Many behavior problems including barking, fear aggression and separation anxiety can be prevented by socializing a puppy properly. I always tell my new puppy clients that I will “nag” them about socialization to ensure that they are spending enough time on this time-critical task. You can teach a dog of any age how to walk nicely on a leash, come when called or any other behavior. The most important socialization period occurs until a puppy is approximately 16-18 weeks of age.
While the socialization opportunities do not stop completely after that point, it is a time period that you will never get back as a new puppy guardian. During that critical time, I think of a puppy’s brain as a big ball of clay that is moldable. After that time, if a puppy hasn’t been exposed to new things their first reaction might be to be cautious, fearful or even aggressive.
Often times with my new puppy clients they feel overwhelmed with all of the tasks in front of them including housetraining, crate training, biting and all of the other behaviors that are on the list when training a dog. To make it easier on yourself with your new puppy, it is important to prioritize your time and spend a lot of time socializing your puppy before 16-18 weeks of age and then continue throughout his life.
What Should You Know About Socialization?
You should consider all of the situations that your puppy will be in over the course of his life and introduce him to them paired with fantastic things. The easiest way to do this is to bring treats with you everywhere you go and give small bits to form positive associations. Whenever your puppy notices something new, you should give him an outstanding treat to help him enjoy that event.
My favorite example of socialization is helping a puppy enjoy the event of a fire truck approaching and going by with the siren blaring. If you mark the event with a “yes” or ‘click” (if you are using a clicker) and then give your puppy a wonderful treat, your puppy will eventually hear a fire truck in the distance and look forward to the fire truck approaching.
The key with socialization is to make sure that your puppy is not stressed out. The easiest way to determine this is by using treats. If your puppy stops taking treats it is a sure indication that he is over threshold and you need to lower the intensity of the stimulus. Move farther away from the event and hopefully you can find a distance where your puppy will take treats. Always try and end on a good note if your puppy is uncomfortable. This will ensure that you are creating good associations. If your puppy remains stressed out, move away and add it to your list of socialization tasks that you need to focus on.
One key point to remember about puppies is that they do not generalize. What this means is that they don’t love “people” they love people that they are exposed to. What this means is that they need to be exposed to all sizes, races, ages and shapes of people for them to be socialized to people. They need to be exposed to countless sizes, shapes, temperaments and ages of dogs to be socialized to dogs. This is the same with noises, locations, movements and other experiences.
Socialization does not necessarily feel like “work”. You can make great progress by sitting outside at your local café with a pocketful of treats and ask anyone that wants to pet your puppy if they would give him a treat to help socialize him. You should also bring him to friend’s houses and make sure he can be in a travel crate and be quiet.
Here is a brief list of other things that you should consider for socialization. Just mark the event with a “yes” or a ‘click” and give an outstanding reward for examples such as:
- Leaf blowers
- Street cleaners
- Being on an elevator
- Being at the vet’s office
- Being in the car
- Getting a bath
- Vacuum cleaner
- Doorbell rings
Handling is also an important socialization topic. Give bits of your puppy’s dinner when you do the following:
- Rub his feet
- Touch his ears
- Rub his gums
- Gently pull his tail
- Open his eyes (eye drops someday)
- Cue tip in his ear (ear cleaning)
- Brush his coat