Megan Brooks CDT
What is socialization?
Socialization refers to exposing a puppy to as many different sights, smells, people, animals, places and experiences as you possibly can. When you provide quality socialization your puppy learns positive interactions. This lays the foundation on how your dog will react to new people, places and things for the rest of his life. Socialization builds a dog’s self-confidence and resiliency although it must occur only during a small window period. There is some speculation on how long the socialization period lasts but it is generally believed to start around five weeks of age and ends before the puppy is sixteen weeks old. Puppies who are well socialized will generally grow up to be confident and well-adjusted adult dogs. If a puppy is not socialized at an early age he may have fears, anxiety, obsessive or destructive behaviors, and in many cases even aggressive tendencies. Worse yet, if a puppy was traumatized during the critical imprint period by a loud noise or a man with a beard, he may develop a phobia of loud noises or become aggressive with men. If a puppy is removed from his mother before eight weeks of age, he misses out on critical socialization that he would receive from his mother and his brothers and sisters. For example, puppies learn what is called “bite-inhibition” by play fighting with their littermates. When a puppy bites another puppy too hard, the puppy yelps in pain. The first puppy then learns how hard is too hard to bite. If a puppy hasn’t learned about bite inhibition he may bite someone’s hand hard enough to draw blood during play. Socialization is crucial to your puppy’s health and well being.
When should a puppy be socialized?
Soacialization should begin early on while the puppies are still with their mother. Until the puppies’ eyes begin to open, handling them should be kept to a minimum. When they open their eyes at or around three weeks of age they should be exposed to gentle handling. At five weeks of age, when the puppies are more independent from their mother, early socialization can begin. Puppies should be at least eight weeks old before they are removed from their litters. Once this happens, it is suggested that you introduce your puppy to three new things each day. It is important that your puppy be exposed to all different types of people; men and women, big and small, with or without hats and/or beards. Expose him to new sounds and to different substrates on which he walks such as grass, sand, gravel and linoleum. Teach him to climb stairs even if you do not have stairs in your house. Once your puppy grows up to be 100 lbs and you move to a house with stairs, you don’t want to have to carry him up and down for the rest of his life! Take your puppy for car rides whenever possible and always ensure he is in a crate or harnessed in for his own safety. Socializing your puppy to other dogs is also very important but always follow your veterinarian’s advice on whether or not to expose your puppy to other dogs before he has had all of his vaccinations. Ensure that dogs that you do choose to expose your puppy to are current on their vaccinations.
The Critical or Fear Impact Period
The critical imprint period occurs between eight and ten weeks of age. It is also commonly known as the fear impact period. During this period puppies are especially sensitive to negative experiences. If a puppy is exposed to rough handling or extremely loud noises during the fear impact period it may have a negative effect on his behavior once he is an adult. Traumatic experiences during this period may take months or years to recover from.
The Primary Socialization Window
The primary socialization window overlaps the critical imprint period and occurs between eight and fourteen weeks of age. During this period, socialization, or lack thereof, has the most impact on your dogs temperament as well as his behavior overall. Now is the time to introduce your puppy to people, places and other animals. This period is the best time for housebreaking and beginning to learn formal commands such as sit, down, stay and come. However, please keep in mind that until your puppy is about five months old he cannot be expected to behave “obediently”.
Discipline and controlling your young puppy’s environment
Puppies should not be disciplined before they are five or six months old. Prior to this age, when they have no understanding of what is expected of them, it is your responsibility to be a patient leader as well as a teacher. Puppies are driven by instincts and will act on them without restraint. No matter how hard we try we cannot take away a dog’s urge to chew, bark, or eliminate. Instead we must patiently teach our dogs to fulfill such urges at appropriate times and in appropriate places. A young puppy cannot understand discipline yet. Trying to teach a young puppy using discipline would most likely do more harm than good. Instead, constant supervision is a must for the first year. This way, controlling your puppy’s environment is easy. When you control your puppy’s environment you ensure that he has very little chance of being naturally rewarded for unwanted behaviors. An example of a natural reward is when a puppy digs a hole. It is naturally rewarding because it is fun and it is a cure for boredom. The more time your puppy spends time by himself in the backyard, the more he naturally rewards himself for digging. By the time you find the holes he has dug, it is already a bad habit that may be difficult to break because the fun he has when he digs outweighs any punishment you can muster. That’s why they say that an ounce of prevention is worth ten pounds of cure when it comes to dog training.
Often times, people inadvertently reward fearful behavior in their dogs. For example, during a thunder storm a dog may shake and try to hide. This dog’s owner sees that her dog is frightened and she then picks up the dog and tries to comfort him by cradling him and telling him “it’s okay” in a soft voice. What this dog owner doesn’t realize is that she is actually rewarding the dog for his fearful reaction. What is the best way to handle a situation such as the one above? The best thing to do would be to act in a matter-of-fact way as if the situation is not a big deal. Furthermore, only reward calm behavior.
Creating positive associations
A dog can be reconditioned to view a scary situation as an enjoyable one by creating a positive association between the scary situation and a reward. (The reward is usually a high value food reward but some dogs are more highly motivated by a squeaky toy or a tennis ball.) To create a positive association with a new or previously scary situation, remember to take it slow. If you force your dog to move too fast your training will inevitably suffer. Expose your dog to the situation slowly and reward him for calm behavior. Soon he will associate the situation with good treats and fearful behavior should disappear.
Last Updated: Monday, December 14, 2009