What is the most critical period of your puppy’s life? It’s not her first snowfall, the day you met, or the first time she sits when you ask her to. It’s the time between roughly 3 and 14 weeks known as the “socialization period.”
Pet owners often ask what’s so important about this time. They hear the word “socialization” and assume it means that it’s a period when the dog will learn to get along with other animals. That’s true, but it’s not the whole story.
Proper socialization is about exposing your puppy to a variety of new things. This includes different people and places, not just other dogs. Puppies are at risk of growing into scared adult dogs if they only meet a few people and rarely leave home.
These scared adult dogs may not function well when meeting unfamiliar people, something that will happen throughout their lives. This could occur while on walks, having a pet sitter, or if they go with their owner on vacation. Providing care for a dog who is afraid of people can be stressful and dangerous for everyone.
When it comes to other animals, even if you think your new puppy may never have to live with another dog it’s important to expose her to other dogs during the socialization period. Every dog will see other dogs at some point in her life and it can be dangerous, as well as annoying, if the sight of another dog always results in excited leaping, lunging, and barking. Dogs have been known to pull their owners off their feet, resulting in falls and serious injuries. In some cases, their excited behavior can trigger aggression in the other dog, resulting in injuries to both dogs if they are able to reach each other.
One of the best places to expose puppies to each other is at a good puppy socialization class, where they can safely meet and play with other puppies of same age and size for short periods of play between well-matched puppies and supervised by an experienced instructor. When puppies play, they learn how to read and respond normally to social cues. This will be important to them later in life. For example, learning to avoid hurting another puppy by biting during play doesn’t just teach adult dogs now to avoid hurting other dogs, but can protect humans from biting, too.
A good socialization class will include exposure to objects and situations as well as other dogs. While an umbrella may seem routine for us, it could be very scary to a puppy. Think about how an umbrella works: it opens and makes a noise. You can twirl it around. Then when closing, it moves and makes more noise. Consider many children’s toys the dog may one day encounter; those, too, make noise and have movement.
Ensuring that puppies have positive experiences when first meeting children is another important part of socialization, decreasing the likelihood they will find children frightening when they see them again later in life. While new puppy owners may not have children when they acquire their puppy, a child may come into their life for a variety of reasons. The child could be a new neighbor or the child of a good friend or family member. If the adult dog was not exposed to children while she was young, there is a good chance they will see children as scary, simply because children are new and different.
Remember to provide lots of small, readily-consumed, tasty treats to all these situations to ensure a positive experience and to avoid overwhelming the puppy. Make it fun!
Does this sound difficult to you? Socializing your puppy takes some effort and planning, but fortunately there is a tool that has been proven to help. Adaptil Junior collars contain dog appeasing pheromone and have been shown in controlled studies to help puppies develop into better socialized dogs. Dog appeasing pheromone is a chemical produced by mother dogs that helps to calm and soothe puppies. In one study, after wearing the collar for one month, puppies were less fearful of unknown dogs, strange people and new objects than the puppies who wore placebo collars (collars without pheromones). Adaptil collars last for 30 days so place a new collar on your pup once a month for at least the first 2-3 months of his life and help him to successfully get through this important stage.
Poorly socialized puppies grow into adult dogs who don’t make good pets. They are more likely to be scared and anxious, making them hard to live with. Their quality of life is likely to be poor. The socialization period is an important window of opportunity for you and your pup. Make the most of it and socialize your puppy before she’s 14 weeks old!
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.