Socialization Can Be Overdone
Puppy owners are told by breeders, shelters, rescue groups, and TV shows that puppies need socialization.
There are lists online of numerous things that puppies need to meet before they are four, five, or six months of age.
Granted, socialization (the process of introducing a puppy to the world he’s going to live in) is important. Puppies who are not socialized may develop behavior problems as older puppies and as adults; some potentially serious enough that the dog may need to be euthanized. However, too much socialization (or socialization done incorrectly) can also be a problem.
The Socialization Window
Ideally, socialization will begin when the puppy is still with his mother and littermates. His littermates, moving around and climbing all over one another, introduce the newborn to touch. When he’s handled by the breeder and other people in the family, he gets used to that. Throughout the next few weeks, he can learn what new surfaces feel like (blankets, fleece, textures) and he can climb all over toys. Ideally, he’ll hear the sounds of the household, meet the people in his home, smell a variety of scents, and get used to the world he’s in at that time. While all this is going on, his littermates and mother are there to provide security.
When your puppy goes home with you, at nine to ten weeks of age, his socialization needs to continue with the most important time period being up to fourteen to sixteen weeks of age. Although he needs to continue to be introduced to his world after this age, most experts agree that those introductions, the socialization exposure, must begin between birth and fourteen to sixteen weeks of age to be most effective. If not exposed during this time period, this window, the puppy may react fearfully to new situations and have poor social skills as an adult.
Throw Away the Lists
Puppy owners don’t need long checklists of things their puppy needs to do or be exposed to; instead, a variety of experiences are best.
I have a new puppy, Hero, who is 13 weeks old at this writing and I’m not using lists with him. In fact, I’m not keeping track of anything he’s been introduced to; instead, I simply expose him to all the sights, sounds, and smells of our household by encouraging him to follow me as I do housework. I shake out a trash bag, empty trash cans, and take the trash outside. I dust, sweep the floor, and make the bed. As I do chores, he’s exposed to all these new things. I do the same thing out in the garage, in the back yard, and in the front yard. I take him with me as I walk to the mailbox and we’ll greet a few neighbors on the way. Lists aren’t needed when you incorporate your new puppy into your household and your life.
Be cautious introducing your puppy to other dogs, however, until your puppy has had his vaccinations. Avoid other dogs’ urine and feces, too, as many dangerous canine diseases are spread through urine and feces.
Let Your Puppy Win
Socialization should not be forceful. Don’t drag your puppy up to new things that could be scary and don’t shove him into people’s arms, “Here, he needs socialization.” Instead, set your puppy up to succeed at each encounter.
For example, today Hero and I, with my adult dog, Bones, went down to our local harbor. Bones and I walk there often but today was Hero’s first visit. We began walking slowly so Hero could take in everything. Boats rocked at their moorings at the dock and made noise when they rubbed. Sea gulls called out as they flew overhead. People walked by and some petted him and others didn’t. (This is important; not everyone needs to pet your puppy. Forcing your dog on people is bad for everyone involved.)
Hero was doing great until we reached a point in our walk where a couple dozen sea lions where on a dock. They are smelly, huge, and loud. Hero’s tail went down and his ears went back. He was worried about these strange creatures. So rather than forcing him to walk any closer we stopped, sat on a bench and just watched. I invited Bones up on the bench, too, and Hero sat in between us. I chatted to him in a calm voice and just let him think about all of this. When he relaxed and his ears came back up, we left the bench but we went back the way we came. I didn’t force him to confront the sea lions again. In a few days, however, we’ll go walking at the harbor again.
As you begin introducing your puppy to his world, start quietly and help him succeed. Avoid dog parks, pet fairs, charity dog walks, and well-attended community events that could overwhelm him. Instead, go for walks outside of schools when school is in session; not when the kids are going to or leaving school. Go to a local park when nothing is going on; not during a soccer tournament. Have some treats in your pocket although right now your presence, hands, voice, and warmth are a bigger reassurance should he be worried.
If you have an older, well socialized, well trained, and most of all, calm dog; bring him along, too. Later, your puppy should go out alone with you but in the beginning this older dog can be a rock, a stable influence for your puppy.
Don’t Be Afraid to Retreat
If your puppy becomes worried about something, as Hero did with the sea lions, Not only did I not force him to walk closer to them, but after we sat on the bench for a few minutes, we walked away from them. In fact, if Hero had been more afraid of them, I would have walked away earlier. Then, when I saw that he was far enough away to calm down a bit, I would have stopped there to let him breathe and think. No one, person or puppy, can think well when afraid (or in a panic) and in those situations, more can be accomplished by leaving that ‘danger zone’ and finding a spot where calm be found.
Then, with more exposure, you can move closer to whatever caused the fear. My plan for Hero will be to walk the same path we did today and hopefully the sea lions will be in the same place. When Hero realizes the sea lions are there I will let him determine what we’re going to do. Maybe we’ll sit on the same bench for a few minutes longer. Maybe we’ll take a few steps closer. Perhaps we can walk on by. Maybe we’ll need to retreat again; I don’t know yet, but even if we need to retreat one or two more times, that’s okay.