Training and socializing your puppy (or new dog) are important responsibilities! Keep reading for expert advice and proven techniques for successful puppy socialization.
This article was written by a FirstVet vet
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Why should puppies be socialized?
Many people assume that fearful dogs are scared because they must have been abused in the past. It’s far more common, however, that the cause of their fear is a lack of adequate early socialization. Puppies need positive experiences with many people, pets, and places to become confident and comfortable in their everyday environments.
If you omit this socialization, or wait too long, as your puppy matures, he may become fearful of new things, and his default behavior might be to defend himself by barking, growling, or even biting.
When should puppies be socialized?
Once puppies can see, hear, and get around well, they start interacting more with their environment. This is when they’re primed for bonding to other animals and people, and for learning that places and objects are safe. This sensitive period for socialization in puppies runs from roughly three weeks to three months of age. The more positive experiences your puppy has during this period, the more confident he will be when facing new things as an adult. After this period, a puppy’s default setting will be to fear everything new.
NOTE: Because your puppy won’t be fully vaccinated until 16 weeks of age, it’s important that these socialization exercises take place only in safe areas where you’re certain that all of the dogs in the vicinity are healthy and up to date on their vaccines.
For more information on vaccinating your puppy, click HERE!
How to Socialize Your Puppy
Most of us want to cuddle and hug our dogs. However, while dogs may tolerate hugging, most do not enjoy it. If you start handling exercises with your puppy while he’s still young, he can learn that handling and hugging isn’t such a scary thing.
Practice holding your puppy in different positions. Handle his feet, ears, mouth, and tail. Pretend to trim his toenails, and maybe even clip a nail or two. Give treats periodically to reward him and to distract him from struggling.
If he’s likely to struggle, give treats faster to distract him and keep him calm. Do NOT let go when he struggles because letting go will appear to him as if he’s being rewarded for his behavior.
This is also a great time to train your puppy to love wearing a head halter, which can come in handy early in training because it helps you guide your puppy’s head, and thus focus, back to you. Practicing all of these things for just several minutes each day can greatly decrease your puppy’s stress and reactivity to handling.
Because dogs are frequently fearful of unfamiliar people, especially men, they must be exposed to many different types and ages of people. Interacting with only household humans isn’t enough.
Have different types of people handle your puppy and give him treats for sitting calmly. Your puppy must have positive experiences with unfamiliar people, not just neutral or negative ones. Most likely, you’ll need to give treats almost continuously to keep your puppy from jumping on kids and guests since many people won’t know how to avoid reinforcing any rude jumping behavior. But a lot of treats should also ensure that your puppy has a positive experience with strangers.
3. Other Animals
Making sure that your puppy has positive experiences with other dogs is also an important part of socialization. Ensure that he only interacts with appropriately behaved dogs. If your puppy plays with dogs who are too rough, he might learn to play in an overly aggressive manner.
Also, protect him from dogs who might pounce on him and scare him or pester him when he tries to get away. It’s helpful to let well-behaved dogs teach puppies that a raised lip means to back off and that the next step is a growl and a snap. Make sure that the adult dog is big and strong enough to make this message clear but won’t be intolerant and prone to overreact (bite).
Many puppies will either live with or be around cats and other animals at some time during their lives. It’s important to teach your puppy to react calmly to other types of animals instead of barking, lunging, or chasing them. Again, it’s important to choose experienced and tolerant animals for these introductions and make sure to heavily reward your pup’s calm behavior around them.
4. Other Scary Things
A puppy’s ear canals open around 2 weeks of age, and it’s important to expose young puppies to a wide variety of sounds as close to this age as possible. That way they’re less likely to become fearful of common sounds due to a lack of early exposure.
These sounds include traffic, car doors slamming, fireworks, thunder, jackhammers, pots clanging, sirens, and children. If you cannot take your puppy around these sounds in a live environment, online videos and movies can be a useful substitute. Be sure to give lots of treats and make sure that these noise interactions are positive experiences.
It’s not unusual for dogs to fear items with wheels such as skateboards, strollers, or luggage. Fear of brooms and vacuum cleaners is also common. Introducing your puppy to these scary things in a positive manner at an early age will make him into a calm adult dog who won’t act fearful around everyday objects.
Train your puppy to ride in a car when they are very young. Make sure that you’ve already acclimated your puppy to his crate (see link below). Put treats in his crate and take him for short car rides, only letting him out when he is calm and quiet. Take him to other fun places where he can have positive experiences, not just for a car ride and then back home. If the only destinations your dog takes car rides to are the groomer or veterinary clinic, he’ll have a very negative reaction to car rides.
5. Make sure your puppy’s training is positive!
People frequently socialize their puppy incorrectly by taking him out and not recognizing that the puppy isn’t having a positive experience. It’s important to be able to read your puppy’s emotional state so you’ll know if he’s fearful or anxious.
Cowering is an obvious sign of fear, but here is a list of other subtler signs of fear and anxiety in dogs:
- lip licking
- panting when not hot
- furrowed brow
- ears to the side
- moving in slow motion
- acting sleepy or yawning
- looking in many directions
- suddenly won’t eat
- moving away
A good visual representation of these subtle signs of fear can be found here: Body Language of Fear in Dogs
Fearful dogs can easily learn that offense is the best defense. Rather than fleeing or freezing when they’re fearful, they believe they should attack, sometimes even before the object or person or dog has a chance to get close. These dogs still show signs of anxiety and fear, such as averting their gaze, hiding, and backing up. But these signs of anxiety may be fleeting as they put up a strong front.
If you notice signs of fear or anxiety in your puppy, the goal is to change his emotional state to happiness. You can do so by doing things that make him happy, such as feeding a steady stream of treats so he doesn’t have a chance to think about how scared he is. Or you can have him perform fun behaviors.
It rarely works to just place your puppy in a fearful situation so he gets used to it. And definitely avoid trying to handle the scary situation by just holding him down as the “danger” approaches. This can backfire and make the fear much worse. A better approach is to work at a distance where you can keep him in a happy emotional state and focused on you, then systematically work your way closer to the scary object.
Because fears can progress to aggression, if your puppy shows fears that don’t immediately improve when you try these techniques, you should seek professional help.
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