What is the best way to socialize a pup? Studies have been done which prove that the 3rd to 12th week of a pup’s life is very important, in terms of imprinting the pup to human beings and to novel objects and environments. If a pup does not receive human contact before the age of 16 weeks, then he will be feral, or wild. Rescue workers who trap puppies or kittens from feral mothers know that the earlier they can be trapped, the more likely they can be tamed and trained to be good pets.
A breeder who understands dog behavior will expose pups to as many different types of people and objects as possible, and will also keep the pups together with their Mom and littermates until at least the age of 7 weeks. The reason many good breeders will not allow pups to leave for their new homes until the age of 9 weeks is because they want to insure that the pup goes safely through the first fear imprint period, which researchers have determined is the 8th week of life in most pups. During this time, if the pup is frightened, he may remember what frightened him and be afraid of it for the rest of his life.
Pups that are in a shelter or kept in fairly isolated conditions at the breeder’s home may have a difficult time adjusting to novelty, to anything different than what they have already seen. It is important to expose pups to varying surfaces (grass, slippery linoleum, pavement, etc) and to all types of people - big people, little people, men with beards, people in strange clothing, etc. Puppies need to see and hear many different types of things as well--such as loud toys, vacuum cleaners and things which roll like bikes or dollies. If you are purchasing a pup from a breeder, find out what types of things the puppy has been exposed to during his first couple of months of life. Pay close attention to the temperament of the mother dog - if she is calm and friendly, then the pups have been learning good behaviors from her. If she is nervous or aggressive, then the pups may have inherited, or have been learning, negative behaviors.
It is very important that puppies be exposed to small children. If a pup does not receive positive exposure to children before the age of 12 weeks, then when first confronted with them, the dog may be afraid, thinking they are strange little aliens, or he may perceive them as prey, thinking they are another species of animal. If the breeder or foster parent of your pup does not have small children, then ask if there have been regular visitors to the home, or if the pups have visited any friend’s homes. Ideally, the pup will have been handled often by children, so that he understands this small variety of human being.
Pass the Puppy?
Although it is a totally new idea to most people, the practice of playing “pass the puppy” during his first month in his new home is an excellent one. This involves having friends and relatives keep the pup for several days at a time in their homes. It is hard to give up even a couple of days a week during the cutest stage of the dog’s life, but if we have people we can trust to care for the pup properly, we will be doing our dog a huge favor in the long run, because “pass the puppy” will help prevent future problems such as separation anxiety and is also a wonderful socialization experience. As soon as your pup has had the required vaccinations, it is even good to go ahead and leave your pup at a boarding facility for a few days, simply because he will adapt much better to the boarding environment if he is exposed to it once a month or every other month while he is still young. Visit any facility you are considering using, and ask for special treatment for your young pup - for example, the reception desk may be willing to let the pup spend part of the day up front with them, so he can see lots of people who are coming in and out of their business. Everyone loves a pup, so hopefully he will be greeted and petted by many different types of people while he is away from you.
“Pass the puppy” may also help your pup be exposed to more children, particularly if you yourself do not have children. Even families without children should properly socialize their dogs to children, in order to prevent problems down the road. If you do not know anyone who could actually keep your pup overnight, then simply call your acquaintances who have children and ask if you can come over for an hour’s visit so your pup can have positive experiences with the kids. Be sure that you are keeping an eye on the children and your pup, because having a negative experience the first time he meets children is NOT what you want! Just a five minute interaction that is positive is better than an hour of socialization that is unsupervised.
Keep in mind that socialization involves places and objects, as well as people, and proper socialization also requires that you be constantly in control of the environment, so that your pup’s experiences are positive. If something frightens your pup, be sure to “jolly him up” and give him something else to concentrate on, so that he will not remember the experience negatively.
The Jolly Routine
This exercise is simply putting a word to your dog’s excited happy moods. Anything that makes your dog excited, like playing ball, getting a cookie or going for a walk, should have a sentence or word attached to it. “Where’s your ball” or “do you want a cookie” should generate a happy tail wag. Do not overdo these things, because remember, leaders ignore the underlings the majority of the time. We don't want to ignore our pups, but they need to know that we are not going to constantly play with them. Make playtimes special, providing regular play and exercise times for your dog’s happiness and well-being but without overdoing it. Don't constantly "serve" your pet by responding to his every demand for attention. Remember that in a pack paradigm, leaders act, followers react. Never forget that your dog’s security depends on knowing that you are a protective leader, and that you have the confidence to protect him should the need arise. You can communicate your leadership in simple, non-threatening ways. One way to do this is do not come in the door and immediately walk your dog or provide a cookie. It will not hurt your pup for you to put the mail down and even take a quick potty break for yourself before you give him attention. Wait until your dog is not trying to initiate your attention, then call him to you. This helps him understand that you are the one initiating the play or walking session, instead of you reacting to him. Leaders act, followers react.
For more easy ways to help your pup understand leadership, be sure to read the ebook we offer entitled Follow the Leader..How to Use Walking as a Behavioral Tool (read more about our ebooks).