The Critical Importance of Socializing Your Puppy
Dr. Karen Becker, Mercola Health

January 20, 2010


Did you know behavior problems are the number one cause of relinquishment of dogs to shelters?

Another very disturbing statistic: over half the dogs entering shelters in the U.S. will be euthanized.

It’s a well-known fact that puppy classes help prevent behavior problems and increase the likelihood a dog will become a great pet and lifelong companion.

Given the reason most dogs are turned in to shelters and the success of early socialization in preventing behavior problems, it seems obvious the risks associated with an unsocialized dog are much greater than the minimal risk of disease transmission during puppy classes.

It is for this reason the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) believes it is necessary to socialize puppies before they are fully vaccinated.

Dog owners are strongly encouraged to weigh the small risk of contracting disease against the enormous benefits derived from early, effective socialization. The wisest choice is to begin socialization of puppies at seven to eight weeks of age.

Dr. Becker's Comments:

Your puppy, just like your child if you have one, can’t grow into a healthy adult without your help and leadership. I often tell my clients, “Good puppies aren’t born, they’re made.”

You wouldn’t dream of confining your child to your house and yard all her life, or decide to begin parenting your child at 18 years of age, when they have developed concerning behaviors or habits. Yet that is the situation many puppies grow up in – with owners who later don’t understand how their cute little puppy turned into such a destructive or disobedient or aggressive animal.

Dogs are social creatures. Your pup needs interaction -- with you, other people and other animals, beginning very early in life.

Companionship is necessary for your puppy’s emotional well-being. Involve your puppy with your family, as well as friends and new faces, right from the start. If you’re crate training your pup, move the crate or playpen into a room where your family spends time together.

Contrary to what many people believe, puppies need a great deal of time and attention in order to ensure they mature into dogs who are beloved members of the family.

The Importance of Socializing Your Puppy

Socialization means exposing your puppy to as many new people, animals, environments and other stimuli as possible without overwhelming him. Over-stimulation of a young puppy can result in excessive fear, withdrawal or avoidance behavior, so knowing how much is enough is important.

A properly socialized puppy is:

Handled from birth and learns to accept touching of all body parts
Exposed to as many people, other animals, places and situations as possible
Encouraged to explore and investigate his environment
Allowed to experience a variety of toys and games, surfaces and other stimuli
Brought along often on car rides to new environments with his owner
Proper socialization will engage all of your puppy’s senses through exposure to the sights, sounds and smells of day-to-day life.

This exposure will desensitize and condition your pup so that he develops a comfort level with different and new situations.

Socialization also helps you train your young dog to handle new experiences and challenges with acceptable, appropriate behavior.

An unsocialized dog is unlikely to cope well with changes in his environment or situation, making him difficult to handle for his owner, veterinarian, groomer, pet sitter, and any visitors to the dog’s home.

If your puppy isn’t properly socialized, he can develop permanently ingrained fear responses and generalized anxiety. This type of behavior problem can ultimately make your dog unsuitable as a pet – for you or anyone else.

Almost half of all dogs turned in to shelters have at least one behavior problem -- aggression and destructiveness are among the most common. Both of these behaviors can be caused by the fear and anxiety that develops from improper or incomplete socialization.

Timing is Everything

The most important time to socialize a puppy is during her first three months of life. For most people, that means starting the process on puppy’s very first day home.

The first three months of your dog’s life are when sociability outweighs fear, and her brain is most inclined to accept new experiences. What your pup encounters during this critical time will shape her character, temperament and behavior for the rest of her life.

If your puppy isn’t socialized during her first three months, it can increase the risk of behavior problems later in life, such as fear, avoidance and aggression. These problems can be excruciatingly difficult to fix in an older animal.

The last thing you hope for when you bring home your adorable little bundle of love and energy is that she’ll end up an ill-behaved and unmanageable adult dog, banished to your backyard or the nearest animal shelter.

That’s why it is so incredibly important to properly socialize your pup before she reaches the age of 14-16 weeks.

Tips for Socializing Your Puppy

Socialization is intended to develop your puppy into an outgoing, sociable dog without behavior problems. The socialization process can start at seven to eight weeks and should continue for the rest of your pet’s life.

1. Puppy classes

Enrolling your little guy in a well-run puppy class involves minimal exposure to health risks and is an excellent way to:

Increase puppy’s responsiveness to commands
Teach bite inhibition through puppy play
Teach proper interaction with people, including strangers
Learn tips for successful housebreaking and how to prevent hyperactivity (the two most common reasons given by owners when relinquishing their dogs)
Develop more realistic expectations for your dog
Strengthen your bond with your puppy
Studies show owners who involve their puppies in puppy classes are much more likely to keep their pets.

If you adopted your puppy from a shelter environment, you may be asked to attend puppy classes without him for a few weeks to ensure he doesn’t have a contagious illness that hasn’t shown itself yet (such as parvovirus).

In the meantime, as long as your puppy isn’t showing signs of illness, you can take him around older, vaccinated/titered dogs, people and new environments for socialization purposes.

Areas you’ll want to avoid until your puppy has been immunized (acquired protective immunity) and is about 4 months old include dog parks, sidewalks, parking lots of veterinary clinics, floors in vet clinics and mass retail pet stores (where diseased animals may have been present).

Pet diseases are regional, so you should consult your veterinarian or do your own research to determine what types of canine illnesses are prevalent where you live.

Don’t worry unnecessarily about risks to your puppy’s health from other pets in a well-run puppy class. Just keep in mind that the risk of illness from early socialization is small compared to the risks your dog could face if he develops behavior problems later in life.

2. Interaction with other people and animals

Invite friends and family over to meet and interact with your puppy. Try to include people of varying ages and ethnicities, especially children if you don’t have any, and both genders.

Also invite gentle, healthy dogs, puppies and cats to your home to meet and play with your pup. You can also take your puppy for visits to the homes of suitable, healthy pets.

Take your puppy for short rides in the car, and to public places where people gather and there’s plenty of activity.

3. Exposure to unfamiliar sights and sounds

Make sure your puppy is exposed to unfamiliar or out-of-place objects around your house so that he will not startle or be fearful of changes in his environment. Your pup must learn to not fear the opening of an umbrella, the rearranging of furniture, or the clothes hamper being in a new location.

It’s also very important to get your puppy accustomed to hearing a variety of sounds. Examples: your vacuum cleaner, the lawn mower, the traffic outside, a blow dryer, a fresh plastic or paper trash bag being snapped open, the TV, video games, etc.

The goal is not to frighten your pup, but to expose him to new sounds from a distance at first, gradually bringing them closer. Life is noisy; your dog must learn these sounds are nothing to fear.

4. Bathing, grooming and handling your puppy

Get your puppy used to being bathed and brushed, having her nails clipped, her teeth brushed, and her ears and other body parts examined and inspected by routinely practicing these activities (sometimes daily). This allows your pet to get comfortable being handled, making bath time, nail trims and her visits to the vet and groomer easier on all of you.

This is also a good time to introduce your pup to her own collar and leash or harness.

5. Make socializing your puppy a positive experience

Start socializing your pup from his first day home with you, but take it slow. Set the stage for him and then let him move at his own pace. Take care that your puppy doesn’t become overwhelmed, frightened or harmed in any way.

Don’t hurry or force his progress, and don’t try to do too much at once. Puppies tire quickly, so keep his socialization sessions frequent but relatively brief -- and always positive.

When your puppy shows hesitance or fear -- and most puppies will as they attempt to adjust to a big, noisy world -- do not reward his fearful behavior with a lot of attention and affection. Stay close by to reassure him he’s safe, but remember that your puppy views your attention and affection as a reward for a particular behavior. Rewarding his fearful behavior can encourage his fearfulness.

Socializing your puppy should be an enjoyable, satisfying experience for both of you -- one that will pay dividends for the rest of your life together as pet and owner. There is no greater joy than a well-adjusted, well-behaved four-legged member of the family.

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