So you’ve been to the vet and they have said “make sure you socialize your dog”, the breeder said “make sure you socialize this puppy”, friends and neighbors say “make sure you socialize so you don’t end up with behavior problems”.
So what does that even mean? When I was becoming a dog trainer, finding this information was enough to make your head spin. Everyone had an opinion, or a guide, or lots of stuff you shouldn’t do.
Lucky for you, I have a few years’ experience now, and I am going to guide you through “Puppy socialization”
I was lucky enough to live close to Cargo’s breeder so I was able to work with her a bit when she was very young. We started our “field trips” when she was 5 weeks old. She is a bold puppy who was not fazed by much at that age, so we were able to start things pretty young. One of our first trips was into Bass Pro Shop. She got to climb on the rocks out front, see the cars in the parking lot, visit with people as she wished and investigate all the things inside the store. When she seemed a bit overwhelmed I would scoop her up and she would check things out from the safety of my arms. When she wiggled to be put down, I complied so she could go investigate as she wanted to.
Puppies are tiny sponges when you first get them. The more you can expose them to in the first year, the better off the rest of your life will be with your puppy. However, (and this is big) make sure you are making the experiences positive ones! It’s better to have a handful of great experiences than a ton of mediocre ones, or a few bad ones. We made a plan to go to one new place a week for about 20 minutes. We’ve been to the barn to see the chickens and horses, we have been to the vets office, hardware stores, pet stores, training buildings, the parking lot of the outlet center, many parks, and the auto repair shop.
Many Veterinarians and breeders will recommend that you wait until your puppy has completed his shots to begin to take them out and expose them to things. The new American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines actually recommend exposure as early as possible! Now you have to be smart about it and avoid places where there might possibly be a sick dog, like the dog park, vet clinic or pet store until your pup has received a few vaccines.
Be an advocate for your puppy! When I take Cargo out, I tell people they can pet her if she approaches them. Sometimes she does, sometimes she creeps up, and sometimes she says “heck no!” I don’t care either way what choice she makes, I just support the choice. If she finds a thing that she finds frightening or worthy of working out, then I allow her the time and space to figure out what she needs to do to be successful. Sometimes we creep towards it and I touch it to show her it’s okay, sometimes we decide it’s too much for right now, and we walk away. If we walk away I make a mental note to try again when we get older and see how it goes. So far we do not have anything that has been scary more than once (Except plastic bags blowing down the street. That was scary a few times), so I am happy.
How to support your puppy
First things first. This is your puppy, your companion, and your family member. If someone is being rude to a family member, you say something or you leave the situation. Supporting your puppy from the beginning teaches them that you will always be a safe place, and you are trust worthy in these new environments. There are a few ways you can support your puppy’s choices in a new place.
Treats. Offer cookies when your puppy checks in, checks out a new thing, or person. Treats should always come from you, especially if your puppy loves his food. Often the desire for food can overshadow the fear they are feeling, and put them in a bad situation once the food is gone. Food also intrinsically makes us feel good. (There is science behind this) Feeding in a new location will lower your puppy’s stress level and make the situation not as strange.
Talk to them. Cargo had a hard time with people “appearing” through doors or on the trail. She still watches and wonders, but it’s getting to be more of a normal occurrence. When she is watching, I calmly talk to her and ask her what those people are doing or where they came from. This helps her hear my voice calmly supporting her, and it explains to the people why my puppy is just staring at them. When she had explored the situation to her satisfaction, she would check in with me for a cookie, then we would carry on. I never asked her to get closer to the people or the door until she was ready and checked in with me. (communication is a two way street)
You can’t reinforce fear. If she was really struggling with something, I would kneel down and let her take shelter near me. I would pet her and reassure her that she did not need to panic, and that I was right here to keep her safe. After all, I have decided she was going to live in my world and do things my way, I need her to trust me when something unexpected happens. Fear is an emotion, and as most of us know, we cannot control emotions.
Socialization does not end when your puppy is beyond the cute fluffy stage. Socialization is ongoing for the life of your dog if you are looking for a well-adjusted companion. Think ahead to the situations that your puppy might encounter over the next 5 years. Do you have a boat but it’s in winter storage? Visit the marina anyway, and let your puppy see the other boats. Obviously you can’t plan for everything that will happen over the lifetime of your dog, but if you have enough great experiences with strange places or strange things, when something strange does happen in the future your dog will have all those puppy experiences to fall back on!
If you need help deciding what path of socializing is best for your puppy, shoot me a message! I am happy to help in any way I can! In the next post we will explore those first things you should be teaching your puppy, and what to look for in a puppy play group!