The Critical Period of Development is between 8 and 16 weeks for a puppy. This period is like an open window in the dog’s brain for new experiences and learning about his world. Your growing puppy has many developmental windows and if you are aware of them and use them to your advantage and training timetable; the behavioral outcome of your puppy will be amazing. What your pup is exposed to, in a positive way, becomes normal and acceptable. What your pup is exposed to in a negative way or not exposed to at all, becomes something to fear and avoid and maybe even fight. Most dog owners these days are aware of the need to socialize their puppies, but unfortunately, many owners go about it the wrong way and their efforts, however noble, have the opposite outcome than they hope to accomplish.
Socializing your puppy means exposing him to the world and what it holds in a positive way; in your puppy’s time, and by his opinion of a good time, not yours.
A pool can be fun if the pup can dip a toe in when he chooses, but being tossed in or falling in a pool can give the experience a whole other flavor.
Ten minutes of play with one other puppy might be fun versus an hour in the dog park with questionable company.
Sitting in the vet’s waiting room being barked at by bigger dogs or sitting in a vet’s waiting room getting bits of chicken for looking at you is a very different experience.
Simply exposing your puppy to people, places, things and other dogs does not make him socialized. In fact, many well-meaning owners make this mistake. In a daycare, your dog will meet many people and other dogs. Does your dog like it? Do the handlers care or know about good socialization? Do they make playgroups according to play styles or just put a bunch of dogs together? How do they supervise play and do they know how to prevent a fight? Does your puppy get punished? How long is a good play session? Will he be able to get proper rest at daycare? A quality daycare can answer all these questions and more. I am not aware of this kind of daycare…..it is rare if it even exists.
How about the dog park? To me, it’s a gamble at best. You don’t know anyone there. You don’t know the dogs there. There is no supervision by a professional. How do you know what is good play versus bullying? Do you know what to do if your pup gets in a fight? If your pup doesn’t come when called and you do not read canine body language, you are entering a place where the dogs may work things out themselves. What if the other dogs guard their owners, a ball, the gate? What if the other dogs have no rules and are not under their owners’ control? What if one person brought three dogs? I could go on and on. You need to know what you are doing if you go to a dog park. Fights happen all the time. Bad ones. You cannot go back and undo a dog fight. If one occurs when your pup is young, it could leave a permanent result emotionally, creating a real fear of other dogs.
So how do you make sure your puppy is getting good socialization?
Get enrolled in a puppy class with off-leash play that is supervised by a professional. Learn your puppy’s body language. Know how to help your puppy grow in confidence and develop play skills that are good and safe. Teach your puppy a solid come when called. Look for a quality trainer that uses positive reinforcement training methods. Classes should have clear rules and you and your puppy will learn a lot. Ask if you can watch a class before you enroll, to see if it meets your needs.
Choose playmates for your puppy and invite them to your backyard to play. Make sure they take frequent breaks before they get over-aroused.
Avoid meeting other dogs while on a walk. We don’t encourage our kids to play with strangers and you shouldn’t let your puppy either. You may need to be firm with people who run up and want to pet your puppy, especially if your puppy is shy. If you don’t protect your puppy from a bad experience, he will fend for himself. Don’t give your puppy a reason to learn how effective aggressive behaviors can be! Each puppy is an individual. Respect your puppy and his space. Don’t force him into things if he is reluctant. Coach him, encourage him and help him conquer challenges at his pace. Take your puppy to places where you want him to be comfortable. Take him in your car, your boat, to meet your brother’s dog, to the farmer’s market, to the vet and groomer, etc. Take him to these places for short periods of time, frequently, until you observe the kind of behavior you want for him as an adult. Bring some chicken and feed him for being confident and for paying attention to you. If he gets overwhelmed, leave and return with a plan to help him feel more comfortable.
Your vet may warn you about Parvo and other contagious diseases that are dangerous for your puppy. Some say wait until the puppy receives four sets of shots -which is usually by four months of age. Your vet’s role is to give you the best medical advice to keep your puppy healthy. My job is to give you advice to obtain the best results behaviorally. These two viewpoints may be in conflict. YOU must decide what is right and what is safe and what the risks are to socializing your puppy immediately or waiting until four months of age. If you wait until your puppy is fully vaccinated, you may compromise his optimum developmental window for socialization. He may be less confident, less adapted, and fearful of some things. If you begin the socialization process at eight weeks, you may expose your puppy to a disease that he could catch.
You could compromise by exposing your puppy to safe ways to socialize. Puppies can safely interact with vaccinated adult dogs. Quality training facilities do not allow unvaccinated dogs into the building. They also use a specific cleaner that kills Parvo and other viruses to improve safety. You can walk your puppy in your neighborhood with little risk. You can take him to well-kept parks and friends’ houses without dogs or vaccinated dogs. You can invite people and dogs to visit the puppy at your home. Many people take their dogs to Home Depot, Lowes and the pet store. Remember -lots of people do this too and there is no one at the door asking for vaccine records. The big pet stores have a vet clinic in the store where sick dogs are, which makes the whole store a potential hazard. Stay away from obviously sick dogs, stray dogs, areas that are saturated with feces, aggressive dogs, anything likely to scare a puppy, like fireworks.
The American Veterinarian Society of Animal Behavior has a Position Statement that states: “The primary and most important time for puppy socialization is the first three months of life. During this time puppies should be exposed to as many new people, animals, stimuli and environments as can be achieved safely and without causing overstimulation manifested as excessive fear, withdrawal or avoidance behavior. For this reason, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior believes that it should be the standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before they are fully vaccinated.”
Lastly, do not stop socializing your dog after puppy class. This is a process that needs to continue throughout your dog’s life. You can lessen the intensity and frequency, but do not think you are all done at four months. Your puppy needs to get out and about often to maintain the good you provided as a puppy.