You may be unfamiliar with the term “socialization” when used in this context.
Socialization is the period early on in a puppy’s life where they learn how to behave in the different relationships and contexts of their life and how to, handle new experiences.
Socialization is a process that continues through the first year of a dog’s life, but the first 3 months are a critical time where a lot of information is processed and mental linkages made. This when they first begin developing relationships with other dogs and people too.
First impressions are important between humans, right? Well, they may be even more important for our canine companions. When dogs aren’t properly socialized, they will have to overcome those behavior problems later in life and may always struggle in certain areas.
Providing our dogs with a healthy environment to learn and grow early on goes a long way to giving them a happy life.
It’s not recommended dogs get adopted sooner than eight weeks after birth because it would interrupt the learning process of how to interact between pups and their mothers and with their littermates. Ideally, there are also human caretakers involved, so they are beginning to get used to people early in life. This will ultimately allow for a smoother transition when it’s time to get adopted into a new family.
Once your dog gets adopted into your household, they will need to continue the socialization process with your help.
There are several aspects to socialization, including habituation and localization, which we will discuss further.
Habituation is the process where dogs get used to the repeated stimuli in their environments and don’t stress or feel fear around them over time. In other words, getting accustomed to their surroundings and becoming comfortable. An example would be the whistle a teakettle makes when the water begins to boil. The first time a dog hears this high-pitched whistle, they may get scared and even begin to bark. However, a tea kettle is not a threat to the dog in any way. Over time, they should learn that it’s actually no big deal and even ignore it completely. As an owner, you want to deemphasize your dog’s fear responses to non-threatening stimuli and allow them to be brave. Providing affection during fear responses or saying “it’s okay” will only reaffirm to your dog that they should be concerned about the stimuli.
Localization is the process of a puppy developing attachments to different places like your house, yard, and the areas you frequent with them like your neighborhood and dog park.
In the early months of life, your dog should get indirectly exposed to a wide variety of stimuli, situations, people, and animals. We say ‘indirect’ exposure because your dog is experiencing a lot of things for the first time. Any direct interaction from strange people or dogs, without being comfortable in their environment first, can cause them to become overwhelmed or reinforce fearful behaviors. Their comfort levels later in life are highly dependent on their experiences during this time. Dogs that don’t get exposed to different people, places, or other stimuli until later on are much more likely to develop fears and potentially fear aggression towards the unfamiliar.
In most species, there is a period early in their development where the key aspects of their socialization take place. This time is when they form attachments to members of their species, their family, and process both positive and negative events that will help them survive throughout their lives. For dogs, this period begins at three weeks of age and will continue until about the 12th week of life.
Peak sensitivity occurs around week 6 to week 8, which is part of why experts recommended that puppies don’t get adopted before they reach this milestone.
The 8-week mark is significant because it’s when they start registering fear responses to stimuli, which is crucial to avoiding various dangers. Before this time, a puppy wouldn’t recognize a threatening situation, which is a good reason why they should stick close to mom before this time.
After peak sensitivity, it’s ok if dogs get adopted from their litters, but owners should be conscious of their developmental age and needs. It’s crucial to expose puppies to as many people, animals, situations, and places as possible. Having positive experiences during peak sensitivity leads to calmer, less fearful dogs later in life. Dogs who have matured and begun to show classic signs of fear aggression are the ones who were not properly exposed to stimulus while they were young puppies.
The first 6 - 8 month period is another critical time where socialization must get reinforced to continue to build a dog’s social skills. Dogs can regress and grow to be more fearful if they aren’t socialized thoroughly.
There’s a lot you can do to assist your dog’s socialization process. While they’re living with you at home, they’ll become used to you, your family, or roommates. They’ll become habituated to your routines and lifestyle, but there’s a whole world outside of what happens in your home. This is where the potential for fears to take root lies.
We recommend that you take your dog to new environments during this time so they can become exposed to more of the world. Take them to busier places like city streets where there are people and other dogs to interact with as well as new sights and sounds to take in. It’s a good idea to expose them to the sounds made by passing cars and trucks and for them to learn the appropriate degree of caution to take around them.
You’ll also want to pay attention to the many different types of people that exist in the world. Humanity is vast; part of proper socialization is introducing your dog to people of different ages, races, genders, physical abilities, and people in uniforms - especially delivery people like mail carriers and everyone in between.
It’s a good practice to come prepared with treats. When your dog interacts with a new person, you can invite them to share the treat with your dog. It reinforces the idea that most people aren’t threats and are no different from you and your family. Give it a try!
Some owners do get concerned about taking their puppy out into the world while they are still very young and don’t have all their immunizations yet. One workaround here is to arrange for healthy people and vaccinated animals to come to visit you and your pup at home before you take on too many adventures out into the world.
Please consult your veterinarian for advice, and follow their guidelines above all, but lower-risk environments like quiet neighborhood streets are a good compromise. Since we’re in an age of social distancing, most people will gladly give you your space.
You don’t want your puppy to miss out on the benefits of socializing during their period of peak sensitivity. Consult your trusted network for friends who have pets for lowkey visits, where everyone feels safe. Taking your dog for walks in a puppy sling or stroller is another good compromise. It gets your dog out into the world but keeps them off the ground where they can be exposed to diseases through infected urine or fecal matter.
Another idea is to take your dog to the park with a large blanket. This way you can spend some nice time outdoors, but you don’t let them get too far from you.
Once your dog gets vaccinated, you can enroll them in socialization classes. Typically all the puppies are checked for their shots and parasites before each class. These classes allow your dog to be exposed to other breeds and owners all at the same time and can speed up their overall socialization process.
Socialization classes aren’t paid playdates, but rather a time where they can have numerous interactions with other dogs and people in a controlled environment with professional dog trainers around to supervise. Before you sign up for a class, ask if you can observe a session by yourself before bringing your dog. The trainers should be guiding the dog’s interactions, so they go well. Breeds have different play styles, and this is where conflict can occur. There should also be parts of the class where the dogs can simply be with each other while in a relaxed state. They should learn that it’s also ok to be calm around other dogs.
Pay Attention To Your Dog’s Body Language
If your puppy starts acting nervous or scared during the socialization process, take a step back and prevent any further direct interactions. The goal is for your puppy to get comfortable with the surrounding world on their terms. You don’t want to be forcing experiences onto them but rather introduce them to new things in a measured way. Never drag them to approach something they are resisting. That is how fears can form. These will return later in your dog’s life and can become the source of behavioral problems.
Help them form positive associations by feeding them treats while encountering new people, places, and situations. Rewarding them every time they handle themselves well with something new forms a linkage that new stimuli are positive and lead to good things.
Don’t Overwhelm Your Dog.
There is no such thing as too much socialization. However, a dog can experience over-stimulation, which can happen due to an active period of socialization. When you take your dog to busy areas like cities, dog parks, or large events, they are experiencing so many sights, smells, and sounds at once, and it can trigger fear, exhaustion, or stress, similar to how people can have the same response too. You want to be careful about not introducing these more chaotic environments to your dog until they are ready. If you overwhelm them, they may form fears tied to one or more of the stimuli in the environment.
For example, if you take your dog to an outdoor concert, they can become frightened of a car horn. It may lead to them becoming fearful around cars in general and concert music or groups of people dancing.
Practice Good Localization -- Start At Home
By starting your socialization process at home, you can better control the environment. You can allow them to explore different objects, people, and human activities. You can also allow them to safely meet other dogs, including adult-dogs who have already gone through their socialization and vaccinations. Remember to reward them with treats when they encounter something new and respond positively.
Be Aware Of The Fearful Period
Some puppies will go through a fearful period at about nine weeks of age. It’s when their fear responses first begin kicking in. If your dog is at this age, be extra careful. Don’t push their socialization too hard at this time, but don’t coddle these behaviors either. If you’re struggling with a fear period, reach out to a professional trainer who is well vetted to help you out!
Car Rides & The Vet’s Office
Taking your puppy for rides in your car is a great way to not only socialize them to the car and how to be a good passenger, but it also allows you to take them to new places. Be sure you have the proper safety gear like a doggie car seat or harness, so your dog isn’t loose in your vehicle. That can be very dangerous!
It’s a great idea to get them used to the motions cars typically make. Starting, stopping, sometimes moving fast, other times not, etc. You also want them to experience getting in and out of the car and being in a new place when they get out. Familiarity with car rides is necessary for trips to the vet and other appointments.
It’s not a bad idea to take your dog with you on errands if they are near your vets and just pop in for a hello and a treat before leaving. This helps to break the association they have with the vet’s office as a place where they get poked and prodded.
Socialization is a process; you can actively work on, but you don’t need to overwhelm yourself to check off a specific set of experiences for your dog to have. Please stick to the guidelines we’ve outlined here, consider where you live and all the people, places, and environments your dog is likely to encounter throughout your life together.
If you need any additional support, reach out to our team by sending a message in the bubble below. You can also contact us to schedule a training evaluation, and we’ll get back to you!