This is part 3 of the series of posts about what makes a Good Happy Dog. Start here if you'd like to read from the beginning of the series. A lot of owners know they should be doing something called "socialization" with their puppy but there's a lot of misunderstanding around and about it.
When trainers and behaviourists talk about "socialization" they probably mean one of two things
1) Similar to the dictionary definitions such as -
a. "The process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society"
b. "a continuing process whereby an individual acquires a personal identity and learns the norms, values, behavior, and social skills appropriate to his or her social position".
Different dictionaries have slightly varying definitions
2) A sensitive period in canine development between 3 and 12 weeks old. Puppies' sensory systems are functioning and they're taking in and processing environmental stimuli. They've not reached the age of "cutting apron strings" and perhaps haven't hit the fear period just yet.
In contrast, most owners I meet mean "The activity of mixing socially with others". These differences of meaning matter A LOT to your puppy's ongoing behaviour. The risk is that owners meaning "the activity of mixing socially with others" overexpose and overwhelm their pups to stimuli that aren't relevant or are very relevant to their everyday life. Creating negative perceptions of irrelevant stimuli is teaching your pup to be afraid of novelty for absolutely no purpose. Creating undesired associations with Normal Stuff is setting you and your dog up for a hard life, battling his reaction to Normal Stuff for an indefinite amount of time.
Usually when I discuss "socialization" with clients I am meaning a combination of 1 and 2. I try to be clear which I mean (type of activity or stage of development) although there is so much overlap in the associated guidance that matters can be tough to keep straight in communication and therefore the mind of the owner. We learn about "socialisation" at Bright Start Puppy class where client puppies find out about new environments, people and pups in a controlled and fun setting.
The priority information for puppy owners to have is that there is a window of opportunity between the breeder having the puppy and 12 weeks of age. During this time your puppy is extra accepting of the world around him and will take the stimuli he encounters as Normal Stuff. It is absolutely possible to scare your puppy at this time and every care should be taken to make his experiences gentle and lovely. It's also very possible to teach him a beserk overexcitement reaction which you'd probably agree is best avoided. When the sensitive period ends it is more difficult for him to learn about New Stuff, but it can be done. Socialization as an activity is an ongoing pursuit for all ages of dog. To break this advice down into easy chunks
- Puppies from an unsuitable background are already disadvantaged from 3 weeks of age
- Weeks 3 to 12 are an extra special opportunity to introduce Normal Stuff
- Keep activities short and sweet
- Enable your puppy to engage in behaviours that will be socially acceptable now and as an adult
- Avoid overwhelming your puppy. He will remember the unpleasant/overexcited feelings and this will affect his future behaviour
- Make sure your puppy has quality rest times. Rest is important to recover and process information
- Puppies with genetic predisposition to guarding may need extra careful support
- Puppies from sensory-impoverished starts (eg. puppy farm) will need extra careful support
- You will be teaching your dog how to respond to stimuli for life, but groundwork at the critical stage of development will make life easier.
The other point I'd like to make is that there is no One Size Fits All solution to "socialization". The activities and stimuli one dog is exposed to for life will not be the same as another's. It is your responsibility as an owner to determine how you envision your dog's future with you and therefore which emotions and skills you will need him to produce in the context of real life stimuli. In simpler terms, you need to determine how you want your dog to react in the real world. Start preparing him when his brain is most susceptible to the lessons and introduce him kindly and gently. Don't allow him to have a Free For All if that won't be acceptable later on. Use sensible restrictions, lures and distractions to direct his behaviour in the way you want for life. Prioritise your puppy's experiences of Normal Stuff from the breeders home to yours, up to 14 weeks of age, to make sure he has the best chance of being Good and Happy for life.
I hope you found this post informative and please let me know your experiences of puppy "socialization" in the comments below. Take a look at last week's blog on Puppy Planning and keep an eye out for next week's Part 4: Handling Puppies for Health and Hygiene.There's not a single formula for keeping a dog happy, healthy and a joy to live with, but there are ways to increase your chances.
Happy training, love from Lucy x