Lack of proper and adequate socialization is probably the biggest mistakes families make when raising a puppy. The younger the puppy, the easier puppy socialization is. Expose your puppy with a systematic method to a wide variety of environments and people when he is young and the process will go easy. Wait until he is older and you’ll spend two, three, or maybe even ten times as much time in order to get the same results. If your puppy has been extremely isolated, you may not be able to make up for that lost time at all.
Research has shown that the best time for puppy socialization is prior to 16 weeks of age. The degree of difficulty grows as the puppy grows. Puppy socialization is one of the most important aspects of raising a puppy. This post will show you how to do it.
Before we get into some tips on how to socialize a puppy from 8-16 weeks of age, I want to give a brief introduction on how breeders can affect the foundation for puppy socialization.
Puppy Socialization at the Breeder’s Home
Breeders have opportunities for building a good foundation for puppy socialization and to greatly affect a puppy’s ability to rebound from those scary situations that he will inevitably face in life. Socialization goes much better and easier for new families when a breeder has started the process by or shortly after 3 weeks of age.
Puppies go through a fear period that goes from 8-10 or 11 weeks according to the experts. While this is true, the manner in which this fact is often stated is somewhat misleading. The way it is sometimes presented would lead one to believe that 7 1/2 week old puppies are relatively fearless and then one day at somewhere around 8 weeks, they wake up to find themselves afraid of the world.
Knowing about the fear period is helpful, but it is important that breeders understand that fear doesn’t appear overnight. When puppies are left unsocialized, caution builds gradually starting at around 4 weeks until it peaks at about 8 weeks. However, if a breeders will adequately and appropriately add environmental stresses to a puppy’s life and help him to deal with these stressors, the fearfulness of a puppy can actually decline over these same 4 weeks.
For more information on how we raise our puppies here at Summer Brook, see our page on Raising Puppies.
Earlier is Better For Socialization
The absolute best time to introduce puppies to new things is very early while still at the breeder’s home. It is much easier to begin socialization to scary objects, sounds, and environments at 4 weeks than at 8 weeks. The longer a breeder waits, the closer the puppy will be to the height of his fear period and the more difficult the process will be.
However, if puppies are started with environmental desensitization early and often, they will acclimate faster, the older they get, EVEN WHILE SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE OF THEIR FEAR PERIOD!
Puppies brought up isolated in a barn or even isolated to a house and an occasional trip outside in a small pen are missing out a great deal on how to relate to what can appear to be a stressful world to a growing puppy.
Teaching Recovery From Fear
A breeder’s goal with regard to socialization should be to get each of their puppies comfortable with as many sights, sounds, and environments as possible while still maintaining a degree of caution for disease. Puppies don’t have to be exposed to everything to become resilient. However, they do need to be exposed to enough to where the puppy gains sufficient confidence in his own ability to bounce back from whatever life throws at him.
There is no way that puppies can experience everything in the world before they leave a breeder’s home. Most breeders are hesitant to take puppies off of their property before full vaccination for good reason. Further, even if a breeder took puppies off of their property daily, there are too many objects, sounds, and situations to expose puppies to them all.
However, what a breeder can do is systematically expose their puppies to a wide variety of environmental stressors in safe locations so that puppies develop an ability to rebound from stress. This creates puppies who are far better able to fearlessly explore new sights, sounds, and smells once they are in their new homes. Most importantly, they also develop the ability to recover if or when they do startle or become afraid.
Genetics or Environment and Puppy Socialization
A puppy’s ability to successfully acclimate to new environments is pre-wired to a degree by genetics. However, the temperament that a puppy is born with can be affected greatly by a puppy’s life experiences. Environment will ultimately shape the amount of confidence a puppy is born with in either a positive or negative direction .
Nature verses nurture is always a question. Some qualities are more set in stone than others. However, with regard to confidence level, we see a far greater influence with environment than with other qualities (such as activity level). In fact, I would go so far as to say that ANY well-bred Golden Retriever could grow up to be a confident dog if they are socialized correctly while a puppy. Therefore, adequate and appropriate puppy socialization and environmental desensitization are of utmost importance.
Vaccines and Puppy Socialization
If early puppy socialization is so important, then what about vaccines? Breeders cannot safely take puppies off of their property without the risk of disease prior to vaccines.
The risk to a breeder is far greater than to an individual family for several reasons. First of all, a breeder has VERY young puppies and Parvo is often fatal to the very young. However, puppies over 8 weeks will usually recover. In fact, despite the horrors that vaccine companies like to spread, the recovery rate for Parvo is about 85% and of the 15% that don’t make it, it is usually those in a breeding kennel who are too young to successfully fight it off.
We’ve been fortunate in that we’ve never experienced Parvo. However, I have breeder friends who have and know the results can be devastating. Therefore, we like most breeders use caution while using common sense to make sure our puppies are well-socialized.
The Risks of Having an Unsocialized Dog are Greater than the Risks of Disease!
For puppies over 10 weeks, the risk for disease is minimal. However, if you isolate your puppy, the risk of having a fearful dog is great. Use caution, but you must get your puppy out in the world while he is young.
We recommend getting your puppy out as soon as he has had a vaccine at an age of 9 weeks or greater. A vaccine given at 9 weeks has almost a 90% chance of being effective. Wait 5-6 days for the vaccine to take effect and hit the road (with a degree of common sense caution).
Tips for Puppy Socialization
- Take your puppy to as many safe places as is possible.
- Expose your puppy to as many sights, sounds, and surfaces as soon as you can. This includes acclimating your puppy to water and teaching swimming early if that is something you want.
- Introduce your puppy to many different types of people while he is young.
- Make it a priority to try to introduce your puppy to almost everything he could possible encounter in life prior to 16 weeks of age. (The key word here is TRY! It’s impossible to introduce a puppy to everything.)
How to Socialize a Puppy Who is Afraid
Socializing is easy if you follow some simple rules. However, there are certain techniques for socializing that could be downright harmful to your puppy. Do not let a trainer talk you into what is called “flooding” or “emersion training”. Flooding is a method that used to be used with regularity to try to help a dog overcome his fears. Flooding follows the principle that if a dog is emersed in his fears, he will learn to handle them.
Examples of flooding with a person would be to put a person who was afraid of spiders in a room full of spiders. An example in horse training is in putting a saddle and a rider on a horse and letting the horse buck until ths horse finally relaxes. With dogs, it could be putting a dog who is afraid of water in a life jacket and forcing him to stay in the water.
Sometimes emersion works. However, many times, not only does it fail to work, it will leave a puppy or dog worse off than he was prior. I have seen this happen first-hand and it is very sad indeed.
Counter-conditioning and Puppy Socialization
The method we recommend is called counter-conditioning and the tips that follow will help you to counter-condition a dog’s fears. Counter-conditioning is basically conditioning a dog to like something that he previously did not like by pairing the disliked thing with something he does like. The details of counter-conditioning are beyond the scope of this article. However, I’ll give you some tips on how to accomplish it with a young puppy who might initially show some fear or nervousness or a lack of comfort around something. Below is a list of do’s and don’ts.
Do Not Do These Things If Your Puppy is Afraid
- Don’t coddle your puppy. This will only serve to affirm in his mind that this is indeed scary.
- Don’t force your puppy to approach the object of his fear.
- Do not get too close to the scary thing.
- Don’t distract the dog from the object of his fear. He needs to experience it to get over it.
- Don’t call the puppy or try to entice him or lure him toward the object.
- Don’t put your puppy in a situation where he feels trapped or boxed in.
Do These Things If Possible
- If possible, let the puppy explore it off leash. Keep a loose leash if he must be on a leash.
- If you have a confident dog or have a friend with one, get him to help. Let the confident dog show the scared dog that there is nothing to be afraid of.
- If possible, gradually increase the intensity of the object. This point mostly applies to sounds and things that can be experienced at varying degrees. For example, if a puppy is afraid of the sound of a lawn mower, start the process with the mower idled down as quietly as it will go. Another example would be in acclimating a puppy to a kiddy pool prior to a full-sized swimming pool.
Definitely Do the Following:
- Act indifferent to the object and be nonchalant about it..
- Let your puppy explore the object at his own pace. Don’t push him.
- Ascertain the puppy’s fear threshold for the object and don’t get closer than the threshold. The threshold is the distance at which the puppy is comfortable enough to do the following 2 things. He needs to be able to take a treat without fear. He should have the capacity to occasionally ignore the object and try to engage you to work with him.
- Gradually encourage the puppy to get closer to the object as his fear threshold improves. Don’t encourage him to get closer by calling or luring. Rather encourage him by you (or better yet, another dog) getting a bit closer to it and showing him in a matter-of-fact, no-big-deal sort of way that the object isn’t scary. Have fun close to the object.
- Give your puppy an escape option or a safe place to retreat.
Examples for Providing a Place of Retreat During Puppy Socialization
We introduce our puppies to many new things in a fenced yard. There is a doggy door available if a puppy feels the need to retreat. However, the fun is going on outside. A person is in the outside fenced area petting the other puppies. Often the shyer puppies will run inside for a minute. Then they realize that all the fun is outside and they will come back out of their own accord.
Of course, when you are away from home, there is no option to run inside. You can, however, sit on the ground giving your puppy the option of your lap. Another option is providing an open door in your vehicle.
Let your puppy experience the safety of their retreat while at the same time making exploring the scary object as interesting, enticing, and fun as you can.
Socialize a Puppy to People
- Make sure you expose your puppy to a wide variety of people: old, young, different races, children, etc.
- Introduce your puppy to people dressed in various ways: with hats, high heels, loose floppy clothes, etc.
- Let the puppy approach the person; not the other way around
- If the puppy is afraid of a particular person, don’t push it. Have the person squat and ignore the puppy until the puppy decides on his own to go to the person. While the person is squatted, you interact with the the person and let the puppy interact as he pleases.
- Reward your puppy when he approaches someone that the puppy thinks is scary. After he approaches, call him back to you and praise him and give him a treat. Then see if he’ll go to them again.
- Don’t have the person call your puppy or try to entice him with a treat. The person should simply be pleasant and ignore the puppy.
- Encourage the person to pet the puppy once the puppy is obviously comfortable, not before. The person should not pet the puppy on the head, but rather on the back or shoulder.
Puppy Socialization Example With Heavy Traffic
We are going to have a discussion on how to socialize a puppy to a very scary environment for most puppies: traffic. Most, if not all, of the techniques used in this example can be applied to socializing and desensitizing a puppy to almost anything. At the end of the article, you can see a video showing how we desensitize puppies to where they will heel on the side of a busy highway. Fast moving traffic is extremely scary to most puppies and if you can desensitize a puppy to this, you are well on your way to having a bomb-proof puppy. We start the process gently and move forward gradually.
The first step is where puppies feel totally safe: at home. We begin with one person in the yard with the puppies and another in or on various vehicles. These vehicles include a van or truck, an off-road vehicle, and a lawn mower.
The puppies can retreat by way of a doggy door if they become stressed. We work with them in the yard until every puppy is comfortable with these vehicles being about 10-15 feet from them. (There is a fence between the puppies and the vehicle and they are off-leash.) We gradually increase the noise of the vehicle. We gradually decrease the distance between the vehicle and the puppies.
Once puppies are comfortable in the safety of their own yard with vehicles just on the other side of the fence, we begin taking them on rides in our mule (off-road vehicle, not the animal!). The mule is loud and open.
The puppies are already used to the sound so that is no problem. Further, we’ve already been taking them on rides in our van so that they are used to movement. Everything is done slowly and in steps!
The puppies love the mule because it is an opportunity to not only sit in our laps and be petted, but because they enjoy the breeze in their faces and the opportunity to take in all kinds of new smells. Most of them ride with their noses in the air! We are effectively using counter-conditioning by pairing the enjoyment of smelling new smells while being petted with the initially unpleasant loud noise of the mule and an occasional passing car.
Our mules rides begin short: no more than 5 minutes. We gradually increase the length of the rides and by the time puppies are 9 weeks of age, we are driving with them up to a busy highway and sitting on the side of the road while loud fast cars pass. The puppies just sit in our laps while we calmly talk to them or to each other about something totally unrelated to the passing cars. We essentially ignore the noise of the traffic while we allow our puppies to acclimate to it while in the safety of our laps.
Work on Building an Alternative Positive Experience to Counter-Condition With
During the same time-frame that we are taking our puppies on mule rides, we are busy at home with our puppies building a strong love of working with us. We are teaching them to love heeling and building their already strong desire to sit and give eye contact. These skills and the puppies’ love of performing these skills are going to serve us well during our next phase of desensitizing puppies to traffic.
On the Ground and Off Property
This next phase will begin at 11 weeks for those puppies staying with us for our 12-week-plus program. At this point, we will begin taking our puppies off property. We will literally “hit the road” with our training. We’ll start off in a place on the side of our own road where there is minimal traffic. Either my daughter, Jenna, or I will work with the puppies on our obedience exercises. The other one of us drives our mule back and forth on the road.
At first, we drive our mule on the opposite side of the road. The puppy is far off the road. At this point, we simply reward the puppy for making eye contact with the one of us that is on the ground with them.
Gradually, we close the distance between the mule and the puppy. We slowly increase the speed on the mule and we increase the difficulty of the obedience exercise.
In addition, we also begin to move our training further and further from our home. We move closer and closer to a major highway where cars and loud trucks and all kinds of trailers are whizzing by at 55 MPH and faster.
Eventually, we are working our puppies right on the side of the highway. Watch the following video to see puppies heeling down the highway. This vidoe will give some tips on how we handle various situations and/or problems.
As has been mentioned, puppy socialization is one of the most important aspects of training your puppy. It is also the most time-sensitive one. Therefore, make sure you socialize early and often. Make puppy socialization a priority before your window of opportunity to easily do it closes forever!