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Socializing Your New Puppy

June 5, 2010 by  
Filed under The Puppy Corner

One of your most important jobs as a puppy parent is to properly socialize your new little bundle of joy.  Good, early, and consistent socialization can prevent a number of problems as the puppy grows older.  For example, socialization can help curb stranger anxiety, fear biting, and aggression. A previous socialization article in our doggies den reviews some specific situations where socialization is important like bringing home a new baby.

What is Socialization?

In the simplest terms, socialization means getting your puppy accustomed to different stimuli so he or she isn’t scared by these stimuli later.  Socialization can be done formally, informally, or both.

An example of formal socialization is a puppy class, where your baby will be given the opportunity to meet and play with other young dogs.  Informal socialization includes taking your puppy with you wherever you possibly can.  If you’re going to the park, take Max along.  Going to the market?  Buttercup is looking forward to the car ride.  Just remember to take a friend along so you can leave the air conditioner or heater running while you are in the store.

Keys to a Good Socialization Experience

The biggest thing to remember about socialization is that you want to expose your puppy to various stimuli only when you can control his or her experience.  Remember that crowds are unpredictable, so you will want to start your puppy off with small groups of your trusted friends and family members.

If the puppy becomes startled or scared because someone moves too quickly or something else happens that you didn’t plan on, it can cause a huge setback in your socialization efforts.  Make sure you show the puppy how fun it is to meet new people and see new things by your own demeanor and voice tone.

When your puppy responds appropriately to what’s going on around him or her, reward the animal with treats, praise, play time, or a good belly rub. When you first get your puppy spend some time figuring out which rewards mean the most.  Some dogs are driven by play, others by food.  To find out which type of puppy you have, place some treats at one side of his or her play area, and various types of toys at the other end.  See which one the dog wants to partake of first.

If the dog doesn’t appreciate the socialization experiences you have so carefully planned, remain calm, but let the dog know you disapprove.  Tell the puppy “uh-oh” and separate him or her briefly from whatever activity is going on.  After a few minutes, bring the dog back into the fun and praise him or her for a better reaction.

Socialization vs. Obedience Training

Although they are often mentioned in the same breath, socialization is not quite the same as obedience training.  Obedience training involves teaching your dog to perform a limited set of actions based on the commands you give, such as sit, stay, and heel.

Socialization, on the other hand, teaches your dog to react appropriately to unexpected situations.  You want your dog to be able to remain calm when children run past your yard or when you have company over.  The easiest and best way to get your puppy to accomplish this amazing feat is to expose him or her to as many different situations as possible while the dog is young and knows no fear.

As your dog grows older, he or she begins to realize that there are many things in this world that could harm the hairs on his or her little head.  With that realization comes the beginning of fear, and with fear comes many unacceptable behaviors.  A fearful dog may lose control of his or her bowels and bladder, or the dog may bite people, chase cars, or become aggressive toward other dogs.

By exposing a puppy to as many different experiences as possible before these behaviors begin, you will help the animal learn to feel comfortable whether he or she is challenged by loud noises, other dogs, crowds of people, or small children.

Some of the important things your puppy should learn are:

  • To be calm in his or her crate
  • To keep his teeth to himself
  • To keep all four feet on the ground
  • To acknowledge you as the alpha pack member
  • To “leave it” when you give the command
  • To allow nail trimming, ear cleaning, and other grooming tasks
  • To realize that you will come back for him or her every time
  • To allow others to come near his or her food, crate, toys, and bed
  • To stop barking on command
  • To stay off furniture (if that’s the rule at your house) or to get off when told
  • To allow you to go to the bathroom or down the stairs without “assistance”

When Should I Begin Socializing My Puppy?

Fear imprinting generally runs from about 8 – 12 weeks of age.  This period is the most important time to socialize.  After about 14 weeks, you’ll need to help the puppy unlearn problem behaviors before teaching more appropriate reactions to scary things.

The best time to begin socialization is the day you bring your puppy home from the breeder or from the shelter.  Keep the sessions short at first because puppies have notoriously short attention spans.  Work with your puppy consistently every single day.  The more regularly you train, the better your dog will be socialized.

Although the intensity may decrease over time, socializing should then continue throughout the dog’s life.  Just as in Chicago where they say “Vote early; vote often,” you should socialize your puppy at every opportunity from day one until his or her final journey.

If you have an older dog who hasn’t been socialized, you can still undertake the task, but it takes a lot more time and a lot more patience than with a puppy.  Check out Paw Rescue’s tips for socializing adult dogs.

Where Should I Socialize My Puppy?

Dog parks and doggie day cares are wonderful opportunities for your dog to get used to having other dogs around.  However, they are also sometimes a great place to catch a disease.  Make sure to keep your dog away from any poop that inconsiderate owners didn’t bother to clean up, and don’t let your dog near another dog who looks sick in any way.

Most dog parks have one area for large dogs and one area for small dogs.  Keep your puppy in the area designated for small dogs to prevent injuries.

Before you spend the money to sign up for a doggie day care, ask about any special facilities they may have for puppies.  At a minimum, they should have a separate area for small dogs.  Another consideration may be shorter climbing structures built to prevent puppies from falling or jumping off the sides.  They may also provide an introduction to obedience training, a play area devoted exclusively to young dogs, or toys big enough to prevent choking yet small enough to fit in a puppy’s mouth.

If you have an interest in dog sports such as dock diving, flyball, agility, or lure coursing, check out the web sites of the sanctioning groups (listed below) to find out the minimum age for participation.

Getting your dog involved in sporting events at a very young age not only creates champions, it helps get them used to being around lots of people as well as dogs of every shape and size.

Invite people into your home on a regular basis.  Whether you have your boss over to dinner or have your kids’ friends over to play in your rec room, having extra people and commotion in your home helps your puppy learn to tolerate crowds.  Maybe you can even find a neighbor who would appreciate an afternoon of babysitting from you or who has trouble feeding her kids because her aging parents take all of her time.  You can do good while helping your dog learn.

If your two-legged children, friends, or spouse participate in outdoor sports, take your puppy with you to practices and games.  There may or may not be other dogs there, but there definitely will be lots of noise, plenty of people, and sometimes a ball that the dog is not allowed to chase.

Teach your puppy to walk on a leash, and walk around the neighborhood as often as possible.  Doing so will get your dog used to traffic noises, barking dogs, kids on bicycles, and other people and dogs who may be sharing sidewalk space.

Any activity you undertake with your puppy will help with socialization.  Remember that your dog craves attention and desperately wants to be part of the group.  Early and consistent socialization will enable your dog to join you in many activities throughout his or her life without having to worry about how the dog will react.

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