Michael is a pet-lover and an avid researcher and content writer on topical themes related to pet care.
The Importance of Socializing Your Puppy
Socialization skills are necessary, not only for the development and safety of a dog, but also for the protection of other animals and humans it will come into contact with during the course of its life.
A properly socialized dog will enjoy its life and others will enjoy having it around as well. A poorly socialized dog could quickly become a liability or even a threat to the owner, the entire household and outsiders.
According to a study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are nearly 5 million dog bite incidences that occur every year in the United States alone.
There are many other cases of canine aggression that take place as well. A considerable percentage of all of such misbehaviours can be prevented through proper socialization and training.
When Should Puppy Socialization Start?
When it comes to starting the socialization process, the younger the puppy is, the better. These are habits that will form within the consciousness of the puppy and will, therefore, impact or influence it for the rest of its life.
The most sensitive stage for the socialization process falls between 6 to 8 weeks of age. Difficulties in trying to socialize a puppy increase the older it gets, therefore, what and how you teach it during this critical phase is paramount.
Risks of Undersocialization
Fright, nervousness, fear, withdrawal and aggressive behavior are evidence of an improperly socialized dog.
Such dogs will lack the ability to adapt to changes in their environment or cope with unfamiliar experiences. A visit to an unfamiliar place like the vet's or a neighbor's house could trigger distress or stir up a host of negative reactions.
During the socialization process, a puppy develops recognition and understanding on how to interact and engage with people, members of its own species and other animals.
Socialization will help the puppy master the skills required to understand, interpret and process its surroundings and the different players in that environment.
This also helps avoid unnecessary problems which may later come about due to conflict. Having learned from an early age how to handle stress, your puppy will not be overwhelmed when confronted by difficult situations which would otherwise lead to fear, anxiety or distress.
The Importance of Habituation
One central component of socialization is habituation. Habituation refers to the process by which a pet is made accustomed or familiarized to something by being repeatedly exposed to stimuli.
This is key to effective socialization and it is how the puppy will begin to grow in confidence and develop adaptation skills.
As soon as the puppy has been vaccinated and you have the green light from the vet to begin the training process, you can begin taking it out with you to expose it to new surroundings and start getting it used to unfamiliar sights and sounds.
How to Socialize and Train Your New Puppy
Below are nine important tips that will help you to raise your puppy to be a good canine citizen. These tips include everything from introducing your puppy to a healthy environment to exposure, socialization, and habituation.
1. Start With Your Home Environment
If you have just brought your puppy home, it is necessary to ensure that it is kept in a setting that is without distractive noise or activity.
If there is too much going on in the house in terms of sound and movement, the puppy will likely be unable to take it all in at once and the result will be counterproductive stress.
Accustom the puppy to grooming tools like brushes and combs. When bathing it, handle its various body parts, including the ears, the teeth and nails properly. This will make your visits to the vet or the groomer much easier.
Allow your puppy to use its sense of smell in order to familiarize itself with different tools and equipment around the home, as well as domestic appliances—everything from storage boxes, rugs, bins and bags to vacuum cleaners and washing machines.
Don't cap the curiosity of the dog as long as the situation is not threatening or self-injurious in any way. Allow the puppy the freedom to explore and get acquainted with these items at its own pace.
From time to time, provide some exercises for the puppy to improve its skills by changing the arrangement of what is common and familiar in the house. For example, you could set some of the furniture pieces elsewhere or even in a semi-upright or upturned position for a period of time.
2. Interactions With Other Animals
The natural process through which a puppy learns how to socialize or get accustomed to other dogs begins during its interactions with the rest of the litter and through its relationship with its parents.
However, what usually happens is that the puppy is separated from the mother and the rest of the litter at a young age and, unfortunately, the socialization process is not completed in a natural manner.
The training provided by the parents and the other members of the litter must now be undertaken by the new pet owner.
As noted before, it is necessary to allow your puppy to interact with other amicable dogs freely (as long as they are properly vaccinated). Other animals you could introduce the puppy to include guinea pigs, rabbits, pigs, livestock, poultry, etc.
One way of familiarizing the puppy with another pet is to place something that is used by the latter, for example, linen, bedding or a towel next to the spot where the puppy sleeps.
Once it is familiar with the smell of the pet, it is much easier for the puppy to accept that pet as a member of the household.
If you observe that there are unpredictable animals in the area, avoid placing the puppy on the ground. A sudden move toward the puppy by a curious animal or an unexpected attack could distress the puppy thereby setting back the socialization process you are trying to establish.
Allowing your dog to have contact with other friendly animals is also an important part of its development and training. You can also allow it to play with children as long as neither party poses a threat or danger to the other.
Discourage the puppy from forming a habit of chasing other animals, children or adults because once this habit has set in, it is difficult to break later on.
All animals that your puppy interacts with need to be healthy and properly vaccinated. Ensure that you do not allow your puppy to come into contact with animals that are infected with disease. Your puppy should never be allowed to play with such animals or interact with them.
3. Get the Timing Right
Timing is critical during the socialization process. There is a certain period during which the puppy is more sensitive than in other stages of its development. This is the opportune time for the training.
This crucial period begins from 3 weeks of age until about 12 weeks after which the capacity to learn begins to decline. As noted before, the most sensitive stage for is between 6 to 8 weeks.
Consistency is necessary for socializing the puppy if the lessons are to sink in and become deeply embedded. Otherwise, the puppy may begin to lose the skills and slip back into fear, uncertainty and loss of confidence.
Therefore, it is important to maximize this window of opportunity by ensuring the puppy has been properly habituated and has the necessary skills it requires to move to the next level.
4. Be Systematic
It is important to adopt a systematic approach to the socialization process. This training should not be random or haphazard—it needs to be organized and conducted properly in stages so that the puppy has ample time to adjust while moving from one level to the next.
Bear in mind that the puppy is in the formative period, so what takes place will determine the quality of life it will have in its entire future. Therefore, it is necessary to do the training in a manner that is both pleasant and convenient for both you and your pet.
There will be times when you need to be firm with the puppy in the process of its training, however, remember to ensure that your pet is not made to feel threatened or intimidated.
Train the puppy such that it will develop a balanced temperament and the skills to cope with a variety of situations.
5. Consider External Influences
In addition, the manner in which the puppy was handled by the breeder or a previous owner goes a long way in determining how easy or difficult your socialization training will be.
Training a dog that was used to being locked up can be a challenge especially when trying to help it adjust to a household environment with family activities and noises from appliances like the washing machine, dryer, dishwasher, vacuum cleaner, television or even the doorbell.
Therefore, it is improper to jump into conclusions and assume that the puppy is slow to learn because it is defective, abnormal or incapacitated in some way.
If you compare its learning curve with other puppies that have gone through training and find that yours is taking more time to catch on, the difference may have something to do with the environment it came from and the treatment it was given while there.
6. Take Charge
Be present when the puppy comes into contact with new people and engages in new experiences.
Remember that there will be adults, children, members of its own species or other animals who will not know how to relate well with your puppy. Not everyone is gentle or understanding, so you need to be observant and on guard at all times.
Be prepared to intervene in case your puppy's safety is endangered or if it becomes fearful or distressed. Take control and handle the situation intelligently.
If the puppy begins to become nervous or agitated during an encounter with someone, politely ask the person to step back so you can collect your puppy. This will restore comfort and alleviate fear.
Each step of the socialization training needs to be done in a comfortable way and the entire experience should be made pleasant for the puppy. So, be in control and do not allow any of the experiences to get out of hand or to become frightening or injurious to the puppy.
Once it has formed a link between trauma and a particular experience, a puppy can carry this with it for the rest of its life. Certain emotional effects may be impossible to reverse as the puppy develops.
Therefore, approach the socialization process with both precaution and patience. The puppy should be allowed to develop at the pace it can cope with, without being rushed or coerced.
7. Encourage Exploration
It is normal for pet owners to have the desire to involve their pets in their daily life experiences, including simple things like going out for walks, visiting familiar places or meeting with people. However, for all this to happen without incident, a puppy needs to first get used.
A dog's understanding of the world is very much determined by its sense of smell, so it is important to allow your pet to freely use this ability when you take it with you for walks or expose it to new people or places.
Typical spots to visit in order to create exposure include pet stores, playgrounds, parks, shopping centres and other places where there are crowds of people and various activities.
If you own a car, you could purchase a dog car seat such that you are able to carry your puppy with you occasionally. In this way, the puppy will learn about the world outside from the safety of the vehicle.
Ensure that your pet is positioned such that it has a clear view and is able to capture the passing sights and sounds unobstructed, even if this means slowing down or stopping the vehicle at certain places.
Examine your own lifestyle and your own environment. A pet owner that lives in the city will not have the same challenges as someone who lives in the country.
In the former case, the puppy will need to get used to an environment with constant noise, traffic and crowds of people. So understand your present situation and then tailor your training accordingly.
8. Allow for Constructive Relationships
One mistake you can make as a pet owner is to assume that because your puppy has developed familiarity with some people, it is now comfortable with all humans.
Remember that dogs possess a much more advanced sense of smell, owing to the fact that they have up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in us.
Moreover, they have a second olfactory capability, thanks to the vomeronasal organ or Jacobson's organ, which does not exist in the human body. Thirdly, the part of a dog's brain which is devoted to analyzing smell is approximately 40 times greater than ours.
This is why one scientist likened their ability to catching a whiff of one rotten apple in two million barrels! So, where we as humans may see two people or animals as having similar characteristics, a dog can instantly detect glaring differences.
Ensure that there is diversity in the manner in which you socialize your puppy. Don't limit exposing the pet to only people of a certain age, personality, gender, height, size and skin colour.
Introduce the puppy to children, youth and adults of different backgrounds and walks of life. The more you do this, the less the chances that the puppy will experience reactionary problems like panic, confusion or even aggression when it comes into contact with strangers.
Remember, as the owner, you determine the intensity of the bond and depth of relationship you would like your puppy to have with others. You set the limit and specify the boundaries.
For example, if you would like a certain person to share a bond of friendship with your pet, hand them a treat or toy to offer to the puppy. Alternatively, you could allow them some time to play together. This gives your puppy the right signal and enables it to develop trust and mutual understanding with that person.
9. Work on Your Training Language
When teaching your puppy language, avoid alternating your commands at different times. Maintain consistency in the instructions you give. '
For example, you should not say 'Want to go for a walk?' at one time, and then 'Wish to go out?' or 'Want to go to potty?' at another time.
Before you begin training the puppy to understand your commands, be clear on the exact statements that you wish to use and stick to those. Ensure the rest of the members of the household do the same.
Be aware that the use of similar words for different commands will confuse the puppy and it will not react in an expected manner.
One example is the use of the word 'down' which refers to the act of lying down as opposed to getting off of a piece of furniture.
If the puppy jumps onto the sofa and you don't want it there, then using the command 'down' will cause it to lie on the sofa which is exactly what you don't want! In this case, it would be preferable to use the word 'off' instead.
Additional Tips for Successful Socialization
Inasmuch as your puppy does require training in order to have the necessary coping and adaptability skills, it is important to view this as a process that evolves naturally.
The puppy should not be pressured or coerced to conform to new situations and environments. It takes time for a puppy to develop a clear and mature understanding of behaviour that is proper and acceptable. This is where you as the owner will need to exercise patience and consideration.
Remember to reward your puppy with treats or toys when it demonstrates good behaviour. This strengthens the likelihood that the action will be repeated and ideally form into a habit.
In addition, never punish your puppy physically. This will damage your connection and the puppy will learn to become fearful of people, oftentimes exacerbating preexisting problems.
As the owner, there is no need to intervene unless there is a threat or the puppy is in danger. Allow interactions to take place naturally and for the puppy to learn from each interaction.
Watching how your puppy interacts and plays with others will also help you gain insight into the type of personality it has. This knowledge will, in turn, enable you to best match your training with the puppy's temperament in order to make the most out of it.
During socialization, take care not to reinforce the wrong reactions or emotions by comforting the puppy with rewards when it is distressed.
Giving the puppy treats because it is upset or fearful after an encounter only conditions the puppy from an early age to expect rewards for fear-based behaviour. This reinforces the negative feelings that you are trying to curb and encourages the puppy to adopt the wrong traits.
Finally, in case you are interested to pursue this further, there are classes available where puppies can be trained in socialization.
These provide a chance for the puppy to connect with different dog breeds and develop a way of socializing with them while picking up the skills and discipline it needs. Such classes also present the pet owners and trainers the opportunity to learn new methods and skills of training.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Michael Duncan (author) from Germany on December 24, 2019:
Thanks for your comment, Liz. Not to worry. There are additional articles coming up on the training and care of dogs as well, so this is one space to watch! Stay tuned :)
Liz Westwood from UK on December 24, 2019:
This is a thorough and useful article. I wish I had read this before we had a dog join the family.