Socialization is the process of preparing a puppy to be comfortable with interactions with people, other dogs, other species and the outside world. Ideally this should take place during the sensitive period between 3 and 14 weeks of age. This is the period when puppies benefit most from exposure to new or strange stimuli and they show a willingness to explore and play with little fear when encountering new people, animals, objects and experiences. Puppies deprived of these experiences will have a significantly increased risk of developing into adults with fear, aggression and arousal issues. The idea being to stop fear before it starts and to raise a well-adjusted, well-mannered dog. This socialization should begin at 3 weeks with the puppy raiser and continue with the new owner.
By three weeks of age the puppy’s eyes and ears are well developed. They will readily interact and explore a passive human. They are ready and able to start bonding with people, littermates and other animals around them and can start recognizing their environment. The importance of starting at 3 weeks cannot be overstressed. If socialization is not started until 5 weeks of age, puppies may be wary of new people at initial presentation. By seven weeks of age a puppy will avoid a passive handler if early socialization has not been initiated. This makes it especially important to get a puppy that has been raised in a social, family situation rather than a factory style operation where little to no emphasis is placed on positive early social and handling experiences.
By 8-9 weeks of age puppies have the brain waves of an adult. They are neurologically developed and ready to explore new and unfamiliar social and physical environments. Puppies that are not allowed to do so by 14 weeks of age lose this flexibility and may forever be fearful in new situations. As adults, they may function well within an extremely limited environment but become fearful and reactive (barking, growling, biting) around unfamiliar people, pets and surroundings.
Socialization Periods – What to Do
Three to Five Weeks
Puppies should be raised in an enriched environment providing positive and diverse experiences. This will be done by the puppy raiser (breeder) and is something you will have no control over unless you are on a waiting list and have interviewed the breeder about their socialization techniques ahead of time. Knowing what should be done provides you a framework from which you can ask questions about your future puppy’s early socialization.
- Interaction with members of his own species (mom and litter mates) that are friendly and outgoing. This allows him to learn normal canine behaviors and interactions.
- Passive exposure to familiar and unfamiliar people so he can learn to investigate on his own terms and solicit attention. Passive means sitting there and allowing the puppy to come to you, not grabbing him and putting your face in his which might scare him.
- Provide toys of various shapes and textures to encourage play. Daily exposure to a variety of objects and textures will also encourage fun exploration and early self-confidence.
Eight to Thirteen Weeks
Puppies are usually adopted out at 8 weeks of age. Taking a puppy any earlier than 8 weeks risks encroaching in on the first socialization period and subjects the puppy to a new set of experiences before they are ready to emotionally handle it.
- At this age the puppy will be more mobile and will begin activities outside of the home. Outdoor access should be limited to spaces where unvaccinated animals and wildlife do not go as your puppies’ vaccinations will not be complete at this age. Avoid dogs of unknown temperament or aggressive tendencies that can scare or injure your new puppy.
- Your puppy will need to learn to travel to new locations and interact with new people and other healthy, vaccinated pets. Providing these experiences early on will allow your puppy to have positive interactions that will build competence and confidence in coping with new situations. Car anxiety and motion sickness should be addressed early before it becomes a learned behavior or lifelong fear. Enriched, new environments and a variety of toys will encourage play. Interactions should be supervised so no one gets overly excited and causes an accidental injury that can induce fear and anxiety.
- Enroll in a socialization class outside of the home at 9-10 weeks of age. This will help to reinforce early lessons about interacting with other dogs and people. Socialization classes should also teach owners appropriate handling and early training exercises.
- Expose your puppy to diverse groups of people of different genders, ethnicity and ages. Include people wearing hats, carrying umbrellas, briefcases and backpacks. Watch closely to be certain he does not show any signs of anxiety or fear. If he does, allow him to retreat, then start again slowly rewarding positive behavior with treats and praise.
- Provide positive experiences in different types of environments such as concrete, metal, tile, carpet, linoleum and sand. Allow him to withdraw when anxious and provide treats to encourage him to remain calm and relaxed.
- Gradually train your puppy to walk on a leash using treats to encourage him. Walk in safe places before he is fully vaccinated, avoiding parks and other areas where dogs of unknown status may congregate. This should include wooded areas where wild animals may carry diseases such as parvovirus and distemper.
- Continue working on handling exercises. Place your puppy in positions that allow all parts of his body to be examined. Handle his ears, feet and mouth to prepare him for ear cleanings, nail trims and teeth brushing. Never verbally or physically reprimand for non-compliant behavior, but rather use slow gradual exposure with rewards and praise.
In Part 2 of our Puppy Socialization focus, we will cover fear impact periods which can overlap with the 8-13 week socialization period, but becomes more important at 5-12 months of age.