When people bring their puppy home they tend to focus on things like potty training, surviving the first night, crate training, surviving the first week, bite inhibition, and surviving the first month.
All of that is completely understandable and undeniably important.
But while you're moving through a sleep-deprived daze, trying to fend off this animated teddy bear's shark-like teeth, a critical period is ticking away.
There is such a vast difference in appearance between something like a pug puppy and an arctic wolf, that we often forget that they are technically still the same species. But they are. Dogs and wolves can interbreed, and are therefore classified as subspecies.
...Don't even try to imagine what a wolf-pug would look like, but you know we'd have to call it a Wug.
There are a lot of differences between a dog and a wolf under the skin, but the biggest one exists in the first sixteen weeks of life.
A wild animal's ability to fully accept humans (or any other species) as members of its own family occurs over a matter of days, when it is first born. All animals have this brief "socialization" period. With most wild animals it is miniscule. With domesticated animals, it is larger.
For domestic cats, for example, we have stretched the socialization window from a few days to six weeks - the period between 3 and 9 weeks of age. Any cat not well socialized to a wide variety of humans during that period is doomed to a life of hiding under the bed whenever visitors come over, instead of trotting out to meet them like a well socialized kitty would do.
In the dog, we have stretched this socialization period to a whopping four MONTHS, and their ability to make friends with the whole world only begins to decline with the loss of those sharp puppy teeth.
It's impressive, and it's so effective that we sometimes forget that they still have the potential to be wild and untamed if this period is somehow missed.
But they do.
It is urgent that you ensure your puppy is adequately socialized and conditioned to accept and enjoy the oddities, stressors, and changes in life before 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, or you risk having them behave... well, like a wild animal... when they encounter those things some day in the future.
Under socialized dogs are fearful of new situations. Interactions with strangers can be terrifying rather than joyful. Being groomed is a stressful nightmare that repeats each month rather than a lovely 'spa day' treat. Your dog may shudder and run at the sound of loud trucks, fireworks, and thunderstorms, and shriek with fear on Halloween, putting them at risk of running away and/or getting lost and/or struck by a vehicle.
They might 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. Your dog might take that child's eye out. Your dog may misinterpret friendly advances from another dog as a murder attempt and defend themselves with their teeth.
They may be labelled "dangerous" and ordered destroyed.
Indeed, socialization is a life and death matter.
During this key socialization period, any experiences that occur will have long-lasting effects on a puppy's or kitten's future learning and interactions with others. Unfortunately, that means negative experiences will also have lasting effects. It is critical that this time period be positive and safe.
- Jacqueline Brister, DVM, The Importance of Socializing Puppies and Kittens.
"Incomplete or improper socialization during this important time can increase the risk of behavioral problems later in life including fear, avoidance, and/or aggression.
Behavioral problems are the greatest threat to the owner-dog bond. In fact, behavioral problems are the number one cause of relinquishment to shelters."
Yes, you should socialize your puppy BEFORE their shots are complete.
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, gentle setting with gentle, controlled kids.
Your puppy will need to learn to love being handled, groomed, bandaged, and examined by the vet too. You'll need to accomplish all this, and much more, by the time your puppy is 14-16 weeks old.
Puppies are not considered "fully vaccinated" until their third round of vaccines at 16 weeks. By then, you'll be into remedial socialization, not proactive socialization.
I refer you to the AVSAB Puppy Socialization Position Statement, which concludes:
"...It should be the standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before they are fully vaccinated."
That doesn't mean you have to put your puppy at risk. Meet with only friendly, vaccinated, gentle dogs. Socializing with puppies of similar age is very important for bite inhibition, since older dogs may be too tolerant, or not tolerant enough, of sharp-toothed pups.
Choose your surroundings wisely. Many puppyhood diseases, from worms to parvovirus, are transmitted through feces, so aim for clean backyards instead of heavily trafficked off leash parks.
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. Or invite your neighbour's vaccinated dog or puppy to come play in your backyard.
Be smart about your socialization, but don't be slow.
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 litters raised in their home and they purposefully expose puppies to varied stimuli, which includes the great outdoors. In fact, the more positive, low-stress stimulation the puppies receive from birth, the better their chances of being a level, friendly, and emotionally regulated dog in adulthood.
It isn't good enough to simply take your puppy everywhere and meet as many people as possible.
If your puppy feels unsafe, insecure, overwhelmed, or stressed by their early experiences, you can do more harm than good.
Good socialization is fun, low stress, and low risk.
We want your puppy to LOVE kids, to LOVE being groomed, to LOVE the world they live in. We don't want them to think of kids as noisy and scary, to think your groomer is Edward Scissorhands, or to think the world is too noisy and chaotic to be worth venturing into unarmed.
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 make sure that things progress at puppy's own pace.
Allow your puppy to observe if they aren't ready to explore. 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. Your puppy's natural curiosity will guide you.
Watch your puppy's body language and signals - is your puppy happy and curious? Quiet and observant? Or tired and scared?
Don't overwhelm. One solid socialization experience is worth ten chaotic and overwhelming ones. Bring treats and toys to make field trips fun.
Pair things your dog loves like treats and praise 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.
Use a Checklist
It's easy to lose track of all the things you have - or haven't - had a chance to socialize your puppy to. No matter what you do, you can't possibly expose your puppy to everything, anyway.
Instead, think of it as making sure your puppy has representative experiences.
You'll never be able to anticipate all of the wacky costumes a person might decide to don - especially on Hallowe'en. But if your dog has seen people wearing a wide variety of crazy get-ups, they aren't likely to get to upset about Santa Claus at your pet store's Picture Day.
You'll never be able to find all the different kind of floors and surfaces that exist in the world. But you can make sure your puppy has had the chance to try a few funny types of surfaces and explore them, so they'll have a memory of walking on something wobbly or shiny and finding it a lot of fun. Then, when you try to walk them up a wobbly ramp one day, they are going to remember that and hopefully think it's funny, instead of scary.
You may not think of exposing your puppy to llamas. You may not be able to expose your puppy to llamas. But if your dog has met with a friendly horse or sheep, and found it to be an interesting and educational experience, then an unexpected llama is less likely to send them into a tirade of barking in the future.
Think of socialization as building a bank of memories your dog can lean on - about building a habit of feeling curious, and safe, and happy, instead of confused, or frightened, or overwhelmed.
Every time your puppy feels nervous of something, only to recover, explore, and have fun with that something, your puppy develops a personal habit of being brave, and a memory of curiosity winning over fear.
Following a check list of recommended exposures and experiences can help.
Dr Sophia Yin has a nice one here.
Socialization is a big responsibility during a time when you're also trying to build a bond, teach communication, and prevent messes on the floor.
But it is the best investment of time you may ever make.
Carol Millman B.Sc, CPDT-KA, CTDI