All animals have a period in the beginning of life where they learn about their world. In this period, they learn what is safe and what is unsafe. At the end of this period, anything this animal did not learn as "safe", becomes classified as "unsafe". This serves an important evolutionary purpose for all animals - from dogs birds to camels - knowing what is safe and unsafe will allow an animal to survive in a dangerous world. This period is called the "critical period" or "socialization period".
Puppies, being animals, also have a period in which they learn what is safe and good in their world, and what is unsafe. This critical period, or "socialization window" ends between 4-5 months of age (of course every puppy will be different, and itís a process, it doesnít just end cold turkey on one particular day). That means that a puppy has a lot of learning to do in its first few months of life in order to develop into a confident, healthy-minded, happy adult in human society.
That is not to imply that once a puppy is over 6 months old, it will no longer learn from its environment. Of course it can, and will, but it will learn to accept new things at a much slower rate than a young, malleable puppy will. Adult dogs can be helped, but it can take weeks or months to come to accept something as "safe" that a puppy would have done in one or two days. There is no reason to have an unsocialized puppy grow up into a fearful, isolated, mental basket case because you didnít take the time to socialize your puppy. Get out there with your pup and your future together will be much more peaceful.
There are different types of stimuli a young puppy needs to be exposed to in order to consider things as "safe" in their lives. Each type of stimuli are equally important for a puppy to develop into a sound adult. The following will discuss the different types of stimuli a puppy needs to be exposed to in this very short and important period of life.Socialization to Humans
Probably the most important factor for puppies to be exposed to in their lives, is being socialized to people. Millions of dogs are given to shelters each year because of socialization problems. Thousands are euthanized because of behaviour problems stemming from undersocialization. Thousands of children are severely mauled and killed each year because of undersocialized dogs. Donít make your puppy become a statistic. Get your pup out in the world to meet and greet as many people as you possibly can. Socializing to people is probably the easiest aspect of all socialization issues to cover but it is also the most overlooked.
Dogs are not good generalizers. They do not meet five people and then automatically like all humans for the rest of their lives. All too often puppies grow up with specific issues about humans, people they were not exposed to at a young age, when the owner assumes that the pup has been well socialized. These issues can be very general, such as children or seniors, or they can be very specific, such as men wearing cowboy hats and women with glasses!
An example of some aspects to cover, to ensure puppies are well-socialized might look like the following:
Now, the above list is not an exhaustive list by any means. In each of these categories, you can get even more specific. For instance, in the "men" category, you might find tall, clean-shaven men and short, clean-shaven men, men with glasses and hats, men with hats but no glasses. There is no such thing as "too much socialization". There is such a thing as too much, too fast, but that is a separate issue to be discussed later on.
Now, there are two ways to go about the situation of socializing. The first is just to have the puppy see and be exposed to the presence of all these different people within this period. This creates a neutral association with each type of person. However, even better yet, to ensure the best socialization for your pup, strive to create a positive association with as many as possible. Get the clown to bend down and give Rover a treat, get that construction worker with the big sign to do the same. And the child eating an ice cream. And the man in the wheel chair. For very young babies, obviously they canít give puppy a treat, but you can give your puppy treats while puppy acts nicely around it, or better yet, have the person holding the baby to give puppy treats. Every time puppy has a positive association with people, it will make a lasting impression.
Obviously, you wonít be able to stop every person on the street or pull everyone away from their work to help, but the more hands on experience your puppy gets with people, the more relaxed puppy will be in adult years around people. Just remember, even if the situation doesnít permit hands-on exposure (or paws-on, in your pupís point of view), just being there to take it all in is better than nothing at all.Socialization To Other Dogs
Dogs are not born with an inborn liking of other dogs. Growing up with their litter and dam, they learn the basic canine skills they need for communication with other dogs - dominance displays, submissive displays, play postures, anger responses, fear responses, etc. Once puppies leave the litter, it is the puppyís new "parents" who are now responsible for continuing that education about dogs. The first step is to enroll the puppy into a puppy kindergarten class. This is not a traditional obedience training class, rather it is a class designed for puppies under 16 weeks of age to continue their dog-dog socialization skills. Even if you plan on teaching your puppy everything it needs to know in obedience, these classes are very, very important. In a puppy-K class, your puppy gets to meet dogs of other breeds, sizes, colors, and shapes. They learn to read the body language of different types of dogs, and how to communicate with them. These are things people cannot teach dogs, that dogs must learn through interactions with other dogs. Also, in a well-run puppy-K class, the instructor will usually have a few different well-mannered adult dogs for the puppies to interact with.
Some areas do not yet offer these types of classes. Do not worry, itís still very possible to socialize your puppy to other dogs! Your first step might be to ask around your neighbourhood to see if anyone has vaccinated, well-mannered adult dogs your puppy can meet. As well, ask around and see if you can set up puppy playdates at your home or a friendís, with other new puppy owners so puppies can meet each other and play.
Just remember, as with socialization to people, your dog will have to meet a wide array of dogs to safely say sheís been well-socialized to dogs. The following is a general guideline of some things to aim for. Once again, this is not a finalized list, the more positive meetings your puppy has, the better. Feel free to make your own list and add to it to remind yourself of things to cover.
One note of caution when meeting new dogs, is to be aware of the dogs that your puppy is meeting. Not all dogs like other dogs (usually stemming once again from under socialization). Not all dogs will be happy to see your puppy, let alone meet it. Just as puppies learn most of their "safe" things at a young age, they are also very open to learn strong negative associations with things that scare them, that can leave a lasting impression on a puppy. Be sure to try and introduce your young pup to dog-friendly dogs and avoid confrontations with dogs who are bullies, show aggression, or are fearful of your dog.Socialization to Sounds
This is an aspect a lot of people donít consider in their puppy raising endeavours, but it is equally important to ensure your puppy has no sound-related fears growing up. Simply getting your pup out into the world is a natural socializer for sounds, but some things you may want to set up your puppy for.
A good way to work on socialization to sound is to consult your local music store. A lot of music stores have sections that have specific types of sounds - nature, thunder, rain, waterfalls, different animal sounds. You can use these CDís in your own home to help get your pup used to different types of sounds, to increase your puppyís sound awareness. As well, some people have developed CDís for this very purpose for dogs, and a simple online search might help you find some of these CDís.
Be sure to make these associations positive, once again. If your puppy visibly startles at a particular noise, donít coddle your puppy, telling her "Itís okay, Sugar". If you act as though there might have been something to console over, the pup might think that it was indeed something to worry about. Instead, talk in a happy voice, play with a toy, give a treat, and run around as if nothing bad happened at all. Keep it upbeat and happy, if puppy sees you arenít worried, she should get over it quickly.
Note: Some breeds have tendencies towards genetically-based sound sensitivities. There has been research done in some areas, but not a vast amount. Regardless, check into your breed of choice to see if sound sensitivity (fears or strong reactions to certain sounds) occur commonly in your breed. For sound sensitive dogs, a bit of a different protocol might be followed to get them to learn that some sounds are indeed "safe".Some things to consider:
This category belongs to everything else that exists in the world that puppies/dogs will meet at some time in their lives. From cars to garbage cans, from mail boxes to funny-shaped trees, from bicycles to cats. These are all just a few of the things that puppies will meet for the first time in their new home. If your puppy comes from a responsible breeder, the pup will already be well on its way to having a lot of good experiences under its belt. regardless, getting your pup to as many locales as possible will aid in this type of socialization as well as naturally boosting the other types of socializing experiences.Some places to visit:
There is no such thing as over-socialization, but there IS such a thing as asking for too much, too quickly. Some puppies might be able to handle being out all day long and still have energy to burn, other puppies might be exhausted after one or two outings. In either case, it is important not to push your puppy into things too quickly. If one lesson is to be learned from all of this, let it be this: Never, ever, ever force your pup to meet or interact with something with which it is uncomfortable. Let the puppy discover and investigate on its own terms (aided by treats for good behaviour is always beneficial), at her own pace. Forcing a puppy into a situation might make your puppy more fearful of the situation, resulting in the opposite effect that you had in mind. Also, you may inadvertently be affecting the trust your puppy has in you if you force the pup. The puppy may start to think that you are not capable of keeping her safe, that you donít actually know what is right for puppy. You donít want this to happen. Puppy needs to know that youíll be there for guidance, love, treats, and to keep the puppy safe from harm while it grows up and discovers the world around it.
Just keep in mind everything else a puppy is learning - house training, chew training, how to walk nicely on a leash, learning its own body, learning all about its new family, and learning the house rules - all of these things also place stress on a puppy. Throwing the pup into too much, too fast might have a negative impact on your pup. So donít rush it at first, take it slow and increase your outings (and the intensity of the outing) over time.Are All Destinations Created Equal?
The answer to that lies in the age of your puppy. When you first get your puppy, chances are it has only had one set of vaccines so far in its puppy series (of 3-4 sets total). Just because your puppy has had this first set of shots, doesnít mean that your pup is free and clean and fully immune. Thatís far from true, the reason they get 3-4 sets of shots is because it takes time for puppy to build immunity. Puppies can still very easily contract deadly illnesses when theyíve only had one set of shots (namely, Parvovirus and Distemper). So, until your puppy has had another set of vaccines, just be careful what dog-occupied areas you take your young pup. For instance, dog park visits are best left until the pup is older, for health AND physical reasons. I you feel the need to take your young puppy to the pet store, carry him or let him ride in the shopping cart, donít let him roam the floors quite yet. When heís older, itís fine, but it is still a big risk for him yet. The same goes for the vet - it might be best to hold your puppy in your lap in the waiting room until heís had another set of shots before letting him roam the vet floor.
I hope itís beginning to sink in, just how important socializing your puppy really is during these first few months. And socialization doesnít end at 5 months of age, your dog will learn things the rest of its life, itís not physically possible to teach the pup every single thing it needs to know and see in the first four months. However, a good socialization protocol in those first four months of life makes adaptation to new situations a breeze for older dogs, and they can continue to learn new things (much better than an adult with no puppy socialization) because they have a huge history of learning and positive experiences in their puppyhood.
The importance couldnít be stressed enough, especially in todayís society of breed discrimination, extreme euthanization rates, you owe it to your puppy to allow her to develop as she should in a very "human" world.