Most people want a dog that is friendly and well-behaved; a dog that is able to cope with the large variety of situations that they may find themselves in. Some dogs are naturally more social than others. But all puppies need exposure to a variety of situations to help them develop those skills.
The socialization window for puppies is from about 4-14 weeks. This is the time frame in which puppies are most receptive to new experiences. Socialization is not impossible after 14 weeks but it will take much more effort on your part. The key to socialization is lots of exposure that does not frighten the puppy. So Quality and Quantity! The puppy should be exposed to anything that moves, smells or makes noise! This includes all types of people – male and female from babies to the elderly, people with a variety of skin tones, heights, facial hair, hairstyles, people carrying things, for example, canes, umbrellas, bags, etc. They should be exposed to people using bicycles, scooters, walkers, wheelchairs, strollers, etc. A variety of smells is also a good idea so that they are not fearful of people or places that smell differently than your home. Some example of smells that may be different for your dog are tobacco, grooming salons, veterinary clinics, and perfume. Noises are also important, such as vacuums, hairdryers, airplanes, trains, traffic, clippers, dishwashers, and lawnmowers.
All of these experiences should be repeated multiple times and they should be positive experiences for your pup. The use of treats, toys, petting and verbal praise are all examples of rewards that can positively reinforce the behaviours that you want to encourage. If your puppy is nervous or anxious in any situation, try to decrease the perceived intensity of the thing that is scaring your dog. For example, if it is a person that is causing the fear, move further away until your puppy is no longer showing any signs of nervousness. You should reward your puppy for any non-anxious behaviour. Please do not reward any nervous, anxious or fearful behaviour as this just reinforces it. Once your puppy is feeling more comfortable, you can gradually approach the person. It may take several days before your dog is comfortable in some situations.
Puppy classes are a great way to meet new people and dogs in a controlled environment. You should meet with the trainer and observe a class ahead of time if possible to ensure that you are comfortable with the instructor and their training methods. The trainers are also great at helping you to come up with strategies to reduce any fearful or anxious behaviours that you may see.
You will want to seek the advice of a veterinary behaviourist if there any aggression issues. It is best to tackle aggression immediately and consistently for the best outcome.
This is also a great time to get your puppy used to being handled. You should look in their ears, eyes, and mouths daily. This will make veterinary appointments easier and more enjoyable for your puppy and will mean a more thorough examination by the veterinarian when they don’t have to fight with them.
Nail trims should also be done at least weekly. There is no rule that all the nails must be trimmed at one time. Trimming one or two nails a day followed by a treat or other reward will make your puppy look forward to nail trims. If your puppy is a breed that requires regular grooming, you should start visits to the grooming salon at this time as well. As with the trainers, visiting the salon and talking to the groomer will help you to find one that you are comfortable with. Many grooming salons offer puppy visits that allow the puppies to become accustomed to the being groomed.
You will want to avoid going to the dog park or visiting with sick or unvaccinated dogs as your puppy’s immune system isn’t fully developed yet. But you shouldn’t wait until your pup is fully vaccinated at 16 weeks of age to introduce him to other friendly, healthy dogs as this is past the socialization window.
Socializing your puppy should be fun for both of you. It is a chance for you to bond with your puppy and to show him or her off!
Written by Dr. Maarje Armstrong, DVM