Socialization is by far the most important thing you can do for your dog in her first few months in life. Socialization refers to a process in which your puppy is exposed to the customs, noises, people, animals, and everything else in the environment around her. The more we socialize our puppy and the more we associate new things with positive consequences, the more emotionally stable our puppy will be.
Dogs have a sensitive period in which socialization can occur. In this period, the dog is open to accept new and different people, animals, objects, and noises and see how those relate to her: which bring good consequences and which do not. The more positive experiences your puppy has during this period, the less fearful she will be when facing new things in the future. This sensitive period ends relatively soon – at about 12-16 weeks (depending who you are asking). Socializing your dog during the first 3-4 months is the most important behavioral vaccination you can give to your puppy. After 16 weeks, and as time passes, it becomes harder and harder to change your dog’s perception regarding what is safe and what is dangerous.
You might notice that this sensitive period is exactly the same period that veterinarians recommend that your dog will stay mostly at home and avoid too much outdoor exposure due to the risk of disease. Yet, behavior experts want you to expose your dog to the world around her as much as possible. This disagreement between medical experts and behavior experts has been going on for many years. While it is obvious that taking your unvaccinated puppy outside unsupervised, in a location where there is dog stool and other unknown dogs, is dangerous and irresponsible, it should also be obvious to you after reading the first paragraph that leaving your puppy at home and minimizing exposure is that as dangerous. Many dogs are being killed at animal shelters around the world after developing various behavioral problems due to lack of socialization.
I believe that solving the disagreement between vets and behavior people involves choosing a method of moderation. We should socialize our puppies to the best of our abilities and still be responsible enough to avoid locations and animals that may carry disease. You should take your dog outside as much as possible in the first months. At the same time, you should avoid places like dog parks, neighborhood parks, and other places where many unknown dogs are or were present. If needed, hold your puppy in your lap when you reach areas that you suspect may have a chance for spreading diseases. Consult your veterinarian about your specific puppy – some puppies may be sensitive to diseases for several reasons and you many want to be more careful with them.
When exposing your puppy to the world, you need to make sure that the exposure is accompanies with rewards and positive consequences. Just like your puppy accepts new things readily, the puppy also readily learns to fear something if that fearful event happened in the sensitive period. Fearful events like those can accompany the puppy through its adult life and can be rather other to modify later on. Avoid any uncontrolled situation in which your puppy may be exposed to fearful events. I recommend avoiding dog parks: in dog parks, many dogs of different ages and temperaments are off leash and all it takes is one large aggressive do that frightens your puppy and cause a fear of large dogs in your puppy. Socializing your puppy to other dogs is important and puppy kindergarten classes can be found almost anywhere. I strongly recommend going to a reputable trainer who runs puppy kindergarten classes where your puppy can meet other puppies in a safe, controlled, and clean environment. A good puppy kindergarten class is a place where puppies learn to play nicely with one another, the trainer is present to stop any aggressiveness, the location is very clean, and the trainer makes sure all puppies are up to date on their vaccinations. Puppy Kindergarten classes are usually inexpensive and can prevent many future behavioral issues.
Never push your puppy into situations he fears. Compelling your puppy to “enjoy” situations he fears and letting him deal with the situation on his own can be harmful. If your puppy is afraid when exposed to the noise of a school bus for example, do not force him to be close to many school buses with engines running. Getting your puppy used to the noise requires gentle and gradual desensitization. If you have a fearful puppy, consult a trainer or dog behavior expert to help you solve the problem. The sooner you act, the easier and cheaper solving the problem would be.
Use the socialization table in appendix B to monitor your puppy’s socialization process.
Dogs and kids:
The connection between dogs and kids can prove problematic. Many dogs are frightened (to various degrees) of kids. As a result, kids suffer the most dog bites. The highest risk age group is the one between the ages of five to 10. in addition, bites to kids can be more severe simply because kids are smaller and cannot protect themselves as well as adults. Many bites happen in the neck and face areas – areas where a bite can cause much damage. Most bites (about 80%) are caused by the family dog or a friend’s dog. bites by strange or stray dogs are relatively uncommon. These data reinforces the importance of socializing your dog to kids in the sensitive period.
Dogs bite children for many reasons but, in general, the underline reason is often fear. Children tend to move swiftly and with fast motions. A child can easily run towards a dog and hug him – putting the dog in a defensive situation without even knowing it. Hence, all interactions between dogs and children should be supervised by adults and regardless of the dog’s past fondness of children. During the sensitive period and while socializing puppies to children and babies, we must make sure that all interactions are of positive nature to the puppy. This way, puppies can learn to associate children with positive consequences and later on in life, they may agree to “suffer” more handling of strange kids.
At the same time, we must take time and educate our children about dogs. We must teach them how to gently approach and handle a dog and how to act cautiously around strange dogs. By socializing both dogs to children and children to dogs, we decrease the chances of dog bites occurring and decrease the severity of the bites.
Step by Step:
The following process uses babies as the example. The process is very similar with any other subject.
- Choose two to three sites, noises, people, or animals that you want you puppy to get used to each day.
- Prepare tasty treats and take them with you during the day. Make sure the treats are very attractive to your puppy.
- Take your puppy to places where babies are present – daycares, public parks, etc. sit with your puppy in that area and every time the puppy sees a baby give a treat. Continue for about 10-20 repetitions.
- In case a baby comes close to your puppy, make sure the baby’s parent is holding him. If your puppy is comfortable, allow the baby to gently interact with the puppy and give the puppy treats generously. Make sure the baby doesn’t hurt the dog or frighten him. If that happens, stop the interaction.
- Repeat steps 3 and 4 several times a day for several weeks.
- Record a crying baby and play the sound when your dog is eating. Start with a low enough volume that your puppy feels comfortable with. (Many puppies will not have any problem with a high volume).
- Go visit friends who have a baby and let the puppy meet the baby for short durations (5 minutes). Supervise the interaction and make sure it is gentle and that both baby and puppy are enjoying themselves. If you see someone unhappy or fearful, stop the interaction.
- Do not force your puppy to be close to babies if he is scared of them. If you force the puppy into a fearful situation you might increase the fearfulness. Reinforce the dog in a distance in which he feels comfortable and gradually decrease the distance.
In any case of sustained fearfulness that does not improve in several days, consult a behavior consultant. The consultant will help you improve your methods and install a behavior modification program if needed. Do not wait for things to get better on their on – there is a good chance they will not and the more you wait, the harder it will be to modify the behavior or the fear