A thoughtful approach to a puppy’s socialization needs should begin with the breeder. When this is the path taken by soon-tobe new puppy guardians, choosing a breeder that knows the appropriate kind and amount of daily handling and exposure to physical stimuli is so important – important to the long-term behavioral, emotional and physical well being of a developing puppy.
But no matter where or when you get your puppy, a well-socialized puppy is more likely to grow into a confident and reliable dog, one that you can safely take anywhere. Once the puppy is in your care, developing his or her confidence through positive exposure to a variety of things should be your primary focus in your first weeks together. An unpleasant experience can leave your dog with long lasting fears. Similarly, a puppy that isn’t provided positive exposures will likely develop into an adult dog that is fearful and lacks confidence.
Soon after puppies are born, during their first period of socialization, they interact with their mother and littermates. It’s during this time that they learn to recognize their own kind and how to communicate with them. At 6-12 weeks of age, the second period of socialization, they begin to learn to adapt to humans and our environment, and continue to learn social skills with dogs outside their litter. This is the time to provide them supervised opportunities to play with other puppies. This is also the time to teach them to play with people and toys, and to learn to interact with people and earn treats from them.
There are a couple periods when puppies are more likely to experience fear to new things – around 8-10 weeks of age, and again around 6-14 months. It’s important to be aware of this and to do your best to prevent traumatizing events from happening during these times. Furthermore, even though your puppy is beyond the 12-week mark, it does not mean that there isn’t a need to continue socialization. In fact, puppies that are wellsocialized up to 12 weeks can still become fearful if positive social experiences do not continue to occur.
When providing opportunities for positive exposure it is important that you let your puppy take things at her pace – let her decide how close she wants to get or whether to engage with the experience. Avoid forcing her or trapping her in a situation in which she does not feel safe. Many owners don’t realize that a puppy on leash, or held in your arms, is a trapped puppy. With the best of intentions, owners allow people to come close and pet their puppy, without realizing the terror or fear the puppy may be experiencing. From the puppy’s perspective, it isn’t positive exposure. So if you want your puppy to have good feelings about other people as an adult dog, make sure you let her approach people, and only if that is what she wants. As long as she has the choice, and doesn’t feel coerced into a situation that worries her, it will likely be a positive experience. Also, allow her to move away when she wants. Distance will help her feel safer in situations where she is wary and unsure. Maybe the next time she will feel more confident and even move closer?
If by chance your puppy does have a negative experience with, for example, a bearded man in a hat, make sure she has more really good experiences with bearded men wearing hats. Don’t let that one bad experience make a lasting impression on your puppy. If you are using treats, offer her a treat when she sees such a man. Eventually if she is willing to come close and sniff the man’s hand, she may feel comfortable taking a treat from him too.
Positive encounters with people, places, other animals, smells, sounds, textures, etc., are extremely important to the health and well being of a puppy. Avoiding exposure to harmful diseases is also critical, so take care to keep your puppy safe while you offer positive experiences. Direct contact isn’t necessarily the goal, but good experiences are.