Did you ever wonder why some dogs are afraid of children or people in hats? Why some are “hand shy”, not wanting to be petted on their heads or have their feet touched? Why some dogs don’t like to walk on concrete surfaces or step over long grass? The answer is improper early socialization. Improper early socialization greatly increases the risk of a dogs’ behavioral problems later in life. We know that behavioral problems are the #1 reason dogs are relinquished to shelters and rescue groups. Dogs are 1,000% more at risk of death by euthanasia at a shelter than they are at risk of dying from a communicable disease.* Without proper early socialization, a puppy may never become the confident, adaptable adult dog he might have been.
Puppy socialization is so important, that organizations as diverse as the AKC and the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior have published position papers on the subject this past year. (www.AVSABonline.org) In the past, Veterinarians recommended keeping puppies at home for their first six months, to minimize possibilities of contracting communicable diseases, like Parvo or Distemper, before all their immunities were in place. Now Vets and Animal Behaviorists are recommending puppies start public socialization activities and training classes at 7-8 weeks of age, because current research shows that the first three months of a puppy’s life are prime opportunities; when their sociability far outweighs any fear, and learning takes place the most rapidly. This window in their brain development begins at about three weeks, when the puppy’s eyes first open and they can begin to experience their world, and ends at about 16-20 weeks (depending on the breed and the rate of maturation; i.e. giant breeds take longer to mature). During this time the exposure to new people (other than his own family members), new experiences, other puppies and even new textures and surfaces, build the pup’s confidence to meet any new challenges he may face later, without apprehension,
Proper socialization starts with the gentle handing of the puppy as his eyes open, and progresses to exposing him to as wide a variety of environments, sounds, textures and people as is safely possible. Exposure to people is the most important. Dr. Ian Dunbar, author of many puppy training books and founder of the APDT, recommends the puppy meet 100 different people by the age of 12 weeks; people of color, people with canes, people in wheelchairs or using walkers, and children of all sizes.
The AKC recommends providing a variety of surfaces for the pups experience or an obstacle course for them to figure out, including some elements that are safely unstable; that tip or wobble a bit. Reputable breeders will move the puppies from room to room and provide background music or sound CD’s that simulates traffic sounds or sounds of the outside. Trips in the car to public places are highly recommended, and a special trip to the Vet’s office to meet and get a cookie, (without a painful association) is a great way of establishing a friendly relationship, early on.
Puppy classes, or puppy playtimes, offer a controlled environment where the puppy can learn simple obedience cues and interact safely with other puppies his age. The AVSAB recommends that owners take advantage of every safe opportunity to expose young puppies to a variety of stimuli, and encourage enrollment in puppy classes prior to three months of age, as an “excellent means of improving training, strengthening the human- animal bond and socializing puppies in an environment where risk of infection can be minimized”.
In all, take your puppy everywhere, introduce him to everyone and keep him safe, while that window of opportunity exists. The benefits will last his whole life long.
*Dr. R.K.Anderson, “Puppy Vaccination and Early Socialization Should Go Together”, Director, Center to Study Human/Animal Relationships and Environments, The University of Minnesota, 2004.