Socializing your puppy is key to ensuring you'll have a happy, confident, and well-adjusted dog for life. Below, learn the best time to socialize your puppy, how to do it right, and why it's important.
When to Socialize Your Puppy
From 7 weeks to 4 months of age, your puppy goes through a socialization period that permanently shapes his future personality and how he will react to things in his environment as an adult. Gently exposing him to a wide variety of people, places, and situations now makes a huge, permanent difference.
Also, it’s important to note that when you buy a puppy from a responsible breeder, the process can start even earlier. Gentle handling by the breeder in the first several weeks of your puppy’s life is helpful in the development of a friendly, confident dog. At as early as 3 weeks of age, puppies may begin to approach a person who is passively observing them, and having a knowledgeable breeder to encourage a positive experience with people is beneficial to the puppy’s adult behavior.
Why to Socialize Your Puppy
The idea behind socialization is helping your puppy become acclimated to all types of sights, sounds, and smells in a positive manner. Proper socialization can prevent a dog from being always fearful of children, for example, or of riding in a car, and it will help him develop into a well-mannered, happy companion.
Also, having a dog who is well-adjusted and confident can even go as far as to save his life one day. According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, improper socialization can lead to behavior problems later in life. Also, the organization’s position statement on socialization reads: “Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.” If your dog becomes lost, the fact that he’s easily able to accept new places and people can better ensure he’ll be cared for until you locate him. And if something happens to you, he’ll have an easier time adjusting to a new caregiver or home.
How to Socialize Your Puppy
As mentioned earlier, your breeder will start the socialization process as early as the puppy’s first few days of life, by gently handling him and allowing him to explore his surroundings. But when the puppy comes home with you, the crucial socialization period begins, so it’s important to continue this process. Here are the basic steps to follow:
Introduce him to new sights, sounds, and smells: To a puppy, the whole world is new, strange, and unusual, so think of everything he encounters as an opportunity to make a new, positive association. Try to come up with as many different types of people, places, noises, and textures as you can and help your puppy be exposed to them. That means, for instance, have him walk on carpet, hardwood, tile, and linoleum floors; have him meet an old person, a young person, a person wearing sunglasses, a person carrying crutches. Think of it as a scavenger hunt. Here, find a comprehensive checklist for puppy socialization that can be used as a guide.
Make it positive: Most importantly, when introducing all of these new experiences to your puppy, make sure he’s getting an appropriate amount of treats (Purina® Pro Plan®'s Roasted Slices Made With Real Chicken are a great choice) and praise so that he associates what he’s being exposed to and the feeling of seeing something new as a fun thing. Don’t forget to break the treats into small pieces that will be easy for your puppy to digest! Also, don’t be stressed yourself—dogs can read our emotions, so if you’re nervous introducing your puppy to a larger dog, for example, your puppy will be nervous, too, and may become fearful of larger dogs in the future.
Involve the family: By having different people taking part in the socialization process, you’re continuously taking the puppy out of his comfort zone, letting him know that he might experience something new no matter who he's with. Make it a fun game for the kids by having them write down a list of everything new the puppy experienced that day while with them, such as “someone in a baseball cap” or “a police siren.”
Take baby steps: Try to avoid doing too much too fast. For instance, if you want your puppy to get accustomed to being handled by multiple people he doesn’t know, start with a few family members and slowly integrate one stranger, then two, and so on. Starting this process by taking your puppy to a huge party or a very busy public place can be overwhelming and result in a fearful response to groups of strangers in the future.
Take it public: Once your puppy is used to the small amounts of stimuli, move outside of his comfort zone to expand the amount of new experiences he’ll have. Take him to the pet store (after he’s started his vaccination series), over to a friend’s house for a puppy play date, on different streets in the neighborhood, and so one. At seven to ten days after he’s received his full series of puppy vaccinations, it’s safe to take him to the dog park (but be sure to follow dog-park safety protocol when doing so).
Go to puppy classes: Once your puppy has started his vaccinations, he can also attend puppy classes. These classes not only help your puppy begin to understand basic commands, but also help expose him to other dogs and people. Skilled trainers will mediate the meetings so that all dogs and people are safe and happy during the process. Puppy classes are available at many pet stores and through dog trainers. Don't forget to pack your pup's favorite Purina® Pro Plan® Training Treats for when he performs well!
Note: To earn a S.T.A.R. Puppy certification, contact an AKC-approved dog trainer. Find an AKC-approved trainer in your area here.
Earn a S.T.A.R. Puppy title: Show off your and your puppy’s hard work by earning his very first AKC title—the S.T.A.R. Puppy, which stands for socialization, training, activity, and responsibility. After completing a six-week training class, your puppy can take a simple test given by an AKC-approved evaluator. The test items include allowing someone to pet him, tolerating a collar or harness, allowing owner to hold him, and more (see a full list of S.T.A.R. Puppy test items here). Also, the owner pledges to be a responsible pet owner for the duration of the dog’s life. This program is open to both purebred and mixed-breed dogs up to 1 year of age.
What About Older Dogs?
After all of this information on how important socialization is for puppies brings up the question “what about older dogs?” If you’ve acquired a dog later in life, you can still help him associate new or fearful situations with a positive experience, even though you’ve missed the crucial socialization period of 7 weeks to 4 months. Slowly reintroducing the dog to new sights, smells, and sounds, with careful supervision and an emphasis on positivity in the forms of praise and treats can help him overcome his fear or hesitation. (Severe cases of fearfulness should be treated with the help of a veterinarian and/or animal behaviorist.)
The AKC’s Canine Good Citizen test is an excellent goal for owners of dogs who received little training in their past (or even for S.T.A.R. puppies who are ready to take their skills to the next level). This 10-step test demonstrates that a dog can show good manners and basic obedience. From there, owners can go on to lead their dogs through the advanced CGC test, called Community Canine (CGCA), and/or the Urban CGC (CGCU).
For more advice on puppy socialization, check out the video below.
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