Contributed by Irith Bloom, faculty at Victoria Stilwell Academy and certified animal trainer with multiple certifications, including CPDT-KSA, CDBC, VSPDT, KPA CTP, and CBATI.
Puppy Socialization: Where and How (and Where and How Not) to Do It
So, you’ve brought home a puppy. She’s adorable, but it’s all a bit overwhelming. There are so many things to think about, and you’re not sure where to start. I always recommend that people find a good positive reinforcement trainer to work with as soon as possible. The trainer can help you figure out how to set up your home to keep your puppy healthy and happy, and can also get you started on puppy training.
The other thing to do (and you can do this even before you choose a trainer) is to get started right away on puppy socialization. It’s just as important as puppy training—arguably even more important. Puppy socialization helps puppies feel comfortable in the world. With proper puppy socialization, your puppy is a lot more likely to grow up to be a happy, well-adjusted adult dog.
There’s a lot of advice out there about how to socialize a puppy. Most of it involves exposing your puppy to a lot of different sights and sounds, including people and other dogs. This can be great advice for many puppies, but some puppies find too much stimulation overwhelming. Too much exposure can be just as harmful to a puppy’s development as too little. So how do you balance things so that your puppy gets the right amount of exposure? Here are some key points to keep in mind during puppy socialization.
Do Watch Your Puppy’s Body Language
First, make sure you are always watching your puppy’s reactions. If she starts to act scared or nervous—watch for lip licking, yawning and retreating from things, among other body language signs—give her a break. The goal is for puppy socialization to be fun for your puppy, and if she’s nervous, she’s not having fun. It’s helpful if your puppy is in a situation where she can move around freely (e.g., off-leash in a safe space), so she can create distance when she wants it.
Don’t Force Your Puppy
While we’re on the topic of distance—never, ever drag your puppy over to something! If she doesn’t want to approach something, and you force her to take a closer look, she may form a fear memory. Fear memories can be impossible to get rid of, and can therefore make life with an adult dog a lot harder.
Do Form Positive Associations
The goal of puppy socialization is to form good associations with the things your puppy is likely to encounter throughout her life. We want to proactively make new things fun. One easy way to do this is to offer some Zuke’s Puppy Naturals Salmon & Chickpea Treats, Diamond Naturals Puppy Biscuits or other delicious dog treats as soon as she sees something new. Feeding your puppy treats when she encounters new things also teaches your puppy that good stuff comes from you, so you’re worth being around. It’s really a win-win.
Don’t Overwhelm Your Puppy
The most common mistake people make during puppy socialization is to overwhelm the puppy. They take their puppies to outdoor malls, or concerts or dog parks, because they figure it’s a great way to knock off a whole bunch of different new experiences at once. The problem is that any one of the things that the puppy encounters in those situations could make the puppy scared. And here’s the real kicker: Once the puppy is scared of one thing, that fear can bleed into everything else the puppy is seeing, hearing and even smelling in that moment.
In other words, if I take my puppy to a local carnival and she’s frightened of the clowns, she may also become fearful of crowds, carnival equipment and the smell of popcorn. Instead of making her comfortable, I’ve made her scared, and that fear can last a lifetime.
Do Keep Your Puppy Stimulated at Home
So how can you socialize your puppy without overwhelming her? First of all, make sure there are lots of interesting things going on in your home. Put out different kinds of objects, let her explore different surfaces, and bring in different people and well-socialized adult dogs—but only one at a time. Feed your puppy treats the first time she encounters each new thing on a regular basis. And if your puppy does get scared, let her move away, or remove the scary item.
Note: Puppies often go through a fear period at about 9 weeks of age. They are more likely to form fear memories during this period. If you notice your puppy is suddenly nervous about everything, back off of the puppy socialization and keep things quiet and calm for a few days until your puppy starts to act curious again.
Do Take Your Puppy on Car Rides
You should of course socialize your puppy outside your home, too (as long as she’s had her shots—or you can carry her in a FurryFido Reversible Pet Sling). It’s also a good idea to put your puppy in the car so she can get used to car rides. Use those car rides to go fun places where your puppy gets to experience low-key puppy socialization.
Note: If you are going to travel with your pup in a car, use a Sleepypod Clickit Sport Dog Safety Harness or another crash-tested car dog harness. A loose puppy in a car is a bad idea, especially since an airbag can kill a puppy. Clip a dog leash such as the Mighty Paw Leather Dog Leash Lite to the harness when you get where you’re going, and you are ready to go for a puppy socialization walk.
Go to places where your puppy will get to experience just a few new things. Friends’ homes and yards are a good option. So are local pet-friendly stores that are relatively quiet.
Stay away from crowded events and malls, where there are loudspeakers and lots of different things happening at once. Quiet walks on country roads are ideal, if you live in the country. For those, like me, who are in cities, you can schedule walks so that most other people and dogs are at home. That way your dog only has to deal with the traffic noise, and not a bunch of other things at the same time.
Don’t Put Your Puppy in Risky Situations
You also don’t want to take your puppy to places where she might get sick. Unfortunately, not all people keep their dogs up to date on vaccinations. Also, a lot of people bring their fearful, anxious or aggressive dogs into situations they shouldn’t be in. The dog your puppy runs up to in a friendly way may be in response. It’s therefore best to avoid any place where there are a lot of dogs. This includes pet stores and dog parks. Your puppy can wait until she’s an adult, and less likely to get sick or traumatized, to visit those places.
Proper puppy training and socialization takes thought and effort. As you expose your puppy to new things, make sure to pair those new things with good stuff such as treats. Choose puppy socialization opportunities carefully. And most importantly, keep an eye on your puppy to make sure she isn’t overwhelmed—and if she is, get her out of the situation immediately.