I am a big supporter of socializing your dog or cat early in life. Some of you that adopt or rescue pets, don’t have that luxury to start early. And many times the pet has been traumatized in some way. Many bounce back from that and are just huge love bugs, others not so much. I work a lot with rescued dogs and they need reconditioning and lots of love. Socializing can give your dog or cat a full happy healthy rewarding life and make your life more fulfilling as well. It is very important to have your pet around animals, people and different noises as much as possible as soon as possible. The following is my newsletter from Whole Dog Journal, a great resource for holistic health, training and behavior.
The best socialization programs begin while pups are still with their dams. A good breeder begins handling her pups gently and early, just as their eyes begin to open, giving them a positive association with human touch.
As they get a little older (5-6 weeks) they should start meeting more humans – all shapes, colors, ages, and sizes – who feed them treats and pet them gently. The breeder will need to supervise these interactions closely, as rough handling at this stage can have the opposite effect, teaching the pups that humans aren’t safe to be around.
The mother dog’s attitude is important at this stage, too. If she is aggressive toward humans, or even just stressed about her pups being handled, the pups can register her attitude and learn this inappropriate behavior. If Mom is calm and relaxed around humans, pups are more likely to be, too.
By the time a pup is weaned at 7 to 8 weeks, he should already have a positive worldview programmed into his little puppy brain. When you select your pup from a litter, whether you’re at a breeder’s home or a shelter – or picking one from a box of free puppies on a street corner – choose wisely.
Resist the temptation to rescue the pup who hides in the corner. Select, instead, the pup who is outgoing without being overbearing – the one who seems to have a cheerful, “Life is good!” attitude. Otherwise you risk finding yourself in the Peterson’s shoes, with an 11-month-old dog who is biting children in the face.
Okay, you’ve adopted a friendly pup with a sound temperament. Good for you! That doesn’t mean your job is done, however.
You must continue your pup’s socialization lessons assiduously until he is 16 weeks old, and then maintain his positive association to the world throughout his life. If you take an 8-week-old well-socialized pup and stick him in your backyard with no outside exposure, the odds are good that you will end up with a problem.
The Health Dilemma
Puppy owners are often counseled by their veterinarians to keep their baby dogs cloistered safely at home until they are fully immunized at age 4 to 6 months.
Looking at the situation purely from a physical health perspective, this makes good sense. You certainly don’t want to risk exposing your pup to nasty distemper or parvo bugs.
From a mental health perspective, however, it’s horrible advice. You only have two to three more months to give your pup an unshakable faith in the goodness of the world. You cannot afford to wait until those shots are done.
During this period, you want to give your pup at least 100 new positive exposures and experiences, to “vaccinate” him against the possibility that he will feel compelled to bite someone, someday. It’s not a guarantee against biting, but it’s by far your best chance of ending up with an adult dog who is friendly and safe.
At one time in the last several decades, much ado was made about a pup’s “critical fear periods.” Behaviorists attempted to pinpoint those periods of time in puppyhood during which a “bad experience” would scar a pup’s psyche for life.
More recently, we have come to realize that, although pups do seem to go through periods during which they are more fearful than others, that time can vary from one pup to the next. Rather than wrapping your pup in cotton wool for a designated period, it makes more sense to watch him closely and ensure that he has mostly good experiences, especially if he seems to be going through a cautious stage.
Even if something does frighten him, it’s not the end of the world – you can set up a counter-conditioning and desensitization (CC&D) program to restore a positive association with that particular stimulus, and your pup should recover nicely.
Now your pup is 16 weeks old. You’ve reached the end of that magic socialization window, your “100 exposures” list is all checked off, and your pup loves the world. Are you done? Hardly.
Like your training efforts, which continue on into adulthood and throughout your dog’s entire life, you are never done with socialization. You’ve laid a very solid foundation; that’s something to be proud of.
Much of that will be lost, however, if you toss your four-month-old pup into the backyard and cease all exposure to humans and their complex society.
He still needs to meet and greet people, go places with you, and continue to share your world and your experiences, if you want him to continue to be the happy, friendly puppy he is today. And, of course, that’s what you want!