Why Socialization Is So Important

Jason Cook

apl-smThe sensitive period for socialization in dogs is three weeks to three months.  This is the time in your puppy’s life when he is curious about new things and ready to meet and bond with people.  It’s important to take advantage of this developmental stage so you can teach your puppy that all kinds of people and dogs, objects and environments are safe.  Once the developmental window closes, your puppy’s default behavior will be to fear anything new.

The more positive experiences you provide for your puppy during the critical period of three weeks to three months, the happier and less fearful she’ll be when she confronts new things in the future.  Give your puppy plenty of positive experiences so that she can learn that the world and people are fun and interesting.  Intensive socialization should continue throughout your pup’s first year.

A great way to introduce your puppy to other dogs, people, objects and environments is to enroll in a puppy socialization and training class.  These classes provide a safe and fun space for you and your puppy to explore together and develop a strong bond.  While some veterinarians still advise that a puppy should not meet other dogs or unfamiliar things until she is fully vaccinated, the newer behavioral perspective is that waiting to socialize and train your puppy is detrimental to her development.  As stated above, it is essential that we take advantage of the critical window in order to help our puppies develop into happy, confident dogs.  By taking your puppy to class, you are ensuring that she will be introduced to other healthy, vaccinated pups.

Training Your Pup to Enjoy Handling

The first step in socialization is teaching your puppy to enjoy the kinds of handling that will be necessary for her everyday care, as well as hugs and cuddles.  What many people don’t realize is that most dogs don’t naturally enjoy being hugged.  However, they can learn to not only tolerate, but to like being held close.

Start by getting your puppy used to every position that she might potentially be held in.  While you hold your pup, give her treats to reward her and distract her if she starts to struggle.  Avoid letting her go when she struggles.  Rather, release her when she relaxes.  It’s important to support the puppy well while you are doing these exercises.  These activities will teach your dog to be the perfect patient at your veterinarian’s office.

Practice grooming your pup, cleaning her eyes, clipping her nails, brushing her teeth, and grabbing her tail.  Always provide plenty of treats when you are first doing these exercises.  Don’t forget to take treats along to your pup’s veterinary and grooming appointments!  Be sure that everyone who will be involved in your pup’s care does these exercises with her.  Remember to hold your puppy so that she feels secure, and use food to distract her from struggling and provide a positive association.

Train Your Puppy that Having Her Collar Grabbed is Fun

We often grab dog’s collars to get them out of trouble.  Many dogs are scared by this sudden grabbing and become fearful or turn their heads to bite the hand holding the collar.  Teach your dog a “gotcha” collar grab so she learns that having her collar grabbed is fun.  To do this, grab her collar and use it to gently guide her towards a special treat.  You will build a positive association between the collar grab and the food so that your puppy will react happily to being grabbed in the future.  You’ll know that you’ve been successful when your pup reacts to the collar grab by looking to you for a treat.

Providing Positive Experiences with All Kinds of People

A good goal for this part of socialization is to give your puppy positive experiences with 100 different people in 100 days.  The experiences must be positive, not just neutral or negative.  Have unfamiliar people feed your puppy treats while she greets them.  Be sure that your puppy looks happy and relaxed during these interactions.

Prevent your puppy from learning the bad habit of jumping on kids and guests by having her sit and feeding her a continuous stream of treats.  Once your puppy is staying seated reliably, you can decrease the rate of treat delivery.
Your puppy should meet men, women, kids, people wearing hats, tall people, people with deep voices and, well, you get the idea.  It is important that your puppy be socialized to people of all kinds, as her reaction to one individual may be different than her reaction to another individual.

Providing Positive Experiences with Well-Behaved Dogs

Just as it is important for your puppy to meet many different people, it is essential that your puppy is given positive experiences with many different dogs.  Make sure that she interacts only with dogs who behave appropriately with puppies.  For example, do not force her to interact with a large dog who continually pounces on her.  If you do, she may become fearful and defensively aggressive towards other dogs.  Set up playdates with vaccinated, well-behaved dogs so that your puppy has positive associations with members of her own species.  Avoid allowing her to play with dogs who are too rough so that she does not learn to play in an overly aggressive manner.  Also avoid dogs who pounce on and scare her, or who pester her when she tries to get away.

At the same time, be sure that your puppy does not pester the other dog.  Some dogs like to play a little, but not as much or as often as a puppy.  Puppies can learn from older dogs’ body language when they are being inappropriate.  A raised lip can tell a puppy to back off.  It’s important to teach your puppy that when the other dog raises his lip, roars, or snaps, your puppy should leave him alone and come back to you when you call her.

Recognizing Fear and Anxiety in Your Pup

When socializing your puppy or adult dog, it is important to recognize signs that she is fearful or anxious.  Your pup must have a positive experience to make the socialization experience a good one.  Some signs to watch for include:

  • Holding the ears out to the side or back, accompanied by a furrowed brow.
  • Licking the lips in the absence of food.
  • Not eating, even special treats.
  • Yawning when not tired.
  • Panting when not hot or thirsty.
  • Acting sleepy or lethargic, and moving slowly.
  • Cowering.  The dog leans away with his head and body lowered and his muscles tense.  He averts his gaze to avoid confrontation.  The dog may show the whites of his eyes (whale eye).  His ears may be flat against his head, and his tail tucked.

If you see any of these body postures, put more distance between your puppy and the thing that is scaring her.  Tell her how brave she is when she begins to relax, then end your socialization session for the day.
Providing your pup with socialization experiences is one of the best things you can do for her.  These early experiences will help your pup develop into a confident and happy dog.  Shelter dogs that people think were abused were often simply under-socialized.   Lack of socialization can result in fear of people, other dogs, and changes in the environment.

Though the critical window for socialization closes around three months of age, it is vital that newly-adopted adult dogs be given the kinds of experiences described above.  In some cases, you must progress more slowly as you introduce your dog to new things.  There is evidence that socialization may not be as easy or successful for fearful adult dogs, but this should not discourage you from doing everything you can to provide your dog with positive experiences.