Puppy Socialization - What is it really?

Andrea Stone

Puppy socialization – we all know it’s important and socialization has become a buzz word amongst most dog owners. How do you achieve a “well socialized” puppy or adult dog? Does it work the same way for all dogs? Even long time, experienced dog owners and breeders should occasionally take a step back and consider these questions to re-evaluate their programs. Through self-examination we can make sure we are doing our best to maximize each individual animal’s potential and produce not only beautiful dogs, but puppies that are armed with the best chance of being superb family members. We are also charged with providing good, current advice for puppy owners so that their pets can be the best ones possible.

First we have to ask ourselves, what exactly is “socialization”? According to Merriam-Webster’s, socialization is the act of teaching (someone) or the state of having been taught to behave in a way that is acceptable in society. Teach is an important and operative portion of this definition, and a common unwitting misconception. When we socialize puppies, mere exposure to various types of humans, dogs and even other animals is insufficient. We must teach puppies, through pleasant experience, that these things are good and wonderful, and we must teach them how to interact in a safe and acceptable manner. Habituation is another important aspect of getting puppies ready for the world. Habituation is similar to socialization, but it is teaching puppies to become comfortable and accustomed to nonliving stimuli. We strive to socialize our puppies with people, and habituate them to things such as car rides, the sound of the vacuum, etc. These practices can and should begin at birth, and must continue through adolescence and into adulthood to produce the most stable and well versed dog possible. Never take good behavior for granted! The only guarantee anyone can make about behavior is that it can and does change over time. Turning a puppy out at a play group and allowing him or her to interact in whatever way he or the other puppies wish is not “good” socialization though it is certainly likely to teach the puppy something. It could be how to interact with other dogs his own age in a mutually enjoyable manner, but it just as likely to result in a dog that learns to be a bully or one that learns that other dogs are scary and to be avoided. When designing a socialization plan, breeders and dog owners must first decide what their expectations will be for their dogs as adults. Once a puppy owner knows what their ideal picture looks like, they can take steps to set their puppy up for success. Will my puppy be a performance dog expected to handle busy venues filled with noise, people and dogs? Will my puppy be my hiking partner, possibly hearing gun shots and running into people on horseback? Will my puppy live in the city or the country? All of these will help me figure out my socialization and habituation priorities, but the broader and more varied a puppy’s experience the better equipped he will be to handle the world as an adult. Let’s take a look at puppy development first.

Neonatal period – Birth to 2 weeks of age. During this stage puppies rely on their sense of smell and touch to navigate their world. Though they spend 90% or so of their time asleep, breeders can still begin introducing the scents, temperatures, textures and even the sounds (which will be perceived as vibration) of everyday life to puppies. Regular, repeated exposure that does not cause visible signs of distress is ideal. New experiences are always stressful anyway! Transitional Period – 2 to 4 weeks of age. What a mile stone! Puppies’ eyes and ears will begin to open and their perception of the world will drastically improve. This is also the time where they begin walking and playing with littermates. If breeders haven’t already had visitors coming to meet puppies, this is the time to start. If there are other household dogs, and the bitch is accepting of them (and if they are interested) this is a great time to allow at least limited access. Good common sense with regards to cleanliness and disease exposure are needed. Remove shoes and wash hands! Puppies are also beginning to have control over their own elimination and will attempt to move out of the nest to do so, so this is an ideal time to begin litter training.

Socialization Period - 4 through 12 weeks. Some experts believe the socialization “window” stays open through 14 weeks, but most agree that it begins to close around 11 weeks and is closed by 14 weeks of age. This means that any stimuli that puppies have not been exposed to by this age will be perceived as inherently scary. It is during the socialization period in which puppy behavior is at its most plastic with regards to new experiences and situations, so breeders and puppy owners need to take advantage of it. Environmental stimulation will directly impact a puppy’s brain development during this time as well - the more enriched the environment, the more developed the puppy’s brain will become.

Between 6 and 8 weeks of life is also when puppies are forming their strongest social attachments. They will typically remember people (and dogs) from this period in their development for their entire lives. This is part of the reason many breeders choose to place puppies at 8 weeks of age. However, there is a fear period between 8 and 12 weeks of age, during which puppies may respond to new stimuli with fear or suspicion rather than their previously demonstrated curiosity. As with social attachments, if there is a traumatic (to the puppy) experience during this period, it can last a lifetime. Great care must be taken! This is why some breeders choose to retain puppies a bit longer. But remember there is always a tradeoff. Breeders who keep puppies longer must be capable of meeting each individual puppy’s socialization needs. The same is true of new owners who take pups at 8wks – this important time must not be wasted. Many trainers, including Dr. Ian Dunbar, recommend that young puppies need to have had good interactions with at least 100 people prior to the age of 12 weeks.

As soon as puppies are ambulatory (or really beginning in that neonatal period), breeders should be exposing puppies to a variety of floor textures (carpet, grass, tile, cement, gratings, pebbled surfaces, etc) as well as objects and obstacles, including small steps, ramps, wobble boards, things that roll, objects that flutter, clunk, make strange noises and those which may move of their own accord. Wet floors and dusty surfaces too! And don’t forget sounds. Loud music, sudden bangs, buzzers, bells, recorded explosions (no real ones, please!), raised voices and the like are all very important.

During all of this, however, it is important that breeders and puppy owners watch each individual puppy’s response. Within a litter there can be significantly varied temperaments, which will affect how each one should be socialized and habituated to its world. Simply having a checklist and ticking off boxes is NOT good socialization. Each experience must be a pleasant one, and these experiences must be repeated. Meeting one man in a hat once before 12 weeks of age and not coming unglued does not compose “good socialization”. The puppy has to have met such a man multiple times and visibly enjoyed it. Uncomfortable puppies have three options: fight, flight and freeze. We want happy engagement! We must teach the puppy that men in hats are wonderful. Remember that key: teach.

Often times when puppies show uncertainty or nervousness about a visitor, a new owner’s response is that they must show or “teach” the puppy that said visitor is safe by pressing in closer and having the person feed the animal. However, as anyone who has ever had a spider phobia can probably tell you, having the object of your fears push in closer, even if they are offering chocolate cake, is not really going to help. The puppy may learn to tolerate the visitor in order to obtain the reward, but again, tolerance is not good socialization. The best approach is to allow the puppy to create the needed space, and then reward the puppy should he or she choose to approach the visitor. The visitor should ignore the puppy, or at least stop making eye contact. The owner should then offer praise and food rewards for brave behavior, while allowing the puppy to interact at its own pace. This is the best way to socialize with new people and dogs. If puppies are being held or carried, take care to pay attention to their body language. If they show signs of avoidance (ducking away, straining back) or anxiety (whites of the eyes showing, “airplane” ears, tension in the face), do not allow strangers to pet them. And always quit while you’re ahead. Socialization and habituation outings should be short and sweet. Tired puppies are easily overwhelmed. When puppies are pushed past their ability to cope, well-meaning owners can sensitize their dogs to the very thing they were trying to socialize them to. Puppies sensitized to the approach of strangers may begin to display avoidance or, worse yet, eventually even aggression.

Jean Donaldson describes each puppy’s socialization needs as a box, and when that box is full the puppy is well socialized (or habituated) to that stimuli. Each individual is going to have a different sized box for each person or thing, so what might be enough for one puppy will be insufficient for another, even within a litter. That’s why it is so important for breeders and owners not to fall into the “I’ve always done it this way and never had a problem” frame of mind. Look, watch, and listen to what each puppy is telling you. If you do this, you can respond to their needs. Don’t push puppies into uncomfortable situations because they “need to learn to put up with it”. Stop, back off, reassess your approach and teach the puppy that “it” is fun, wonderful and non-scary.

Puppy owners should take puppies to play groups where puppy interactions are monitored to make certain that each dog is having a good experience. Classes should also begin right away; There is no reason to wait until vaccinations are completed in this day and age1. Do observe good common sense by avoiding unregulated or unmonitored areas with high dog traffic, such as dog parks. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior recommends that puppies begin class at between 7 and 8 weeks of age, provided they have had their first set of vaccinations. According to AVSAB, “Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.”2 Many behavioral problems stem from poor or improper socialization. In my experience as a professional trainer, working with both puppies and adults the vast majority of aggressive behavior is a direct result of under socialization and habituation or dogs having been forced to tolerate uncomfortable situations until they could no longer put up with it. I have also witnessed, through my clients, the results of puppies sequestered away during critical periods, due to misinformation and disease. Sadly, most of these dogs and their families struggle to one degree or another throughout the dog’s life.

Dr. Sophia Yin and Dr. Ian Dunbar have both authored some great books on puppies as well as many others. Play groups and classes are an invaluable source for safe, controlled puppy interactions. Be sure to learn to “read” dog3 and respond to what your puppy tells you. Create multiple, brief and very pleasant interactions for new pups with as many varied people, places, things, sounds and dogs as you can.

1 This article is written with the United States in mind. State of vaccination and safety in canine population may vary in other parts of the world
2 See AVSAB’s website http://avsabonline.org/resources/position-statements for more information
3 Dr.Sophia Yin has a lovely poster available for download at http://drsophiayin.com/blog/entry/dog-bite-prevention-week-poster-on-the-body-language-of-fear-and-aggression

And there are many DVDs available to buy or rent on the topic of canine body language from TawzerDog (http://www.tawzerdog.com/ ) and Dogwise (http://www.dogwise.com/ )