By Dr. Kathy Boehme
Appropriate socialization in the first few months of life is critical for healthy social development of puppies. Proper exposure to new places and people can reduce the incidence of fear based behavior problems later in the dog’s life.
How do I socialize a puppy?
Expose the puppy, in a non fearful manner, to all people, places, objects and animals that you want it to be comfortable with later. Exposure to strangers and new dogs can easily be done through a well run puppy class. These are encouraged for all puppies however some puppies are timid or fearful and these classes can be quite overwhelming for them. A trainer should be able to recognize this and counsel you on the best options for your puppy. A very fearful experience during this sensitive window of development can have long lasting consequences.
Socialization also includes socializing your puppy to veterinary visits. Happy visits, when you come in just to have us feed treats and love on your puppy, can go a long way toward alleviating their fears about coming to the veterinary clinic. Having treats on hand can go a long way to creating a positive experience for your puppy. Bring something delicious with you for us to feed them. Remember that when socializing your puppy to new things, it is not enough to have just neutral interactions. The interaction should be very positive so you should carry treats wherever you go to reinforce that this eg. child, bearded man, person with a hat, vacuum cleaner, etc, is a wonderful thing and good things happen when they are around.
Friendly interactions with other dogs during this time period is very important. Avoid uncontrolled situations like dog parks and the beach. Set up playdates with friendly adult dogs or other puppies.
There is a second “fear period” that occurs anywhere between 4 months and one year. During this time, early socialization can be lost so effort should be made to continue repeated safe exposure for a full year. Some typical puppy behaviors resolve with social maturity which occurs between 1-3 years.
What behaviors can a puppy exhibit if not properly socialized?
Some behaviors however are red flags and if not addressed can actually worsen and lead to aggression with social maturity. Aggressive and fearful behavior, such as growling, snapping, biting, stiffening, hair raising, alarm barking and cowering in response to people or other dogs are not normal behaviors in puppies. Mild hesitation in approaching unfamiliar objects, people or other dogs is normal but profound fear is not. If the puppy does not recover within a very short period, tries repeatedly to escape or refuses treats they are exhibiting fear.
After a dog reaches social maturity (typically between 1-3 years of age), these problems are likely to worsen significantly, potentially progressing to aggression or anxiety, and can be difficult to change. Unfortunately many people do not see the seriousness of these type behaviors in puppyhood because biting begins much later at social maturity. Most aggression issues in adult dogs are fear based, not dominate.
Fear based issues are preventable in most dogs with careful socialization and behavior modification techniques when young. Puppyhood is the time to deal with these behaviors, build their confidence and set them up for success.
The Drake Center for Veterinary Care is an AAHA-accredited animal hospital located in Encinitas, CA. The Drake Center loves being a source of information for all pet owners across the country however if you have any questions regarding pet care and do not live in Encinitas, CA or surrounding cities, we encourage you to contact your local veterinarian.