub of washing machines, vacuums, children, and a stream of visitors, is worth their weight in gold. Conversely, the very spawn of the devil are puppy farms, with puppies raised in metal pens totally lacking in stimulation. Remember, don’t walk away from a puppy mill – but RUN!

Early Weeks and Socialization

So you’ve brought your eight-week old puppy home. How do you socialize him?

The first thing is to brain storm and draw up a list of experiences to expose him to. This could be:

  • Traffic
  • Horses
  • Children
  • Men with beards
  • Women in hats….you get the picture

The important thing to remember is that each of these experiences should be positive or the meeting could backfire badly. Unfortunately this can mean screening children or people to check they are pet-friendly before introducing them to a pup. For example, a screeching child, who is terrified of dogs, is not a good choice to socialize your puppy with. Instead, look for a calm child capable of sitting still, whilst offering the dog treats.

Golden Retrievers on the beach

By now you’re probably shouting at the screen saying “My puppy’s too young to go out.” OK, we hear you. Then don’t put the puppy on the ground, but carry him under your arms. Stand outside the pet store cuddling a puppy and he’ll get plenty of socialization!

Also, speak to your vet about which vaccine they use, because there are now vaccines available which protect a puppy from disease and mean he can go out from 10 weeks of age.

Ongoing Socialization

Even after 18 weeks of age, a draft still blows through that nearly closed socialization window. No matter what your dog’s experiences in younger life, keep exposing him to new sights, sounds, and experiences. He will learn …but more slowly and although it takes more patience on your part, it is well worth the effort in the end.