Did you know that your newly adopted, super cute, fuzzy, four-legged bundle of joy is already incredibly smart and ready to learn? The first 16 weeks of your puppy’s life are important for their development. It’s a crucial time where their fears are small and their desire to learn and be social is at its peak. Socializing your puppy during this time will help them develop into a happy, confident dog no matter what environment or situation they’re placed in. Keep reading for more information on the importance of socializing your pup, including expert tips and practical advice.
What does it mean to “socialize your puppy”?
Socializing your puppy isn’t just about meeting new dogs and people. It means safely and methodically exposing her to a variety of people, places, and experiences in a safe and positive manner — the more experiences, the better. This helps your puppy grow into a well-adjusted, confident adult dog that is less likely to exhibit fear or aggression in the face of new encounters.
When making a socialization plan, it’s important to anticipate all the possible sights and sounds that will be a part of your pup’s environment. Do you live in a city with loud noises and busy sidewalks? Or do you live in the country where farm animals or machinery are a constant sound in the background? Do you plan to travel with your dog? Will your puppy be around children or other pets at any point in their life?
Leaving out this important step in your puppy care plan may result in a dog that is often fearful of new things or easily stressed when placed in unfamiliar situations. And unfortunately, behavioral problems that result from under-socialization are one of the most common reasons for people to leave their pets at shelters.
When to Socialize Your Puppy
By the time a puppy’s eyes and ears are fully open and they’re able to move around well, their ability to learn and explore their environment expands exponentially. There is a well-known developmental window called the ‘critical socialization period’ that takes place between 3 weeks and 3 months of age. This is the ideal time to instill confidence in your new puppy.
However, by the time you bring your new dog home, typically around eight weeks of age, this window is small — leaving you with less than 2 months of ideal socialization time. If you adopt an older puppy or an adult dog, that window may be smaller. Or it may even be closed (more on socializing an adult dog later!).
It’s important to note that puppies aren’t considered fully vaccinated and protected from diseases like parvovirus until they’re 16-18 weeks old. Because of this, it’s crucial that you socialize your puppy in a safe environment, with healthy, fully vaccinated dogs, and away from public areas like dog parks and pet store floors.
Why is puppy socialization important?
A well-socialized puppy creates a behaved, relaxed, safer dog. If your puppy is comfortable in a wider variety of situations, they’re less likely to use aggression in moments of fear. Not socializing your puppy can lead to dangerous situations in the future.
According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the number one cause of death for dogs under three is behavioral issues, not an infectious disease or injury.
What about socializing older dogs?
Once your pup is about 4 months old, the critical socialization window has closed. But never fear! It’s still possible to teach an “old” dog new tricks. You just might have to work on breaking bad habits and fearful behaviors before creating new desirable ones.
So how do you do that? You can still follow the tips and advice outlined below. Expect that your older dog may take longer to adapt and be comfortable with their new surroundings. Patience and a gentle hand are key. If your new dog shows signs of extreme fear or aggression when faced with new situations, consider consulting with a veterinary behaviorist or a certified trainer.
How to Socialize Your Puppy
Besides providing food, shelter, and love, your most important job as a puppy parent is to provide well-rounded socialization. You can do this by introducing your pup to as many new places, sounds, and smells as possible. And as we mentioned before, you need to start right away!
Follow these steps for successful puppy (or dog) socialization:
- Your puppy is already a master at exploring her environment. Use this to your advantage and take every opportunity to make positive associations when she encounters new smells, sounds, and objects. Reward your dog each time she encounters a new experience. Treats, praise, and snuggles go a long way in making a puppy feel confident!
- Enlist the help of a pet sitter or dog walker to help your pup become used to interacting with people outside of your household. Be sure to find an experienced caretaker, like one in TrustedHousesitters pet-loving community, who can create a calm and happy environment for your puppy.
- Don’t forget to ensure that your puppy has positive experiences when meeting children. Even if you don’t have children yourself, chances are your pup will encounter a child or two throughout their life. Invite family members or friends with children over to meet your new puppy. These visits should be calm, fun, and safe for everyone.
- The same goes for meeting other animals. While you may not have other pets when you adopt your puppy, chances are high that you might encounter other dogs, cats, horses, or chickens on your adventures together. Be sure that your pup is safe and well-supervised during visits with any new animal.
- Veterinary care is important for your new puppy and throughout the life of your adult dog. A helpful way to make positive associations with vet clinics is to take quick trips into the office when you don’t have an appointment. Many vet clinics offer ‘happy visits’ for your pup to greet the front desk staff and soak up the treats and attention. Looking for more tips to make veterinary care easier for your puppy or new dog? Schedule a video consult with a vet from FirstVet for professional advice from the comfort of your home!
- Take your dog for frequent car rides. Help him learn that getting into the car doesn’t have to be scary and the destination isn’t always a trip to the vet or the groomer. Take long rides, short rides, and rides to go nowhere at all! Pack treats or a favorite toy and visit a friend or stop at a favorite park.
- Walk your puppy on a variety of surfaces. Be sure to include tile, hardwood, carpet, dirt, grass, and concrete.
- Exposure to various moving objects such as bicycles, skateboards, cars, and buses will help your puppy become confident no matter where your evening strolls take you.
- Consider socialization and puppy training classes. Once your puppy has started her vaccines, puppy classes are a great option for exposing her to a variety of people and dogs in a controlled environment. Another benefit — working with a professional trainer will help you teach your pup basic commands, using positive reinforcement and methods that strengthen your bond.
- Finally, take it slow. Even though your socialization window is small, you still don’t want to overwhelm your dog with too much stimulation, too quickly. Start small by inviting one family member over to visit the puppy. Then work your way up to traveling away from the home or attending group gatherings. Be aware of your dog’s body language. If you’re noticing signs of stress like yawning or excessive panting it may be time to retreat and take a break.