The Benefits Of Starting Young
Simply stated, socialization means exposure. As with all baby animals, there are set periods of time during which puppies explore their environment to learn about what’s good and safe and what’s not. These critical periods are the most favorable time to socialize them to everything that they will ever encounter in life – as puppies and as adult dogs.
Once these time periods have passed, their ability to easily accept new experiences begins to wane, leaving them with a much greater risk of developing all sorts of behavioral problems stemming from fear—aggression, agoraphobia, reactivity towards certain people, animals, or situations, etc. Dogs must be socialized to our world before these deadlines pass or they will forever be fearful of novel things; be it new people, animals, sights, smells, locations and/or sounds.
Our most important job is to help our puppies make positive associations with the things in their environment by praising them when they encounter something new and when possible offering a treat, too. If they seem even a little bit nervous, move a short distance away, give some tasty treats, and then move on. Anything they’re unsure about should be encountered in short bursts. Walk away from whatever it is and then walk back. As they see or hear the “scary thing,” start your cheerful praise and break out the treats. When you move away from it, go quiet and stop the treats. We want your puppy to learn that the presence of the scary thing is what makes you give him the food. He’ll begin to associate the food with the new experience and realize that “Hey, that new thing really isn’t so bad after all.”
The biggest problem people encounter in regards to this advice is balancing it with their vet’s warning about the health risks associated with being out and about before they’re fully inoculated. It’s true that Parvo and distemper kill, however, MILLIONS of dogs die every year (via euthanasia) due to behavior problems that link directly to a lack of proper socialization. Please check these two important links: R.K. ANDERSON’S “Open Letter to My Collegues in Veterinary Medicine“ and the AVSAB’s new Position Statement on Early Socialization.
He should also visit his vet and groomer repeatedly, not to be treated or groomed, but just a short visit to say, “Hi!” and eat a few treats to assure a positive experience/association. The more he’s exposed to now, the better adjusted he’ll be as an adult. As he meets new people – and he should meet some every day – ask them to hand feed him some treats so that he’ll begin to associate people/strangers/new locations with good things. Make sure you manage each encounter to ensure a positive experience, even if it means inviting friends over to help versus using random people in the neighborhood.
At the same time that you’re doing all of this, you should also be exposing him to things such as the vacuum, garbage disposal, doorbell, a collar and leash, hoses, sprinklers, garbage trucks, big birds, cats, squirrels, horses, noisy crowds, bicycles, motorcycles, car rides, parks, umbrellas, briefcases, grass, asphalt, concrete, gravel, sand, rain (try a hose on your roof or a metal cookie sheet on the floor of your shower), thunder, fireworks, babies crying – the list goes on forever. “Everything” should first be introduced during this critical period and then re-visited from time to time so that he doesn’t forget how to properly react. Dogs and people suffer equally from the “use-it-or-lose-it” syndrome.
• Learning About People – Learning about people is the number one most important thing your puppy needs to do and by far the most urgent considering how quickly this period passes. He should be thoroughly socialized with all types of people by the time he’s 12 weeks old. After this, dogs will only be comfortable around people they’re already familiar with. They need to meet people (that’s hands-on as in “Isn’t he a doll; please pet him!”) of all ages, sizes, shapes, colors, and genders, people in uniforms, people with physical disabilities, people wearing hats/coats, carrying umbrellas, men with beards, etc. The rule of thumb is 100 people before 8 weeks and another 100 before 12 weeks. Even after 12 weeks, he should continue to meet new people every day.
• Bite Inhibition – The second most important thing for your puppy to learn is bite inhibition. This doesn’t mean teaching him to not bite, but to control the force of his jaws. An adult dog that’s been taught to inhibit his bite will not do the same amount of damage in the event he ever finds himself in a situation that causes him to react with his mouth. This learning process begins at a very young age and continues over a period of many weeks. It’s a skill that must be learned prior to the age of 18 weeks.
• Learning About Dogs – Your puppy has already had some good interaction with his litter mates, and that’s a great start, but he’ll need to be exposed to other dogs throughout his life in order to maintain his social skills. Canine body language, like any other language, is easily forgotten if it’s not used regularly! This window doesn’t really open until 12 weeks, but then it closes at 18 weeks. Well-mannered adult dogs that have been fully vaccinated do not pose a risk and make great playmates during this critical period.
• Learning About His World – Your puppy also needs to learn about the world around him. There are all kinds of novel items, smells, sights and sounds that he should be exposed to such as trucks, traffic, bikes, firecrackers, thunderstorms, squirrels, cats, crows, sprinklers…the list goes on and on. The more new and strange things your puppy learns about during his first 5 months, the more accepting and confident he’ll be in any novel situation or setting as an adult dog.
There’s no such thing as an over-socialized dog, so be creative and get him out there – you won’t regret it!