Raising a puppy is a lot of work! It takes time, effort, a little bit of skill, and lots of patience. If we can lay the foundations at an early age for good behavior to build on as our puppy matures, we will be infinitely more successful at having a wonderfully happy, well-rounded, balanced adult dog. This blog aims to give you a step-by-step guide to help you in your puppy-raising adventures with the hopes of helping you avoid some of the common mistakes and pitfalls dog owners usually end up paying for later on in their dog’s life.
What is Socialization? Socialization is exposing your puppy to new things in a way that teaches them to handle living in our modern, human world with confidence. It is introducing your puppy to a variety of people, animals, sights, smells, sounds, textures, environments and experiences. The experience should be enjoyable and fun for your puppy not scary or overly stressful.
Why is it important? From the age of 8 to 16 weeks, puppies go through a critical socialization period. This is the time where puppies NEED to have lots of positive experiences and exposure to lots of different things. During this short window of time, puppies are like little adorable sponges absorbing and also learning from everything around them. They are also very adaptable because during this period sociability outweighs fear. Lack of exposure during this period leads to an adult dog who is unable to cope with normal life. Nothing traumatic has to happen for a dog to become a fearful, stressed, aggressive or shut down adult dog. So many of the behavioral problems I see regularly as a professional trainer stem from the dog having missed out on proper early socialization as a puppy.
How do we do it safely? Many puppy owners are cautioned by their well-meaning veterinarians to avoid exposing their young, not fully vaccinated puppies to potential diseases. This outdated advice tends to result in puppies being isolated in their homes until they have completed their entire vaccination series, which happens at 16-20 weeks of age. The problem with waiting to socialize your young puppy until they are “fully vaccinated” means you are completely missing out on that short window of opportunity during the critical socialization period. Many veterinarians are now advocating for early socialization instead of waiting. In fact, back in 2008 The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) published a position statement on the importance of early socialization and encouraged owners to begin socialization prior to puppies being fully vaccinated. This position statement is also supported by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) who stated, “…the fact is that behavioral issues—not infectious diseases—are the number one cause of death for dogs under 3 years of age.” My recommendation as a professional dog trainer is to just be smart, use your common sense and best judgement but to absolutely take advantage of this time to find opportunities to bring your puppy out into the world and let them explore and learn. There are many ways to safely socialize a young puppy. Most puppy kindergarten classes are safe. You can also introduce your puppy to adult dogs that you know are healthy and up-to-date on their vaccines either at your home or theirs. Bring your puppy places that aren’t generally frequented by dogs such as stores like Lowe’s or restaurants with outdoor seating like Panera and Chipotle. My favorite place to bring a puppy is a children’s playground when it’s empty. Places you absolutely want to avoid are dog parks, areas where there is visible dog waste, doggy daycares or pet stores that sell dogs.
What things should I be exposing my puppy to?
Men (tall, deep voiced, beards)
Children (calm, friendly)
Children playing (at a distance)
People of different ethnicities
Elderly people with walkers, wheelchairs, canes
People wearing/holding/carrying: hats, hoodies, hard hats, helmets (sports, motorcycle), sunglasses, big winter jackets, umbrellas, backpacks, rolling luggage
Outdoor garbage can
Lawn mower/weed whacker
Snow shovel/snow blower
Slippery floors (hardwood, linoleum, and tile)
Dirt and mud
Snow (if possible)
Sewer grates/manhole covers
Car rides (multiple vehicles)
Veterinarian’s office (not for appointment)
Drive-up window (fast food, bank, pharmacy)
Residential city street
High traffic city street
Trail in the woods
Running Trail/Biking Trail
Horses and livestock
Pet birds, rabbits, etc.
*Please Note: This is not an exhaustive list but just an example of the diversity of things your puppy should be exposed to during the critical socialization period.