Welcoming a puppy into your home can be one of the most exciting and joyous times. The anticipation of the new arrival can send us into a scurry of purchasing new items that the puppy will need; collars and tags, a cozy bed and crate, treats, and the list goes on. We envision a bundle of joy that wants to cuddle, take walks with us, go to coffee shops and perhaps take agility or nose-work class. These are all wonderful activities, but for your new puppy to be comfortable in many of these settings, there is a crucial component in which we must pay significant attention.
What Is the Socialization Period?
The socialization period exists from about three weeks to about 14 weeks of age and while the information readily available often states, the period ends at 18-20 weeks many experts believe it ends much earlier. Socialization exercises should start before five weeks of age, breeders and shelters/rescue groups have plenty of exercises they can work on with puppies ranging from body handling to desensitization of novel and new noises and objects and can be executed safely before vaccines are complete.
This period of development is one in which we have the opportunity to “pad” our puppy with positive experiences and associations to all new things. I like Dr. Sophia Yins socialization checklist you can download free of charge.
Why It’s So Important
Studies show that puppies that are under-socialized before the window of development closes are prone to being fearful of humans, other animals, and new environments and stimuli. Fear is often the cause of aggression, so it’s imperative that we take advantage of this opportunity (when possible) to expose our pups to new things, and to execute it properly. Often, we are fearful that without full immunization and completed vaccines that our puppies should remain safely in a bubble. This article via the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour is beneficial.
Exposure should be gradual and at a level that your puppy is comfortable with. Using treats is something I recommend as well; making positive associations through the use of food is widely recognized in the scientific community and utilizing food rewards for training is highly recommended.
One big socialization mistake is the assumption that exposure to new environments/people/dogs, etc. alone is enough. It’s often not. Often puppies become overwhelmed in new situations, and we ignore their body language that is expressing they are not comfortable or, we may think that that is part of life and they must “get over it” to become confident dogs. Wrong. What can happen in these cases is your puppy can then become quite fearful; you may have had good intentions, however, now your puppy is avoiding the things you have exposed him to but didn’t allow him to say, “no thank you, that’s too much right now.” Body language is our companion animals is something that is still entirely misunderstood and is such a massive tipoff to us when our dogs are not comfortable. Becoming well-versed in how your dog feels in any given scenario will help you make those judgment calls when your puppy is trying to tell you something. iSpeakdog.org has a fantastic library that I recommend everyone study.
Some scenarios that can be overwhelming to a puppy and cause trauma:
• A crowd of children swarming your puppy at the schoolyard
• A busy night market or farmers market
• A party, gathering/social event or celebration such as Halloween or Christmas
• A dog park full of dogs or any large group of dogs (many other risks involved as well)
Over-exposure or negative experiences can lead to trauma and fear; this is why it is so crucial to go at your puppy’s pace. If your puppy becomes fearful, remove him from the environment, give him space to take in what is going on and never worry that you are reinforcing the outdated belief that you are reinforcing or rewarding fearful behaviour. Your puppy is counting on you to listen to them so please, be his advocate. Ensure he feels safe.
If your puppy is now showing fear towards certain things, it will be essential to understand how to execute counter-conditioning. D Zazie Todd explains beautifully in this article What is Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning in Dog Training.
Is It Too Late?
Often we acquire our dogs once the socialization window has closed, or, you may not have understood that we can safely socialize before vaccines are complete. Read more about socialization and vaccines here. No, you cannot socialize an adult dog; however, you can execute behaviour modification exercises to change how he feels and the associations he has already made in life. It is true that once the window has closed, we have missed a significant opportunity; however, that does not mean that we cannot follow the socialization protocols listed if your dog is younger as well as the counter-conditioning techniques I have listed if your dog is showing fear or discomfort.
And remember, every experience and interaction your puppy has, influences how they feel about you and the world around them.