Socialization is the process by which an animal learns to relate to the stimuli in its environment, including animals, places, and things. Socialization recommendations are an important part of every puppy office call, however they are often overlooked. Socialization recommendations can be easily added to puppy appointments with no additional time commitment when your staff is properly trained and client handouts are used. By addressing socialization at the first puppy visit, future behavior problems can be lessened significantly or even avoided entirely.
Socialization doesn’t mean simply expose the puppy to all stimuli without reinforcements. The exposure has to cause positive conditioning and should promote a confident, calm behavior.
Why is socialization so important?
Socialization is one of the key elements to increasing retention in the home. Puppies who attend early learning and socialization classes from 8-14 weeks are more likely to be retained in their original homes when compared with pups that did not. Puppies who are well socialized are likely to learn more quickly, be able to problem solve more effectively in new situations, and be a happy well rounded puppy.
If puppies are kept in a deprived environment until 20 weeks of age, they are more likely to exhibit anti-social behavior. It is difficult for these pets to become well behaved family pets because they are slower to learn, more reactive and difficult to train. If dogs are not socialized during the sensitive period for socialization, there is an increased risk that they will have behavior problems such as anxiety, fear and aggression later in life. It is far easier to prevent a problem in a puppy than to treat it in an adult dog.
Puppy’s sensitive period is 4-16 weeks of age. The sensitive period for socialization is one in which puppies are most easily socialized to stimuli. A sensitive period is a time when a small amount of work or no work at all can have a large impact on the dog’s future behavior. While older dogs can be socialized, it is much more difficult after 16 weeks of age. At 8 weeks of age, the fear reaction is fully developed; however, sociability outweighs fear until the puppy is roughly 16 weeks old. This phenomenon makes it easier for the puppy to be introduced to frightening stimuli without permanent fear setting in than it would if older. If a puppy is not exposed to new stimuli between 4 and 16 weeks of age, she is more likely to be fearful of those stimuli.
The goal of any socialization plan is to have a calm, relaxed puppy. Basic socialization will begin at a distance from the stimuli at which the pup isn't frightened. If the pup knows how to sit, she can be asked to do so and then continually reward every 2-10 seconds while she sits calmly. Over time (minutes or entire sessions depending on the pup), the distance to the stimuli will be decreased. If the pup is frightened, back up to a distance at which she is not frightened and start there. Do not push, pull or correct the pup. You can't correct fear out of a puppy, but you can suppress the physical signs causing a much worse reaction in the future.
Remember your goal: confident and relaxed. Pulling a frightened puppy toward the stimulus will only make matters worse. Some puppies will start right next to the stimulus and others will start 20 feet away. Go at the puppy's pace. If the puppy is frightened be sure not to coddle her, but don't leave her to her own devices either. Instead, get happy yourself. Most puppies look at you quizzically and begin to engage you. This will give you a chance to start over with the puppy. Follow the instructions above concerning how to deal with a frightening situation. Nothing is learned if the puppy is overwhelmed. Short training sessions ending on a positive note are always the best way to train.
While socialization can be accomplished with just a few minutes a day of structured work, it is best done in daily interactions with the puppy. You can work constantly on walks or whenever the pup is out. If something comes down the road, you should stop and feed the pup every 2-10 second until it passes. When socializing to people, you should ask every person that you can to participate by handing the puppy tasty treats. There is no limit to the stimuli to which a puppy can be socialized to as long as it is not rushed.
With proper socialization, many behavior problems can be prevented or substantially minimized saving lives in the process. With integration of a behavior program into your puppy wellness visits, each and every puppy will have the chance to start off right behaviorally and medically.
The list below is an abbreviated list of stimuli that should be addressed with your puppy.
- Snow plow
- Garbage trucks
- Delivery trucks
- Lawn equipment
- Walking in the rain/snow
- Holiday decorations
- Electronic noises
- Crowded places
- Wet grass
- Tile/slick floors
- People running
- Different ethnicities
- Package delivery people
- People with
- erratic behavior
- Pocket pets