Socialization is the process by which an animal learns to relate to the stimuli in its environment, including animals, places, and things. Socialization recommendations are an important part of puppy preventative care, and should be brought up for discussion with your veterinarian at your first wellness appointment. By addressing socialization early, future behavior problems can be lessened significantly or even avoided entirely. Socialization does not simply consist of exposing the puppy to all stimuli without reinforcements. The exposure must cause positive conditioning and should promote confident, calm behavior.
Why is socialization so important?
Socialization is one of the key elements needed to keep you and your pet together for a lifetime of health and happiness. Puppies who attend early learning and socialization classes from 8-14 weeks are more likely to learn more quickly, be able to problem solve more effectively in new situations, and have calmer dispositions compared to unsocialized puppies of the same age. If puppies are kept in a deprived environment until 20 weeks of age, they are more likely to exhibit anti-social behavior. It is difficult for these pets to become well behaved family pets because they are slower to learn, more reactive and difficult to train. If dogs are not socialized during the sensitive period for socialization, there is increased risk that they will have behavior problems such as anxiety, fear and aggression later in life. It is far easier to prevent a problem in a puppy than to retrain an adult dog.
A puppy's sensitive period is 4 to 16 weeks of age. The sensitive period for socialization is one in which puppies are most easily socialized to stimuli. A sensitive period is a time when a small amount of work or no work at all can have a large impact on the dog's future behavior. While older dogs can be socialized, it is much more difficult after 16 weeks old. At 8 weeks, the fear reaction is fully developed; however, sociability outweighs fear until the puppy is roughly 16 weeks old. This phenomenon makes it easier for the puppy to be introduced to frightening stimuli without permanent fear setting in than at an older age. If a puppy is not exposed to new stimuli between 4 and 26 weeks, she is more likely to be fearful.
The goal of any socialization plan is to have calm, relaxed pups. Basic socialization will begin with presenting stimuli at a distance where the pup isn't frightened. If the pup knows how to sit, she can be asked to do so, then continually reward her every 2-10 seconds while she sits calmly. Over time (minutes or entire sessions, depending on the pup), the distance to the stimuli will be decreased. If the pup is frightened, back up to a distance where she is not frightened and start there. Do not push, pull, or correct the pup. You can't correct fear out of a puppy, but you can suppress the physical signs causing a much worse reaction in the future.
Remember your goal: confident and relaxed. Pulling a frightened puppy toward the stimulus will only make matters worse. Most puppies will start right next to the stimulus and some will start 20 feet away. Go at the puppy's pace. If the puppy is frightened be sure not to coddle her, but don't leave her to her own devices either. Instead, get happy yourself. Most puppies look at you quizzically and begin to engage you. This will give you a chance to start over with the puppy. Follow the instructions above concerning how to deal with a frightening situation. Nothing is learned if the puppy is overwhelmed.
While socialization can be accomplished with just a few minutes a day of structured work, it is best done by daily interactions with the puppy. You can work constantly on walks or anywhere outdoors. If something comes down the road, you should stop and feed the pup every 2-10 seconds until it passes. When socializing with people, you should ask for the participation of every person available by asking them to hand the puppy tasty treats. A well socialized puppy can be exposed to an endless amount of stimuli without feeling threatened.
With proper socialization, many behavior problems can be prevented or substantially minimized, saving lives in the process. It is important to start your puppy off right both medically and behaviorally to keep your puppy healthy and happy.
The list below is an abbreviated list of stimuli that your puppy should have early exposure to:
- Snow plow
- Garbage trucks
- Delivery trucks
- Lawn equipment
- Walking in the rain/snow
- Holiday decorations
- Electronic noises
- Busy roads
- Crowded places
- Wet grass
- Tile/slick floors
- People running
- Different ethnicities
- Package delivery people
- People with:
- erratic behavior
- Pocket pets