The Importance of Early Socialization in Puppies

Updated on February 26, 2018
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Adrienne is a former veterinary hospital assistant, certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

Why Does My Puppy Need Early Socialization?

There is a special ''grace period'' in a puppy's development during which the puppy must be exposed to people, places, and things so that it will not develop into a fearful adult. It is unfortunate that many owners are not aware of this important stage and refrain from sufficiently socializing their puppy. This often leads to fearful behaviors such as barking at strangers, submissive urination, and cowering.

The socialization period in puppies coincides with the time where puppies are most vulnerable to infectious diseases. Veterinarians may, therefore, recommend limiting a puppy's outings as to reduce the chances of exposure to other puppies and potential disease. This restriction clashes with the socialization recommendations.

The issue is highly debated because most puppies are not completely vaccinated until they are approximately 16 weeks old. However, up to that age, puppies should be exposed to as much as possible. This is the ''grace period'' mentioned above, where puppies undergo imprinting. It is vital, therefore, to ensure that puppies are exposed only to other healthy young dogs that have completed their vaccination series. Unfamiliar dogs should be avoided as should exposure to contaminated feces; it may be helpful to carry the puppy in a special bag known as a Sherpa bag.

How to Socialize Puppies

Age: Birth to 4 Weeks of Age

Breeders should start their puppy's socialization at as early as 2 1/2 weeks, and puppies should be handled by the breeder for a minute each day. The time the puppy is handled should then be increased every week, up to 5 minutes when the puppy is 4 weeks old. This daily handling allows the puppy to bond with humans and is a process called "imprinting."

Age: 4 to 16 Weeks of Age

After 4 weeks, the puppies should be used to the smell of humans and their gentle touch. Between 4 weeks and 16 weeks, puppies undergo the most critical phase of socialization. It is at this stage that puppies should be exposed to young children, other pets, and humans in a positive matter.

Around 8 weeks, most puppies are adopted. At this stage, it is the owner's responsibility to take over the socialization process. This means much more than taking the puppy to the vet and meeting other dogs and people there. Puppies must be taken everywhere imaginable and exposed to people of all ages and walks of life. They should also be exposed to various environments other than their home—this means taking the puppy out on walks and car rides.

The puppy should get gradually accustomed to different scenarios with different scents, sights, and sounds. They should also get accustomed to walking on different surfaces—grass, asphalt, snow, puddles, and mud. The experiences should be multi-sensorial, as to expose the dog to a multitude of stimuli and situations. This often means taking the puppy to the city, stores, playgrounds, construction sites, and music events.

The more places the puppy is taken to, the better. Treats may be given every now and then to praise your dog's social behavior and to provide positive reinforcement when the pup is exposed to people and new places.

After 16 Weeks of Age

If your puppy was not properly socialized within that ''grace period'' what happens? As an owner, you may still have time to guide your dog through remedial socialization but its impact may not be as effective. It is very important to know how to react to your puppy's fear. Show gentle guidance and create positive associations with the trigger.

In conclusion, it is important to realize that when it comes to properly socializing your puppy, an ounce of prevention is certainly worth a pound of cure. Take advantage of socializing your puppy during that ''important socialization window'' in order to develop a social and stable-tempered dog. You certainly do not want to come to realize that you own a fearful, unsocialized, potentially aggressive dog 105 pounds later. This often leads people to keep their dog secluded and in isolation, creating a sad, solitary life for the dog.

Questions & Answers

    © 2009 Adrienne Janet Farricelli

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