Bark All About It!
We know people don’t bring home a happy puppy aiming to turn it into a hyperactive, uncontrollable dog. We know that new puppy owners are focused on essential – not to mention time-consuming and exhausting – puppy-raising tasks like housebreaking and keeping a puppy from chewing the couch. We also know the fear of exposing a puppy to potential life-threatening illnesses, like parvo, makes owners wary of taking a not-yet-fully-vaccinated puppy out away from home. All these things conspire to create the #1 reason puppies develop behavior problems: lack of proper socialization. If a puppy is not properly socialized, they can ultimately land in the shelter or, sadly, become candidates for euthanasia.
This problem is so prevalent that the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior published a position statement that states the new standard of care for puppies is that they be “exposed to as many new people, animals, stimuli and environments as can be achieved safely” before they are fully vaccinated.
What does this mean exactly? Well, it means that in the midst of pee pads and chew toys the clock for proper socialization ticks away and before you know it - BAM! The window where a puppy’s sociability outweighs fear – a mere three months – has slammed shut.
Now that we know the WHY, let’s talk about HOW to safely socialize a puppy that doesn’t have all its shots.
Socialization is about introducing a puppy to new things in a positive way. Always bring small pieces of something delicious, like real chicken, on your outings to help create a positive association. Forcing a puppy into scary or stressful situations isn’t positive, so the key is to be gradual and consistent. If your puppy is showing signs of fear and trying hard to withdraw from or avoid a situation, move away from what is scaring puppy and try to get him focused back on you and the treats. Try to get to a place where the puppy is still aware of the “scary” thing, but is taking treats. We want the puppy to realize that the “scary” thing isn’t really that scary, and he can trust you to protect him by moving away if it is.
The main categories of socialization are:
Take your puppy to an outdoor coffee place, shopping area, or big box store where the puppy isn’t likely to be exposed to dog feces from potentially ill dogs. Think concrete vs. grass. Bring a little bed or mat where the puppy can sit while you sip your coffee. Invite people to come give your puppy a treat. Who doesn’t want to pet a puppy? You’re guaranteed to get some action. Try your darndest to expose your puppy to people of all skin colors – not just in the spirit of diversity but because light skin looks “different” from dark skin, and “different” is what can freak a dog out. (You’d be surprised at how many calls we get from bewildered owners who are convinced their dogs are ‘racists’).
It’s great if your puppy likes your other dog and has met your neighbor’s dog, but you can’t stop there. Find a reputable facility that hosts puppy play dates, like The Local Bark’s Puppy and Me Playtime. Qualified trainers will be able to coach you on proper play behavior. Be choosy about the dogs you allow your puppy to meet. The last thing you (and puppy) need is to have a bad experience meeting a new dog. Pick puppies and other dogs that you know are vaccinated and are dog friendly. Rely on professionals for help in this area – it’s that important.
Again, just because your puppy joins you in the car to take the kids to school and has been on every street in your neighborhood doesn’t mean she has been exposed to lots of different environments. Car rides are great. Weather permitting, your puppy can join you on errands even if she never gets out of the car. She can observe the world through the windows from the safe confines of her crate. Visit as many friends’ homes as you can. Take her to pet supply stores, and any establishment that is dog-friendly. Use a stroller or wagon if you’re concerned about your puppy being on the ground. Going in and out of stores just holding your puppy is an exercise in socialization. A darkened lobby of a movie theater looks vastly different than Home Depot. If you’re carrying a puppy you can sneak into lots of places for a quick look around.
Stimuli is sciency talk for stuff in the environment that could cause a response from puppy, such as noise. Reactivity to sounds or noise is one of the most common forms of under-socialization we trainers see. A strange sound in a new environment can shut down an under-socialized dog. Strange-looking things can also cause puppy to go on alert – and by strange-looking we just mean something your puppy has never seen before. Like a balloon. Or a leaf rake. Or an umbrella. Vacuum cleaners can look and sound scary. Introduce puppy to these items slowly. Associate new things with tasty treats. When the yard guy or pool guy comes over, allow puppy to observe from a safe place. If puppy (and the yard guy) seems calm, use the opportunity to have puppy meet a new person and see some new stuff. But don’t overdo it with the loud tools…let your puppy observe the leaf blower from afar at first.
Take puppy on walks in your neighborhood – stay on the sidewalk or in the street to avoid dog poop – and take note where the hyperactive, unpredictable dogs live. These are the dogs that go crazy behind a window or fence as you walk by. Some puppies might notice but not react, but some will get a little nervous. As you approach those spots, start giving puppy treats. Same procedure when you come across a dog going crazy at the end of a leash. Don’t force puppy to get too close to crazy, but watch and see how puppy feels about these situations. Remember: if puppy is stressed, change directions and move away and onto something else. The key is to make these occurrences seem like no big deal AND also result in a payoff.
Socialization is something you’ll do throughout your puppy’s life, but it’s especially important in the first three months. It requires planning, effort and creativity. And some of you will have to work harder than others because of your puppy’s inherent temperament and experiences your puppy had even before you got him. But it’s necessary and the payoff is undeniable – you get a happy, well-rounded dog, and you can spend your training dollars on something more fun than doggy behavior rehab.
For more help with socializing your puppy, print out our Puppy Socialization Checklist that contains more than 80 socialization scenarios