How GREAT is it to have a new puppy!
Adding a cute little puppy to your family is such an exciting time. They’re soft, cuddly and have big puppy dog eyes. Yes, they pee and poo everywhere, but whatever, mum will clean that up! Like people, they each have their own unique personality, and teaching them how to behave appropriately in both their canine and human social circles is a very important task. It’s up to YOU to get it right! Believe it or not, when I see a puppy in my consult room for their first visit, this is the topic we dedicate the most time to. The aim of the game is a puppy who grows up to be as comfortable and confident in a whole variety of situations as possible. SO MANY animals are abandoned or euthanized every year because some aspect of their behavior has become intolerable to their owners. This breaks my heart because it is often preventable. In my opinion, the relationship between a pet and owner is as important as the animal’s physical health. When it comes to behavior, just like herpes, prevention is most definitely better than a cure! (I was talking about cold sores you sicko!)
This is Scott… He has no friends.
But what IS socialization?
Every puppy goes through a fairly predictable series of developmental stages as they grow. The time from around three to twelves weeks of age is known as the “socialization period”. During this time it is absolutely critical that a puppy experiences regular handling and exposure to novel but non-threatening situations if you want him or her to develop into an normal, friendly and confident adult. Puppies that are not exposed to other dogs during this time are more likely to be fearful and/or aggressive around other dogs as adults. The same applies to exposure to humans, cats, or to anything really. With puppy socialization we can potentially prevent future problems. Situations like the white fluffy who can’t go to the park because he lunges at other dogs, or the 60 Kg Mastiff who has to be locked away when children come to visit because she’s scared of them and might bite (or swallow them whole!). Or the HUGE wuss who completely loses it when entering the vet hospital… Ah, that old chestnut!
You said we were going to the park, you bastard!
Quite commonly people come to me with their adopted adult dogs and say ”he must have been abused by his old owners because he’s terrified of x, y or z,” when in the vast majority of these cases it’s likely that the dog just missed out on appropriate socialization as a puppy. If Maxie-boy is scared of big men with booming voices, or toddlers, or lawnmowers, it doesn’t mean he was bashed by a huge, bearded lumberjack or run over by a lawnmower being pushed by a small, evil child. I mean it might, but more probably all it means is that he lacks confidence in a given situation. A dog’s behavior is determined by three key factors; his or her genetics, learned experiences, and the situation at hand. It’s up to us to make sure those learned experiences are positive, enjoyable ones.
Where people go wrong
So what we need to remember is that good socialization involves a POSITIVE experience for the dog. If you challenge your puppy with a new experience that is frightening, unpleasant, or overwhelming, you are likely to do more harm than good. Puppies are babies, so take baby steps, people! Heading out to a crowded festival to watch some fireworks is probably not an ideal first social experience…
Another thing I hear from a lot of puppy owners is ”oh, we have another dog at home for him to play with, so he’s socializing all the time.” Nope. The thing is, for puppies, there is a world of difference between a familiar playmate that they see every day and unfamiliar dogs. Just because you see your family every day doesn’t mean you’ll be good at meeting new people now does it.
How do we get it right?
Choose the right puppy in the first place! Do your research and ensure the breed and breeder match your needs and expectations. So you bought a dog from that weirdo down the road who always seems to have a scrawny litter of puppies and keeps his dogs in cages out the back?….
Oh no you di’int!!!
Puppies should be handled from birth and exposed to a variety of situations in as positive a way as possible. Breeders should expose their puppies to other dogs and people well before they even head off to their new home at around 8 weeks of age.
When you get your little treasure, introduce them to lots of adults, elderly people, children, cats, cars, trains buses, you name it – as long as it is always a POSITIVE experience. Sure, a little stress is expected sometimes on exposure to new things, but as long as you don’t completely overwhelm them, and they have an escape route if they need it, you should be ok. Obviously young puppies have immature immune systems and have not completed their vaccination programs so common sense is required. Any dog you introduce them to should not only be friendly, but fully up to date with it’s vaccinations. Stick to the footpath rather than taking pup into the local dog park to sniff around every other animal’s poopy delights until after vaccinations are all done.
Sadly for my dog Billy, there’s no vaccine against stupidity. Lucky he’s so darn cute!
Puppy preschool classes, often run by vet clinics, are a great way to (a) socialize your puppy with others of it’s own age and (b) make really positive associations for the puppy with the vet clinic. I can usually pick which dogs did puppy preschool with us by the way they enthusiastically bound through the door for their visits. It is important though that these classes contain less than 10 puppies and that they are all the same age. When done properly, these classes help prevent behavior problems as well as educating owners on all aspects of raising a puppy… And they’re FUN!
Everyone benefits from education!
Of course some dogs, like people, just don’t have as great coping skills as others. We’re not guaranteed the perfect dog by doing everything ‘right,’ but if we give them the opportunity to learn appropriate reactions in the situations they’re likely to encounter in life, we are certainly reducing the risk of problems later on. So do your best and encourage your dog to be all he can be!
If you’re looking for some light reading to learn a bit more about socializing your puppy and equipping him or her with the skills needed for a great, happy life, these three wonderful reads are among my favorite books on the subject:
Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training By Karen Pryor
The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs By Patricia B McConnell PhD
After working diligently on his social skills Scott eventually learned to play nice with others.