By Marilyn Marks
Everyone is told by vets, friends, and books to “get your puppy out and socialize it.” Let’s take a look at what that really means, how to best accomplish it and what pitfalls to look out for.
All mammals have a stage in which they are more playful, more curious, and enjoy “newness.” All grow out of this stage into a more selective, protective adulthood. As youngsters, the freedom to explore under the watchful eye of an adult, helps us learn. As an adult, it would be distracting and perhaps dangerous to check out every new thing, and being cautious is the name of the game.
A puppy’s socialization “stage” is from 8 to 16 weeks, during which time your pup is physiologically primed for soaking up new experiences and deciding how to deal with them. After 16 weeks, their physiology changes again, and the “window” on dealing with “newness” closes.
Most pups are placed in new homes at around 8 weeks because they are entering this new stage. Your pup’s nature is already evident, but now it’s your chance to nurture your pup towards being a well-adjusted, adaptable adult dog.
By using this developmental stage to nurture your dog you will find that your adult dog is more attentive to you than to the “newness” of each experience. As a result, your dog will:
• have a controllable and “normal” response to things such as delivery people, babies, house guests, etc.• be easier to take on vacations or errands
• be less hyper and distractible on walks or at the vet’s office
• be adaptable to strange people & noises
For socialization to be done successfully, it must be done purposefully and each experience must turn out positively, not merely neutral.
Purposeful socialization involves variety, variety! Your pup needs to meet people that are different than the day before. It means going to new places to take walks instead of beating the same path over and over. It means meeting lots of kids, not just yours, or the neighbors’. To avoid hyperactive greetings you need to repeat over and over the things that will be expected often during the dog’s life: vet visits (instead of just once a year), taking your dog in the car and out into the world (instead of just once in a while) and physical handling and restraint, including brushing, handling toenails, cleaning ears, giving pills, etc. (do these things softly, gradually and “pretend” cutting nails and giving pills).
Positive exposure means that the pup has tome come out of the experience thinking, “I can do that! I like to do that!” Think of it like an “outward bound” course for your pup where he/she gains the confidence that comes from feeling successful in handling a potentially scary situation (one that he/she sees as scary, even if that is just a man with a beard, the sound of a baby screaming, etc.). This will lead your pup to develop an overall sense of ability to handle things, otherwise known as confidence. All pups may show wariness at lots of things or just some things. What we’re aiming for here is a short recovery, good “bounce-back” after a scare.
If you find your puppy is cautious, do not assume he/she will outgrow it – get help to turn these into positive experiences. Here are a few suggestions:
• act jolly and happy rather than consoling or supportive; your pup will take his cues from you• do not push the dog into (literally or emotionally) situations he is afraid of, rather, arrange for more time with those experiences so he can adjust as needed
• create distance from the scary thing, back up to a point where the dog is not showing fear and gradually move back towards it
• pair food with the scary event or thing; if the pup won’t take food, he is too close (too scared); by equating food (“good”) with the scary event (“bad”) he should learn to feel good about the bad.
Finally, don’t stop socializing at 4 months! That may be the end of the “sponge” period, but it’s still important to keep them out there getting new and varied experiences!