PUPPY SOCIALIZATION: STOP FEAR BEFORE IT STARTS

By Dr Sophia Yin

Case 1: My Pomeranian puppy, Fluffy, barks at men, especially those wearing hats and beards. It’s embarrassing because I never know when we’ll encounter a man on a walk so I can’t just avoid them. Why is she so rude and what can I do? My neighbor’s dog does the same thing and her dog actually bit someone who was just walking by on the street. I don’t want Fluffy to do that!

Case 2:Our old dog, Rex was afraid of brooms, vacuum cleaners, trashcans, and other loud sounds. We have a new puppy and he’s the same breed. Is there anything we can do to make sure he turns out differently?

Case 3: Spike refuses to walk on wet or frosty grass or to go potty outside when it’s raining, even on the concrete. We don’t understand why he’s so prissy. It’s making it very difficult for us to potty train him.

These cases may sound very different but they all have one factor in common, they are all a result of incomplete socialization.From about 3 weeks to about 3 months of age, puppies are primed for bonding to other animals and individuals, for learning that objects, people, and environments are safe, and for learning what the body cues and signals of others mean. It is their sensitive period for socialization and it is the most important socialization period in a dog’s life. Puppies who do not get adequate socialization during this period tend to be fearful of unfamiliar people, or dogs, or sounds, objects and environments.

Veterinary behaviorists and other trained behavior specialists recommend puppies attend a puppy socialization class and practice regularly, but what types of interactions should puppies actually have? While some owners focus just on exposing puppies to many people and situations, it’s important to actually make sure that the puppy is having a positive experience and learning something good.

The following abridged section from Perfect Puppy in 7 Days: How to Start Your Puppy Off Right provides examples of what to socialize puppies to and how to socialize them starting even before the puppies have been adopted into their final home. By starting early and being consistent owners will provide the best chance that their pup will grow into a happy confident dog. Here are some recommendations.

Provide puppies with positive experiences with unfamiliar people of different sizes, genders, ethnicities.  Invite guests to come interact with the puppies while providing treats and toys to ensure the puppies are having a positive experience. Interacting with only household humans is not enough.

These puppies were nervous at first when they were handled by visitors. They showed their anxiety by trembling when held or refusing to take treats and moving around and playing less when the visitors were around. They were also more fearful of men, a common occurrence with dogs and puppies. By 6 weeks of age, after having several visitors a week, they are now relaxed around most new visitors, including men.It’s important that visitors wear a variety of clothes. My Jack Russell Terrier, Jonesy, randomly barked at people wearing Ugg® boots for a year, and he barked at one of my assistants because he didn’t recognize her when she was wearing this hooded sweater. One of the puppies from the litter pictured here also reacted to this person’s hood or her boots. He barked at her once while jumping back. Then he decided she was safe and approached to get treats.Socialize Puppies to Children.To puppies and dogs who have never seen kids, children can look like little aliens. As puppies mature, children can also start looking more like toys or things they should chase because they scream and run and flail their arms like injured prey. If the breeder does not have or know children whom the puppies can interact with she should at least play sounds of children and babies from a sound CD such as SoundsGood CD (http://www.legacycanine.com). The new family should also be told that the puppy is lacking in this experience and that they should make a special effort to provide good interactions with children.

These puppies have never seen a child, but because they’ve been socialized to so many other things by 7 weeks of age, they immediately accept this child as safe.  The child also knows how feed them treats and this helps them associate her with good experiences.  Because these puppies have already been handled a lot, they let the child pick them up and relax regardless of the position she holds them in.

Socialize Puppies to Other Species.Many puppies will live with cats or other animals at some time during their life or they may see animals of other species. It would be best if they could react calmly instead of barking, lunging or chasing these other animals.

Reward calm behavior when other animals are present: This puppy is learning to sit calmly in the presence of the cat. Not only do we want dogs to feel safe and unafraid around other animals, we also want them to behave calmly. So we should reward calm behavior. This puppy’s entire litter is good with cats—at least those cats in two household settings. The puppies sometimes try to solicit play but are not overly rambunctious when the cats decline by walking away.Train Puppies to Walk on Different Surfaces:Probably everyone knows a dog who’s afraid of walking on metal manhole covers in the street or grates on the sidewalk. Or dogs who won’t step on wet grass to go potty. By exposing puppies to different surfaces when they are young we can greatly decrease the likelihood they will be afraid of walking on a variety of surfaces later in life. This exposure to different surfaces is something that can easily be started by the breeder-especially since the sense of touch is well developed, even at birth.

Walking on metal surfaces: These puppies find yummy treats on this metal surface and readily climb on. With repeated practice they will have no problems standing on a metal scale or metal table at the veterinary hospital.Standing on an exam table: This puppy has no fear of being on the metal examination table at the veterinary hospital. We give him treats to ensure that he has a positive experience. We’re using baby food on a tongue depressor as our treat.

Exposure to water and wet grass: The weather during the first 8 weeks of these puppies’ lives has been warm and dry.As a result, they haven’t had any exposure to rain, cold, or wet grass. The best simulation we have is a little infant pool with water and fake grass. This will help accustom them to the feel so that they don’t grow up to be sissies who can’t go out to potty when the weather is rainy and the yard is wet. You can use wet sod or mud instead.

Exposure to frost or snow: These Corgi puppies live in Alaska so they are receiving exposure to the cold early on. They run on the frost and play in the cold like it’s normal for them, because it is.

Imagine what housetraining would look like if these guys didn’t like going outside in the cold weather!

Introducing Puppies to Other Man-made Objects and Sounds:Most people never appreciate the every-day sounds and sights that might be frightening to a pet or even a person raised in a completely different environment. But once you have a dog who missed out on key environmental experience when young it can be overwhelming to deal with all of the objects they fear.

Dogs must also learn that regular-everyday objects are safe: Jonesy, the Jack Russell Terrier that I adopted at 8 months of age, poses with some of the objects he used to be afraid of but is OK with now. When walking down a typical city street he would bark at or tremble and shy away from about 2-3 objects per block—garbage cans, sidewalk signs, murals of dogs, skateboards, metal pipe sticking out of the wall. The list goes on. He was fearful because he’d been raised in a rural environment.

These are just a handful of the items and situations for which puppies should be socialized. To see the full –unabridged version and find out more about teaching puppies to enjoy being handled and to enjoy toenail trims and other common procedures, read Perfect Puppy in 7 Days: How to Start Your Puppy Off Right.

Also download the free puppy socialization checklist.

What objects/sounds/environments do you wish your dog had been better socialized to as a puppy?  Share your story here!

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