Early Socialization and Your Puppy’s Development

Many dog owners are unaware of the importance of socialization, “even though it is absolutely a crucial part of dog ownership and can save many dog owners a heap of frustration and stress.”

Christine Fasan—who runs K9Holistics and specializes in German Shepherd training and healing reactivity in dogs of all breeds—believes early socialization is also crucial to a puppy’s healthy development.

The Honest Kitchen: Why is early socialization so important for early development in puppies? What kind of skills develop in puppies when they are exposed early on to other animals, people, environments?

Christine Fasan: Socialization is the most important aspect of puppy training, and unfortunately it is also one of the most overlooked. Socialization is what makes the difference between a fearful, timid, standoffish adult dog and a relaxed, confident and friendly one. It literally creates the foundation for how the dog will receive new experiences later on in life.

Puppies that are well-socialized from an early age are more trusting of new people, get along better with a larger variety of dogs and are more secure in unfamiliar environments and situations. There is a term in the dog-training world for a thoroughly socialized dog: bomb-proof. It means that you can take the dog anywhere and he’s happy and relaxed as can be… an ideal canine companion!

THK: What exactly is socialization and how do you accomplish it in puppies?

53662c_636d78f1aaee4015a0ecd749cff5d292CF: Socialization is essentially the process of exposure. We want to expose the dog to as many new dogs, people and experiences as possible while they are young and help them to form positive associations to these things. There is a common misconception that socialization refers only to meeting new dogs. Of course, dog-dog socialization is super important and will help the puppy develop canine social etiquette, but the process of socialization extends far beyond the canine world.

Your socialization program should involve the pup meeting tons and tons of new people daily! Lots of men and children, as dogs tend to be more sensitive to these demographics. And make sure to be specific and extensive. Not just men, but men with beards, tall men, short men, men wearing big coats, men with umbrellas, children of all ages, people of all ethnicities, people in wheelchairs, people on rollerblades, people on bikes, people wearing sunglasses. The more time you put in now, the better off your dog will be in the future.

In fact, I encourage my puppy clients to have lots of parties when they first get a new puppy. It’s a wonderful socialization experience in and of itself to have lots of people coming into the house. And the lively, loud, rambunctious atmosphere of a party is a fantastic thing to use to socialize your dog. Have guests take turns holding and handling the puppy while giving praise and treats; it will prime your dog to love going to the vet and being groomed!

It is also important to socialize your dog to environments and experiences. Crowded places, loud noises of all kinds, people yelling, household appliances (hello vacuum cleaner!), rides in the car, elevators, traffic noises, construction. Dogs are not gifted by nature with the ability to effortlessly handle all of the stimuli that life in the human world will throw their way, so it is our duty to expose our dogs to these things in a positive way and show them that there is nothing to fear.

THK: Do you think poor socialization is one of the main causes of behavioral issues in older dogs?

CF: Poor socialization is without a doubt one of the leading causes of behavioral problems in adult dogs. The vast majority of adult dogs that I work with have issues that are a direct result of incomplete socialization. Though it is certainly not impossible to socialize an adult dog, it is a lot more difficult and time-consuming than socializing a puppy (which is a breeze and really quite fun). Due to the sheer difficulty of re-socializing adult dogs, many dogs end up being turned over to shelters because of their behavioral problems. This is a truly unfortunate situation because these issues are completely preventable and would not have presented themselves had the dog been socialized as a puppy.

THK: What are common signs of poor socialization?

CF: The most common symptom of poor socialization is fear, and this can manifest in a variety of ways. Oftentimes, fear manifests as what many of us would identify as aggressive behaviors: growling, snarling, lunging, barking, nipping and even biting. The dog is not acting this way because she actually wants to do harm; rather, these behaviors are intended to scare off a potential threat. Likely, the target of these behaviors imposes no threat whatsoever, but because the dog does not have positive associations (lack of socialization) to the target, the target becomes perceived as threatening.

Any fearful, anxious, or avoidance behaviors can result due to poor socialization. If you spot these behaviors in your dog, it is important to identify what is triggering the behavior, and then take the time to recondition the dog’s association to that particular trigger. It is very helpful to work with a behaviorist if your dog is presenting these kinds of behaviors.

THK: How early should you start socializing your puppy?

CF: As early as possible! The first critical period of socialization is over by 12 weeks, so the earlier the better. If you are buying your puppy from a breeder, it is important to ask the breeder about their socialization procedures. Do the puppies meet many people from outside the family? Are the puppies reared in both indoor and outdoor environments? Do the puppies have the opportunity to interact with other dogs and animals outside the litter? How often are the puppies handled? These are important questions when deciding what breeder to buy from. The parents may have an incredible pedigree, but if the puppies are not socialized neonatally, they are already set up to be at a disadvantage later on in life.

If you are considering buying a puppy from a pet store, STOP. Puppy mill issues aside, these dogs generally have little to no socialization during the first critical period and are prone to developing behavioral issues later in life due to lack of early socialization.

THK: What about starting socialization (interacting with other dogs) before your puppy receives his first vaccines? How do you minimize risk during this period?

CF: Prior to the completion of Parvo vaccination (16-20 weeks), it is important to limit your pup’s exposure to other dogs. This may put a damper on dog-dog socialization, but there is still plenty of work to be done during this period. This is your opportunity to do specific and extensive socialization to humans, situations and experiences. Have puppy parties galore and bring your puppy with you on errands and in the car. You may not be able to walk the puppy around, but your dog will still get plenty of exposure if you are carrying him in your arms. Once your pup has completed his vaccinations, you may begin his dog-dog socialization.

Meet the Author: Diana Bocco

Diana Bocco is a full-time writer and avid adventurer. She's gone hiking in Siberia, snorkeling in Thailand, and canoeing in the Mekong River. She also loves caves and has been known to get lost in one or five around the world. Diana's work has been published in the Discovery Channel website, Yahoo!, Popular Mechanics, and more. You can read more of her work on her website at www.dianabocco.com

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