I get many questions on how to properly socialize puppies, and the topic is important enough to discuss in detail. In addition, as part of my work with Chako Pit Bull Rescue, I see many puppies pulled from shelters that have a few strikes against them in the socialization department, especially those that were placed in isolation due to medical issues.
Many people underestimate the role proper socialization plays in a dog’s development. It is really important–and I mean really– to ensure that young puppies are regularly exposed to different and new things. They should frequently walk on different surfaces and be exposed to various sights, sounds, and noises every day, multiple times a day.
The prime socialization period for a puppy occurs during the first three or four months of her life. During this time, the puppy’s brain is developing rapidly and, as such, she’s learning about the world very quickly. However, there are complications to properly socializing puppies. It’s not as easy as thrusting them into different environments and hoping for the best.
For instance, puppies are incredibly vulnerable to picking up potentially fatal diseases. Parvo, for example, is quite prevalent in the environment and highly contagious, especially to puppies. A puppy’s immune system isn’t really fully mature until about four to six months (and, in some cases, a year). That is why puppies need a series of vaccinations every few weeks.
So, you shouldn’t just take your puppy to a park and let him or her romp around. Because of this immunity issue, many people keep their puppies isolated at home for the first four months. Unfortunately, isolation is one of the worst things for puppies. Puppies need stimulation. Their brains need to explore and learn about the world, not just about your house and backyard.
Additionally, some puppies go through what is called a “fear stage.” This is a period of time during the puppy’s development where things that scare them may impact them later on, either affecting them throughout their lives or resurfacing after they mature. In addition, some puppies go through a fear stage where suddenly things that were familiar to them become slightly scary, and they act unusually timid. A puppy may go through one, two, or no fear stages during his first 4-5 months.
Regardless of whether a puppy goes through any fear stages, puppies are particularly susceptible to having negative experiences carry life-long consequences. Of course, how negative those consequences are and what triggers a puppy’s fear will vary based on the puppy’s own genetic makeup. Some puppies are naturally more confident, resilient and brave. Other puppies are intrinsically more cautious, timid, and less resilient.
So, how do you properly socialize your puppy without risking death or lifelong phobias? Use the following guidelines:
Take your puppy out with you, but not to places where other dogs frequent. For example, hang outside a department store, on cement, and let your puppy take in the sights and sounds of the parking lot. Make sure your puppy is enjoying the experience. If your puppy seems uncertain, relocate to a calmer environment where there’s less stimulation. Always have lots of treats with you and, yes, please do let people (not other dogs) gently say “hello” to your puppy. Even puppies with medical issues, like Spunky Brewster shown below, need as much stimulation and enrichment as possible (Spunky was adopted through Chako Pit Bull Rescue; she’s shown below on one of her outings).
When planning outings with your puppy, time them around your puppy’s vaccination schedule. A vaccination isn’t really effective until about five days after delivered, and for puppies, vaccination effectiveness only lasts a few weeks. Five to twelve days after your puppy’s vaccination is the best time to take your puppy out to new public places, and you should take your puppy out somewhere new at least once every other day during this period.
Weigh the risks and benefits of every outing. To me, personally, the lifelong risk to a puppy of being too isolated during his first four months outweighs the slight risks of contracting a disease (assuming you are careful where you take your puppy).
Keep in mind that puppies under 8-9 weeks of age may not benefit at all from vaccinations (because maternal antibodies may inactivate the vaccine), so take EXTRA care with very young puppies; it’s best not to let them on the ground in public. You can, however, hold them and let them take in the sights and sounds.
If you take your puppy someplace a little riskier disease-wise (for example, to a friend’s yard for a BBQ, take a large thick blanket and an ex-pen. Spread the blanket on the ground outside, preferably on cement, and place the ex-pen on top of the blanket to hold it down flat). Never let your puppy walk around where other dogs frequently potty, and if you see droppings from other dogs, keep your puppy well away from the area.
Take your puppy to pet stores, but let him or her ride in the cart. If you’re really paranoid, you can put a blanket in the cart or wipe it down (note, alcohol wipes don’t kill the Parvo virus, but the likelihood of your puppy getting parvo from the inside of a shopping cart is slim).
Ensuring Positive Experiences with Other Dogs
Do not let dogs you don’t know interact with your puppy. You don’t know the vaccination or temperament history of the dog. Disease aside, having an unfamiliar dog bite your puppy is a great way to give your puppy a negative experience that could set him up to distrust dogs well into maturity.
Do set up supervised play dates between your puppy and other dogs or puppies that you know to be safe, properly vaccinated, and who will interact well with your puppy and help reinforce proper dog manners in your puppy. Be careful about letting your dog interact with other puppies unless you are reasonably sure her puppy playmates are free from disease (especially Parvo). Keep in mind that puppies can have the Parvo virus for days without showing symptoms. If setting up playdates between two puppies, it’s best to make sure both puppies receive baths prior to their interaction (you may gain a slight benefit in reducing the risk of one puppy contracting a disease or parasite from the other puppy).
Obstacle Courses and Puzzle Games
Set up little obstacle courses for your puppy. Lay an ex pen down flat and place tempting treats on it to encourage your puppy to walk over it. Lay a shower curtain down so your puppy walks on that new surface. Get your puppy used to walking on hard surfaces, soft surfaces, smooth surfaces, and rough surfaces. Let them work puzzle toys. Hide treats in boxes and let them push the box around or rip it up to get the treat.
Give your puppy different toys to play with–LOTS of different toys. Toys that are soft, hard, fuzzy, smooth, squeak, crinkle, etc.
Acclimate your puppy to things he or she is likely to encounter throughout life. Get your puppy used to riding in the car, safely of course. Take your puppy to your vet’s office every once in a while, but not for an exam (keep her off the floor). Just ask the staff to give her treats and say hello quickly so she doesn’t always associate the vet’s office with getting stabbed, poked, or prodded (make sure to ask your vet’s office in advance about the best times to drop by). It’s best to do this before the first time your dog will need to be stabbed with a needle at the vet’s office. You want the puppy’s first experience at the vet’s office to be fun.
Also, get your puppy used to grooming. Gently touch his feet and ears frequently. Teach him to enjoy handling by making it a positive experience (using high value treats can help).
If your puppy finds something scary or overwhelming, try to make the scary thing seem fun and happy, but if need be, end the outing or the encounter. Never force your puppy to interact with or approach something she finds scary (but a little gentle encouragement can help).
Puppies gain confidence by overcoming challenges or fear (so gentle encouragement to approach something a puppy is slightly wary of, combined with lots of praise and treats, can help your puppy build confidence).
Incorporate mini exercises into your puppy’s life to expose him to knew things and teach him how to overcome insecurity. For example, two or three times over the course of a couple months, open an umbrella you don’t care about, set it on the ground, and toss treats at it. Let your puppy explore.
If you have an older dog, it’s great to use the older dog to show the younger dog the ropes. For example, if your puppy is afraid of a big ball, and your older dogs thinks the big ball is just great, let the older dog go up to the big ball. Play with the older dog and the big ball. Make it seem like the most fun in the entire world. Your puppy is watching and learning, and odds are, your puppy will then decide the big ball is something that’s not going to eat him, and he’ll really want in on the fun. Monkey see, monkey do. Dogs do learn by observing.
In short, give your puppy at least one positive new experience every day for the first four months of his life. Carefully supervise your pup’s interactions and reactions to ensure your puppy isn’t too overwhelmed. By providing positive, new, and different experiences on a regular basis, you will set your puppy up for a lifetime of being better able to handle strange and potentially stressful encounters later in life.