Socialization is an on-going process to develop confidence in puppies and dogs. It gives them safe experiences, exposure to many situations, and the tools to solve their own problems. A well-adjusted, well-behaved puppy or dog will be welcome almost everywhere. Socialization is not a class, petting event, or a window of development … it is an ongoing process of diverse experiences with calm, quiet human support when needed. It is never too late to socialize!
When you are looking for a puppy, ask how the puppy has been socialized and what experiences he has had. The exposure he has had to different flooring surfaces, eating locations and containers, noises (such as fireworks, vacuum cleaners, trains, dishwashers, etc.), different dogs and animal species, riding in the car, types of confinement, numbers, and types of people, locations, etc… Puppy socialization is typically age-based so when you get your puppy makes a difference, a 12-week old puppy versus a 6-month old puppy. The 12-week old puppy has not completed his puppy vaccinations and needs to get out and about, but not in areas where a lot of dogs congregate. The first week home is spent bonding with you and your family, becoming familiar with routines, and learning the rules. After that first week, invite different people to your home to visit and play with the puppy, take it for rides in the car, visit drive-throughs, and short visits to stores that allow dogs. After the puppy vaccination series is complete, it is safe to take your puppy to most places. Your puppy needs to continue his socialization by going to new places and meeting unfamiliar people.
All dogs react differently to new situations depending on their personality and temperament. Those are part of their make-up. The breeder will be able to tell you what the personality and temperament are for each puppy as they have spent hours observing and watching the litter respond to novel situations. Puppies are typically placed in homes that will suit their individual temperament to ensure a good fit with the family and lifestyle.
Many people will label a puppy as shy, timid, fearful, aggressive, or having been abused when they are actually under-socialized and need more experience and exposure instead of less. On the flip-side, you will be hard-pressed to socialize a genetically inferior temperament out of a dog. A good, stable temperament should be one of the top priorities on the list of puppy characteristics. Some puppies are what we call “thinkers;” they hang back and sit quietly to observe and watch what is going on. Sometimes they will join in if they feel safe, other times they need to be given the gift of time to work it out in their mind. Like introverted people, they may be perfectly happy just watching. Other puppies will leap into the action and never look back. It is critical to remember that this is a learning process for the puppy. Do not punish for “foolish” or “fearful” behavior. Do not force the puppy to approach someone or something they are unsure or afraid of. Do not coddle or console the fearful or slightly injured puppy. This will reinforce the fear and reinforce to the puppy that this was a horrible, terrible, frightening thing he needs to avoid and run from at all costs in the future. Give quiet reassurance and immediately go do something fun.
One thing to remember as you take your puppy places and introduce him to new people, you are the best and only advocate your puppy has to keep him safe and ensure his best interests are served. Don’t be afraid to tell people “no” or refuse them access to your puppy. Be aware that all children don’t know how to hold or pet a puppy. The best policy is that you are the only one to hold and move the puppy. If at any point the puppy is not positively engaged in the interaction, stop it and move on. No coddling, cuddling or making a big deal of it. Just a quick pet, a smile, and a “good baby”, and keep going. If you take your puppy to a larger store (Petco, PetSmart, Home Depot, etc.) bring a bath towel and line the child’s seat of the cart for him to sit in. That will put him up high where he can see and hear everything, get him out of your arms and on his own near you, yet keep him off the floor where he might get stepped on, run upon by other dogs, or grabbed by hyper, impulsive children. If people get pushy about petting and holding when the puppy clearly is not comfortable, politely back them off with “I’m sorry but he is not ready for that yet.” No matter how friendly and puppy-loving people say their dog is, the answer is always, “No. I don’t want him by other dogs right now.” If they let their dog run up on your puppy, back them off firmly and hold your ground or stand in front of your puppy. Too many “friendly” dogs have injured puppies or worse. All puppy and unknown dog greetings should be through a fence or wire where the puppy can disengage and escape.
Puppies go through many developmental stages, just like children. Puppies from 16 to 24 weeks of age begin cutting new teeth and becoming more independent. Compliant puppies may form opinions of their own and to try their paw at being the leader. Temper tantrums are very common. The best bet is to stand there and ignore the tantrum. Once the puppy is done pitching a fit, they will shake it off and continue on as nothing happened. It is critical that your puppy is socialized during this period, treated fairly, and provided calm consistent leadership. Now is the time your puppy will benefit from a puppy socialization class with an experienced and positive instructor. Observe a class if you can before you enroll to make sure the instructor uses methods you are comfortable using. Take your puppy to the drive-through bank, stores, the car wash, sit on a bench downtown to watch traffic, visit stores with automatic sliding glass doors, ride elevators, invite people over to the house, go visit friends, take short walks together, go watch cows and horses graze, or arrange to playdates with puppies of similar size, age, and temperament at each other’s houses. Any and all of these are great experiences for puppies.
Sometime between 5-8 months, many puppies will go through a flight period when they wander further away from you than ever before to explore, and their first response may be to flee and then sit back and think about it. This period may last a few days or a couple of months. During this time, the previously obedient puppy may decide to turn a deaf ear and not obey, especially when called. This is the time when they love to play the “catch me if you can” game. To keep them safe, limit the off-leash time or use a dragline outside and drag a leash or light rope indoors so they can be caught and guided into obeying when they are in this stage.
There may be another insecurity period sometime between the ages of 12-18 months, some as early as 10 months. It lasts for a couple of weeks to a month or longer. Overnight, your previously outgoing, happy, friendly puppy will suddenly shy away from people they know, notice things that they didn’t notice before (like boxes in the corner of the garage that had been there for months and suddenly the puppy will go out, shy away from them and bark like crazy, afraid to approach them), or hide behind you and bark when someone approaches. The puppy needs to work this out on their own and regain their self-confidence with your quiet support. Do not punish for “foolish” or “fearful” behavior. Do not force the puppy to approach someone or something they are suddenly afraid of but don’t coddle or reinforce the behavior. Make light of the fear, laugh, introduce more interactive play behaviors, reinforce appropriate behaviors, increase exercise, and continue to socialize and praise.
Socializing exercises and excursions are great ways to bond with your puppy. Be on the lookout for new things, places, and situations that will challenge your pup’s mind, engage his interest, and assist him in developing new skills. Socialization is an exciting process – enjoy!