Puppy socialization is very important and it’s puppy season and there is nothing more fun to watch then a puppy playing and exploring their world but there is more than just play going on in the puppy’s head.  They’re figuring out how things work and beginning to better understand their world.  This is a very critical part of their overall physical and mental development.

One of the primary reasons dogs are dropped off at shelters is due to behavior problems.  Many of these problems are, in fact, due to improper or limited socialization during their formative weeks of development.

People often think that puppy playtime and puppy class is great fun for the puppy but really of little significance to the puppy’s overall development.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  In fact, a good positive puppy socialization class is the most important experience you can give your puppy.  It can help resolve and avoid many potential issues that a number of adult dogs have to deal with including shy dogs, reactive or aggressive dogs and other fearful dogs.  You really cannot underestimate the critical importance for your puppy. Proper socialization can help your puppy be confident when they’re playing or even just meeting other dogs and meeting new people too.  They learn that the world is a good place to live, sleep, eat and play in!

Development Stages

To understand why socialization is important we need to understand your puppy’s developmental stages as they go through puppyhood.  Your puppy’s learning window is open until 16 weeks of age.  After four months puppies have “learned” their world and what to expect.  Anything outside of this experience can be scary and stressful and often results in the start of potential behavior problems.

The first stage is the Primary Socialization stage when the puppy is 3-5 weeks of age.  This is when the puppy is primarily interacting with mom and their littermates.  Some human interaction should also begin at this stage.

Secondary Socialization occurs when the puppy is between 6-12 weeks of age.  It’s at this age they begin to explore a bit outside of their world and into ours.  Puppies are weaned between 7-8 weeks of age and they are very open to new situations, other animals, objects, sounds, children and adults and more.  Think of these as the “Life is Good” puppies.   Whole Dog Journal contributor and dog trainer Pat Miller gives a great goal of “100 exposures in 100 days”.  It’s important for your puppy to explore areas outside of your backyard and family.  They need to meet as many dogs, people and situations as possible.  This helps build their ability to analyze the situation and say, “hey, I’ve seen this before and it was OK, there’s no reason to be scared”.  It’s a few months of work for you but the gift of a lifetime for your puppy.

“Scary Things”

While puppies typically do become more interested in learning more about their surroundings they also can be afraid of some new situations.  How you respond is very important to how your puppy “learns” how to handle the scary object or experience.  Keep all of your interactions very positive and reward them generously when they’re frightened.  Don’t say “It’s OK” or correct him.  Just be there for them and remain calm yourself.  This will help your puppy begin to make the adjustment that they can “control” their own emotions and that the scary thing actually caused treats to come out – always a good thing!  How could something be scary if there’s treats involved?  This way your not making a prediction to your puppy that “OK” actually means, “this is a scary situation and you better watch out!”  It’s important to let puppies explore scary situations at their own pace.  Safe self-discovery can be a very powerful experience for your puppy – remember to keep it positive and reward them!

Puppy Socialization Classes

Here’s what to look for in a good puppy socialization class; the goal is creating the opportunity to many positive interactions with many different dogs, people and objects in a safe environment.

Puppy Play Sessions

Sights and Sounds

Health and Handling

Puppy Parenting Tips

Basic Puppy Manners

Balancing Your Puppies Physical and Mental Health

Puppy socialization must also be balanced by taking the appropriate steps to ensure the physical health of your puppy too.  Make sure your puppy and the other puppies they play with are current on their vaccinations and that both puppies have had their first distemper-parvo shot at least ten days ago.  In the meantime make sure your puppy is exploring only safe areas by avoiding dog parks and staying on asphalt or concrete surfaces.  Avoid dog fairs and parades during this period as well.  It’s definitely a balancing act between taking the appropriate physical health protections and mental health socialization.  It’s important to remember that more dogs get turned in for behavior problems then contact an infectious disease. If you wait to begin socialization after all their shots they’ll be beyond 16 weeks and you’ll have missed the key window of socialization.

Socialization actually never stops and it should continue for the life of the dog but the window is so small in the beginning that you don’t want to miss this opportunity to build a strong foundation and strengthen the bond between you and your dog.  It’s a lifetime of giving for both of you!

Additional Resources –

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior AVSAB – Position Statement on the importance of Puppy Socialization

Positive Perspectives 2 Know Your Dog; Train Your Dog, Pat Miller, CPDT, CDBC

Puppy Start Right: Foundation Training for the Companion Dog, Kenneth M Martin DVM, Debbie Martin, BS, RVT, CPDT-KA, KPA CTP

Puppy Primer, Brenda Scidmore & Patricia McConnell, PH. D.

Clicking With Your Dog, Step by Step in Pictures, Peggy Tillman

Puppy Socialization Classes –Greater St Louis Training Club