Proper exposure and handling of puppies during their first months of life is essential to the prevention of behavior problems. The socialization period in puppies begins at age 3 weeks and continues to age 12-14 weeks, depending on the breed. During this time, a puppy's brain is developing social capabilities and associations. Puppies who do not experience appropriate socialization during this period often suffer behavior problems throughout life. Early socialization allows for healthy social development, preventing avoidance behaviors and acts of aggression based on fear of other dogs, people or new environments.
Appropriate socialization involves exposing your puppy to a variety of novel people, animals, places and situations without causing him to become afraid Consider any and all people, animals, objects and locations that your puppy may be exposed to at a later age. Devote extra effort to introducing your puppy in a positive way to children, elderly persons and people who have other physical differences from your family. Examples include people of all ages, sizes, and colors, men with beards, people wearing uniforms, headgear or glasses, people in wheelchairs or walkers, and people riding bikes, skateboards, or rollerblades. Carry treats with you at all times so that the new people your puppy meets can provide a positive interaction. Teaching your puppy to sit for all interactions with new people will also encourage him to greet people in a polite manner. Exposure to inanimate stimuli, such as vacuum cleaners, cameras, balloons, crates, and veterinary offices is also important. Use food treats to create a positive association with objects, as well as people. Remember that just being exposed to these things in a neutral way may not be adequate, so it is especially important to add that positive association (usually using treats).
If there is something you think is important for your puppy to accept, such as being clipped or brushed, introduce the tool first and then the procedure very gradually. The puppy should receive irresistible food treats for tolerating the presence of the tool first, then for having the tool touch him, and finally for having the procedure done. Each session should be only a few minutes, and the puppy should receive the food continually for tolerating the procedure. If your puppy will need professional grooming, take him to the groomer early and as often as possible, even if he doesn't need a complete grooming. Bring lots of treats and remain with your puppy if you can so he can get used to the process without fear.
Visits to the veterinarian should be as positive as possible. The veterinarian and staff should approach the puppy gradually and quietly, allowing you to reassure him. The puppy can be examined on the floor or on a table, but a towel or drape should be used to make the table surface more secure for the puppy. Puppy treats or even canned dog food should be offered during physical exam and vaccinations so that the puppy is distracted and doesn't react fearfully to the procedure. Only gentle handling is ever appropriate during these first veterinary visits.
Friendly interactions with other animals are especially important for your puppy's social development. Arrange "play dates" with friends who have other dogs or puppies. Be sure to supervise all interactions and that the dogs with whom your puppy plays are socially appropriate. The best play pal for a new puppy is a mature adult who is known to be friendly and eager to play with other dogs, but also one that does not tolerate excessive mouthing or jumping. It is appropriate for the adult dog to give an occasional reprimand in the form of a bark or air snap when the puppy is biting or playing too roughly, any aggression beyond that, however, is not appropriate. Watch the body language of the adult dog – if you notice that he is avoiding the puppy, growling or playing too roughly, remove your puppy from the situation immediately. A bad experience at this sensitive age can have long lasting negative effects.
Another concern when finding doggy playmates is the risk of infectious disease. Make sure your puppy's playmates are healthy and have a current vaccination status. Your puppy will not be fully vaccinated until 16-18 weeks of age. Avoid locations where unvaccinated dogs are likely to hang out, such as pet stores and dog parks, until your puppy is fully vaccinated. Because the socialization period coincides with the peak of infectious disease risk, it is especially important that you expose your puppy to other dogs in a controlled manner.
One safe and effective means of socializing your puppy is to enroll him in a puppy socialization class, or puppy kindergarten. This special class provides a means for puppies to form social relationships with other animals and people, in a safe, controlled environment. Recent studies show that puppies that participate in puppy socialization classes are more likely to remain in their adoptive homes than puppies that do not attend class. Speak to your veterinarian about class options near you. Be sure the class is supervised by an animal care professional and that the class is for puppies only. Punishment or discipline, and rough handling are never appropriate in puppy classes. Do not allow anyone to roll your puppy over or hold him down, yell at him, or jerk on his collar or his leash. Never permit anyone to do anything to your puppy that seems inappropriate or frightening. If your puppy seems upset by some aspect of the puppy class, first make sure that what is being done is appropriate, and if not, don’t permit your puppy to participate. If the puppy seems to be reacting fearfully in a non-threatening situation, speak with your veterinarian about it. For information on Puppy Kindergarten classes at OSU, please visit: Puppy Kindergarten
One option is for you to ask to observe one of the puppy classes before you actually take your own puppy there. That way you will have a better idea of what exactly happens in the class, and how the puppies are managed. Puppy classes should be fun for everyone involved, the people as well as the puppies.
If puppy kindergarten is not an option in your area, you can set up socialization exposure in your own home. Having a new pup is a great excuse to have parties. Invite 5-10 friends over for a gathering in which everyone participates in asking your puppy to sit and giving him treats. You can set up several "treat stations" and your puppy can move from person to person, having one great interaction after another. You can use his regular dog food mixed in with delicious treats and have it in jars around the house. Each party can be different – costumes one night, music and dancing another, etc. Be creative and make sure your puppy is happy and excited about each interaction. Fear and avoidance behaviors in a social setting are not normal for healthy puppies. If you notice that he is running away from people or acting fearful, review the level of noise, activity and social interaction, as you may need to decrease the activity level if it is overwhelming to your puppy. If you find your puppy is acting fearful even without high noise and activity levels, you may need to consult your veterinarian and/or a behavior specialist before proceeding with socialization parties.
Remember that puppy socialization is intended to convince the puppy that the world is interesting and rewarding to explore and to help him be confident in unfamiliar situations. Care must always be taken to prevent frightening experiences as you work to socialize your puppy. The effects of improper puppy socialization can be devastating, leading to fear-related aggression, anxiety, and extreme shyness around people and other animals. It is also important to remember that proper socialization should continue throughout your dog's life, to maintain the benefits gained from early socialization. If you have adopted an older puppy or young dog, there is some increased risk of fearful behavior if he was never appropriately socialized, but you shouldn't assume that he will be fearful. With patient and gentle help, such dogs can often blossom in their new families and develop into happy, sociable pets. Please contact the Behavioral Medicine service if you have questions or concerns about your puppy's social development.