Socialization and Conditioning
Ensuring your puppy is adequately socialized and conditioned to accept and enjoy the oddities, stressors, and changes in life is among the most urgent training tasks you must accomplish NOW, before your puppy reaches 16 weeks of age.
This critical period cannot be missed. Your puppy must have a wide array of pleasant experiences with people of all kinds, and dogs of every age and breed. You’ll need to find nice cats to mingle with, and don’t forget the cows, pigs, goats, birds, and rabbits, as many species as possible, especially the ones your dog is likely to encounter in their lifetime. Your puppy will need to meet kids and babies in a controlled setting with gentle, controlled kids. Your puppy will need to learn to love being alone, bandaged, handled, groomed, and examined by the vet too. You’ll need to accomplish all this, and much more, by the time your puppy is 16 weeks old.
But What About The Vaccinations?
Yes, you should socialize your puppy BEFORE their shots are complete. I refer you to the AVSAB Puppy Socialization Position Statement and I encourage you to socialize early. Your 8-week-old puppy may already be woefully behind if they were raised in a barn, kennel, or any space separated from the hustle and bustle of the kind of environment you intend for them to cope with. Good breeders have a single litter raised in their kitchen and they purposefully expose puppies to varied stimuli.
What’s the risk?
Under socialized dogs are fearful of new situations. Failure to socialize will mean that interactions with strangers will be terrifying rather than joyful. Being groomed will be a stressful nightmare that repeats each month rather than a lovely ‘spa day’ treat. Your dog will shudder and run at the sound of loud trucks, fireworks, and thunderstorms, and shriek with fear on Halloween, making them more likely to run away and/or get lost and/or struck by a vehicle. They will bark at the vacuum, men with canes, and people who use wheelchairs. You dog may snap or bite when a child unexpectedly pokes them or tugs their tail. Indeed, socialization is a life and death matter.
How to socialize safely
It isn’t good enough to simply take your puppy everywhere and meet as many people as possible. Good socialization is pleasant, low stress, and low risk. We want your puppy to LOVE kids, to LOVE being groomed, to LOVE the world they live in. The best way to ensure that your puppy loves the new friends they meet, becomes confident with the surfaces they walk on, and learns to accept their time spent alone happily is to pair these new things with treats. Offering your puppy a tasty treat, a toy you know they love, pets, and praise when they bravely explore the world will help your puppy make positive associations to potentially scary stimuli like people wearing Halloween masks, screaming children running by, skateboards, clanging pans, and gunfire.
Allow your puppy to approach and explore at their own pace, never force or try to ‘flood’ your puppy by remaining too long, too close, or in too intense of a situation for your puppy to be comfortable. Meet only friendly, vaccinated, gentle dogs. Socializing with puppies of similar age is very important for bite inhibition. Attending a well-run puppy class well before your puppy is 14 weeks of age will allow your puppy to socialize in a relatively sterile environment and minimize the risk of contracting parvovirus. You should continue to reward and encourage friendly, playful behaviour throughout adolescence.
Classical conditioning is the learning process that allows us to ensure that dogs make positive associations. Pair great things like treats with potentially irritating, scary, or loud things like truck backfires, kennel time, wearing garments like boots, umbrellas opening, getting accidentally stepped on, things falling on the ground, children screaming etc.
Parvo is transmitted through feces, so inviting a friend over to your clean, fenced yard to play is a great idea.
Prevent resource guarding
Do not constantly put your hand in your dog’s dish or take away their bones and toys to teach them to “get used to it”.
- Make a few positive associations so that your dog loves having you near their dish. Toss liver treats into your puppy’s dish of kibble. Take the dish away and add more liver before returning it.
- Make a few good trades so that your puppy learns to eagerly give up prized possessions when asked. An old toy for this fresh bone, sure!
- And then, just leave your puppy alone most of the time to eat, chew, and sleep in peace.
Socializing with kids
It is of the utmost importance that children are NEVER left alone with dogs or puppies, and that parents and kids take responsibility for learning, reading, and respecting canine body language.
Rewarding puppies with treats, praise, and petting when they see, hear, or are touched by kids can help. Being around kids should be wonderful, try not to scold or punish puppies too much around kids. Instead, expect that without guidance, your puppy will be a puppy. They will run around jumping, kissing, nipping, chasing, barking, and generally be a puppy. Be proactive, use your leash, treats, and obedience training to teach your pup how to interact calmly and appropriately in the first place so that everyone can have a great experience.
Allow them to communicate (even if that means growling!) to prevent and avoid bites. If your puppy seems uncomfortable, stop socializing. Dogs need an escape route and a responsible adult to look out for their signs of discomfort. Make sure your socialization protocol is safe, stress free, and rewarding for your new puppy.
Teach kids to stroke dogs on the back and to avoid touching their head, face, feet, ears, and tails. 1 child at a time petting for 3 seconds at a time is a good rule of thumb. After 3 seconds, ask kids to back away to check if the puppy still comes to them for more.
Well, you’ve got your work cut out for you so get out there and have fun!
Check out this socialization checklist from Dr. Sophia Yin