When you hear your vet, breeder or shelter worker, and even friends and neighbors tell you to socialize your dog, are you really prepared for what that entails? Socialization sounds like a fun thing to do with your pet, and it most certainly can be if done correctly. Contrary to popular belief, socializing a puppy is not just taking him out to meet new people and dogs. While he will meet other pets and people, he also must be socialized with items, floor and ground textures, sounds, smells, and more all the while you fully control the experience he is having. It is not the exposure to each thing that will socialize him correctly, but the emotional associations he makes during these events are what will stick with him for life!
The prime time to socialize a puppy is during their fear periods. The first fear period typically begins at 4 weeks old, before weaning and will last until about 12 weeks of age. This is also called the imprinting period. This is the point in a dog’s development in which they learn how to react to certain stimuli that may seem threatening to them. This can be anything from another dog or strange person to even unusual flooring and loud noises. If the puppy is frightened, and not helped with having a positive experience, building confidence in himself as well as trust in you during exposure he may remain frightened and become reactive later on in life.
Keeping control of the situations in which your puppy is being exposure to new stimuli is of the utmost importance. If you let things happen, anything at all, it could backfire and cause damage in your dog’s socialization and trust in you. This could be from forcing him to interact with another dog when he is fearful of it or allowing loud children to play with him when he is completely stressed out. These two things could make him fearful and reactive, seemingly aggressive, towards other dogs and kids in the future. Instead, if he is fearful of something during his fear period, he should be allowed to grow accustomed to it, explore it and check it out with your positive guidance, reinforcement and in as stress free of an environment as possible.
For example, using the example of being fearful of children you can ask a young child that you know and trust to help. In an area in which your puppy feels safe and confident, such as inside your home, ask the child to stand or sit quietly with slow but deliberate movements around the puppy. You can encourage the puppy to investigate the child, but do not allow the child to pet the dog until the puppy is completely comfortable and happy in this situation! This is taking control of a socialization situation, and the entire experience may only last a few minutes for your puppy to feel safe around kids!
Sometimes socialization may feel like a lost cause if your puppy is continuously frightened of everything new. Dogs are naturally curious and highly intelligent animals, but as puppies the big wide world is very new, bit and scary! Stay patient, and most of all keep his experiences positive!
If he becomes too frightened, it’s okay to end a session early, but come back to it later with some high value reinforcers such as real meat, cheese or a favorite toy to get him into a playful, happy, or positive mood during the entire experience. He will remember how he feels during this more so than if it actually hurt him or not. If he stays scared, and the whole experience is a negative one, he’ll carry that into adult hood.