Yes, it’s true! One of the most important things you can do for your new best friend is socialize him to the world in which he’ll be living. For those of you wondering, socializing means just what it sounds like, taking your dog out to visit new places and meet new people. Puppies go through a critical developmental period between birth and about sixteen weeks of age. Dogs may have a tough time adjusting to new people or situations if they haven’t been exposed to them during this time.
Now, you may be thinking, why is socializing my puppy more important than something, like, say, housebreaking? It’s a good question, and quite normal if you’ve been spending a lot of your time mopping up after your new pup’s accidents. Housebreaking is an important skill, but it is much easier to housebreak a dog than it is to try to make up for a lack of proper early socialization.
There are several reasons that socialization is so important. One is to keep your dog from becoming aggressive in new situations later in life. Picture a dog that has lived with a quiet, elderly person for his entire life. This dog has never gone farther than his own backyard or been exposed to children or an active household. When this dog is five years old, his elderly owner passes away, and a neighbor decides to take in the dog who has always been gentle and sweet when she’s stopped by to visit.
Now, this adult dog is plopped down into a household full of young children with people coming and going all hours of the day and night. Where his elderly owner always gave him soft pats on the head, these new little people tend to pull his tail and lean on him. Frightened and confused, this dog tries to let these people know he doesn’t like their behavior by baring his teeth and giving a small growl, or worse, a bite. Off to the nearest shelter he goes for nothing more than trying to defend himself against something he viewed as an invasion.
Now this is an extreme example, but you get the point. The wider the variety of people and situations your dog is exposed to, the less likely he is to react in an aggressive manner to new experiences.
In addition to introducing new people or visiting new places, socializing your puppy also means getting him used to being handled. Think of all the things your veterinarian, groomer or children will do to him, looking in his ears and mouth, trimming his nails, pulling his tail. You can practice these things with him at home, handling him gently while offering lots of praise and treats. This will reinforce in his mind that being touched and examined is a good thing, and he’ll be more accepting of these things later in life. The same goes for any situation you can envision occurring in your life while you are sharing it with your canine companion. Are you planning on having a baby in the future? Do you think you would like to have more than one dog or take your dog to play with other dogs? Think of your lifestyle both now and in the future, and make an effort to expose your puppy to those things as early as possible.
It may seem overwhelming to think about living your busy life, which has now become even busier with the addition of the new puppy, and trying to manage your dog’s social life. It’s not as tough as it sounds. There are a variety of things you can do to help your dog become a happy, social member of the family. The first step is to check with your veterinarian to make sure that the puppy has had all the vaccinations he needs and is given a clean bill of health.
Once the veterinarian approves it, check out puppy classes in your area. Many dog trainers give classes that are devoted to exposing your puppy to a wide variety of new experiences. This can be accomplished in one hour, once a week over the course of six weeks. Most trainers also make basic obedience and issues such as housebreaking and stopping other unwanted behaviors a part of this class. The great part about a formal class is that the environment is controlled. A good trainer will make sure that your pup is making lots of positive associations between new experiences and good things happening (i.e. praise and treats). The Association of Pet Dog Trainers is a great resource to find dog trainers in your area. They can be found at www.apdt.com.
Another option is to have a party. Invite some people over to meet your new dog. Have them sit around, wait for the puppy to approach them, and give him a treat. Your guests can take turns gently handling and petting your dog. Make sure that everything the puppy experiences when new people arrive is positive.
If a puppy class or having a party doesn’t work for you, try taking your pup along with you when you run errands or take a walk. Most major pet stores allow you to bring your pets inside, and this provides a great opportunity to socialize, as well as getting used to riding in the car. Or take a few steps out of the house with your puppy and you’ll know that socializing won’t be an issue. No one can resist a puppy! The only problem in these situations is that you don’t have as much control over the environment. If a loud truck rushes past just as a neighbor reaches out to pet your dog, your dog may associate your neighbor with the big, scary noise. Be sure to bring lots of treats along to overshadow any of these types of moments. Your pup may recover quickly if your neighbor is suddenly the source of lots of yummy treats.
Remember, raising a puppy can be tough, but it is also very rewarding. With proper socialization your dog will become a true companion who can safely accompany you anywhere.