Puppy Socialization & Desensitization
There are many dog trainers and dog books that stress the need puppy socialization. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) “believes that it should be the standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before they are fully vaccinated.” Their postition statement on Puppy Socialization can be read at www.AVSABonline.org
Puppy socialization is a broad term that applies to a range of puppy training methods and obedience techniques that have little to do with Puppy socialization. By the time you bring your puppy home he/she has most likely been properly socialized through the interactions with his/her littermates, the next step is not more socialization, but rather exposure to a variety of real world situations such as introducing your puppy to adults, kids, the car, the vet, appliances such as a vacuum, shapes, sounds, and different environments. This process is commonly referred to as puppy desensitization.
Puppy Socialization is the developmental phase between 3 weeks and 12 weeks that a puppy goes through when they play with their littermates. During this phase the puppy learns proper body language and social hierarchies that are an important part of being a dog. Socialization really only involves the dog’s interactions with its own litter mates and does not make the puppy accustomed to the real world such as people, loud noises and how to behave politely around strange dogs. Pack hierarchy is one of the most basic things the puppy learns during this crucial socialization period. However, a puppy who learns early to dominate his or her littermates may continue to exhibit dominant behavior around strange dogs, this behavior may seem inappropriate, but is completely in line with what the puppy learned early on.
The importance of Puppy Socialization cannot be downplayed. When getting your puppy from a breeder find out how the puppy has interacted with other dogs and people. It is extremely important not to get your puppy too early. Puppies that are homed before 8 weeks do not get proper socialization with their littermates and may develop behavior problems later in life as a result of this. The distinction between Socialization and Desensitization is an important one because desensitization demands that you as an owner take an active role in controlling your puppy’s experience in new environments.
Exposing your puppy to the world teaches him/her what to expect in certain situations and what you expect them to do. Desensitization takes place when we introduce the puppy to a variety of people, places, and animals and teach them how they should act.
During this period of desensitization take your puppy to a variety of places to meet as many people as possible and to meet other animals such as dogs, cats, horses and cows and continue to do this over the lifetime of your dog. Repetition and continuing exposure are important. When first introducing your puppy to these new things and places it is very important to avoid frightening experiences. When introducing your dog to a strange dog make sure that the dog is friendly before exposing your dog to a potential attack which could traumatize your puppy and develop into dog aggression later in the dog’s life. And when introducing your dog to children you should carefully instruct the children on how to behave and how to meet him/her before simply throwing your puppy into a group of screaming, jumping children who might terrify your puppy. If your puppy is frightened then the experience may form negative associations with children in your puppy’s mind which may last throughout his/her life.
You should desensitize your puppy gradually in slow steps. Having some basic obedience will help before you begin so that you have some ability to control and get the puppy’s focus. Begin in a safe and controlled environment so that if something goes wrong or if the puppy displays fear or other inappropriate responses you can reassure and calm him. Basic obedience can help your puppy feel more confident and that you are in charge and that there is no reason to feel anxious in new situations.
Your puppy is very sensitive to how you respond to situations and will pick up on your anxiety, fear and emotional responses. Staying clam and cool in new situations is very important. For example, if you become tense and nervous when introducing your puppy to a strange dog because you fear that he might be aggressive your puppy might think that you are afraid of the new dog. Sensing your fear your puppy might become more aggressive thinking it should protect you. On the other hand, if you praise and coddle your puppy every time it runs and hides in fear of something, you may unintentionally encourage its fearful behavior. Your codling may convince your puppy that its fear was justified, and continue to be afraid in similar situations, which will continue to be reinforced by your praise and reassurance.
The key to successful puppy training and desensitization is to be aware of your own feelings and behavior and know exactly what actions you desire of your dog and how to reinforce his/her best behavior. In order to encourage your dog to be calm around other non-aggressive dogs teach your dog a sit command while another dog is passing. If your puppy acts aggressive or inappropriately let the dog know that this is unacceptable behavior with a leash correction and a sharp “No”.
Here are some suggestions on what to expose your puppy to:
- Kids: Make sure that the children are instructed to be gentle and friendly in order to make the experience a pleasant one. Remember that puppies between 6 to 10 weeks of age fear imprint so we do not want to make this a frightening or bad experience.
- Car Rides: In order to make sure that the puppy does not associate bad endings to car trips such as going to the vet or the groomer drive him to the pet store, to a fun place, to visit his favorite play mate etc.
- Meet other puppies and healthy friendly dogs: You want your puppy to associate with a variety of dogs. Choose friends who may have varied dogs such as big ones, small ones, older ones etc. Join a puppy class.
- The Vet: Go to your vet just to visit. The staff will give him/her treats and love. Do this several times without having any procedures done. If done properly your dog will never hate going to the Vet.
- Pet Stores: Go to all your local pet stores and take advantage of meeting people and other dogs and even other animals. Pet stores welcome your puppy and even encourage it.
- Open Shopping Malls: There are a lot of shopping areas that allow dogs that are well behaved and mannered. This is a fun and great way to get your puppy desensitized to people, noises and distractions.
- Outdoor Restaurants: There is nothing more enjoyable than having your dog at your feet relaxing while you have your café latte or glass of wine while watching the world go by. That is if your dog is relaxed and friendly with strangers and other dogs.
- Beaches/Lakes/Pools: Introduce your puppy to water at their own pace. Do not force them into the water before they are ready. You can encourage your puppy to follow you into the water by playing games and using treats but be sure that you go in small steps and make it positive. Some puppies will just jump right in and others may take their time but most dogs enjoy romping through the water and may even take to swimming a few laps.
On a final note make sure to keep an eye out for stress on the puppy’s part during any of these experiences. Make them feel safe and don’t overwhelm them. If you keep the experiences positive your puppy should grow up to be a healthy and happy companion for life, a dog you can take anywhere and be proud of.