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  • John Whittaker

Optimal Socialization for Your Puppy

The single greatest cause of fear, anxiety and aggression in adult dogs is the lack of socialization as a puppy. Next to selecting a confident puppy from a sound litter, socialization is the single most important factor that determines whether or not you will have a friendly, well-balanced dog as an adult.


There are three areas of socialization that are important: new people, new environments, and other dogs. Their level of importance, and therefore priority, is in that very order.


Socializing: New People


Frequent and ongoing socialization with new people, outside of your home and property, should be your first priority. The goal of this socialization is for every person your dog meets to be immediately be accepted as their new best friend. For most puppies, women are easier to feel comfortable with than men. Dog lovers who crouch down and make silly noises are easier to relate to than someone that just stares at a puppy. For a lot of puppies, the greatest stressors are; larger people, beards, dark glasses and hats. Therefore, you need your puppy to meet all types of people, regularly.

The ideal is to socialize your puppy daily. We understand daily socialization can be a challenge given our busy schedules. As a compromise, we suggest a minimum of three times a week, starting at 8 weeks until at least 20 weeks old. Then begin socializing at least once a week during puberty, which starts at 7 months and lasts until 14 months old.


The goal is for your puppy to see everyone as his or her best friend. This is regardless of breed, or long-term intent, such as raising a puppy to protect your family. If your puppy isn’t socialized with people, he or she will be insecure and suspicious around them. Just relate that to people for a moment. Do insecure, suspicious people get chosen for the U.S. Secret Service, or Navy SEALS? Do insecure, suspicious people rise up in the ranks MMA? You need confidence to go out boldly into the world to do anything. Keeping a puppy away from people is a good way to have an insecure adult who is aggressive, but fearful of people. That isn’t functional, it’s just a liability.


Socializing: New Environments


The second most import type of socialization is to new environments. Specifically, you want to socialize your puppy to environments with slippery floors, unstable surfaces, loud unexpected noises, and movement from strange objects (especially coming from behind).


An example of the types of environments to look for is Home Depot. Their metal carts used for transporting plywood are both slippery, unstable and provide some unexpected noise (clanging). In the lumber department the section with 2 X 4’s is great for puppies to climb up on and walk across. The 2 X 4s are usually somewhat unstable as unwanted pieces are thrown back in different directions as customers search for the perfect ones. It makes for a great doggy playground. Carriages typically appear from every direction, which initially serve as moving objects. Dropping a rubber trash can on its side, as you walk by, can also serve as a great surprise. Then handling the trash can as you return it to it’s proper place, further conditions your puppy. Banks and post offices provide great opportunities for exposure to slippery floors, (ceramic tile, vinyl tile, cement with glass-like finish). When it comes to noise nothing comes close to a visit to a bus or train station.


The rule for environmental socialization is use an environment until it becomes normal to your puppy, and then find a new one.


Socializing: New Puppies and Adults


Your puppy should be socialized with other puppies and adults starting at 8 weeks of age. A lot of veterinarians instruct owners to wait until 2 weeks after their puppy’s final vaccines before doing so. This starts socialization with other puppies and adults at 18 weeks old. The results from this approach can have life-long consequences which include issues with aggression.


Please keep in mind veterinarians giving this advice are doing their jobs: protecting puppies from disease. Their advice accomplishes their objective. However it’s an overly simplified shot-gun approach and can cause a lot of long-term issues. You can socialize your puppy AND protect him or her at the same time. It’s a matter of educated and deliberate choices. Please see our article on “Puppies: The Worse Possible Advice (and Most Common)” for more specific information.


The goal of socializing your puppy should be to ensure your puppy grows up understanding and enjoying other dogs. A second criteria should include to teach the manners needed so as to not cause other puppies or adults problems.


Before getting Started


A commonly held belief today is every dog should be friendly and social with any dog he or she meets. It’s a nice idea, and certainly a goal of proper socializing, but out-of-touch with reality. You can do everything right and still your dog can be naturally aggressive with other dogs. The issue is usually one of dominance. A natural aspect of being a dog is to want to understand, who’s who, and what’s what. That’s where dominance comes in. For some breeds like Labrador Retrievers, that issue is determined by playing “pig pile” and seeing who is “king of the mountain” the longest. For a lot of breeds, and individual dogs, using aggression to establish dominance, or defending themselves from being dominated, is what comes natural. Therefore socialization, and early training is needed to mold our puppies into being better citizens than what comes naturally. Know that in some puppies, we are working against strong instinct.


Getting Started


You need to initially choose playmates for your puppy that will provide a positive-only experience. First and foremost, you need to look at dominance. Watch how a puppy interacts with other puppies. Are they constantly trying to jump on top of the other puppy? Do they try to bite the other puppy’s neck? Do they stiffen up as they approach another puppy? Does the hair on their back go up when they approach? These are all signs of dominance. You want your puppy’s first dozen or so experiences, with other puppies to be neutral. In time, you can allow occasional interaction with puppies who show mild forms of dominance. Then in time allow for exposure to stronger displays of dominance, as long as they don’t involve aggression. Always try to match your puppy with more neutral interactions than ones where dominance is being displayed.


What if Your Puppy is Dominate?


We suggest training to mold their behavior away from dominance. How to mold it depends on the type of dominance. As an example, dominance that comes out through rough play can be molded by teaching a “play” command, and an “ease down” command, where your puppy stops playing, but continues to interact. It really depends on your puppy’s behavior, his or her age, and make up. For these issues, it’s best to use a professional trainer to coach you.


Dog Parks and Doggy Daycares


The fastest way to ensure your puppy has dominance and or aggression issues is for him or her to feel threatened or be attacked. What happens regularly at dog parks? Dogs use aggression to establish dominance, or to defend themselves from being dominated. Insecure dogs who have no business being at a dog park, are brought anyway. When the insecure dog feels threatened, they defend themselves with aggression. In turn, a fight breaks out and most of the dogs join in. If you understand these issues, a dog park is the last place you want to take your puppy.


The same with introducing your puppy, to every other puppy or adult he or she meets. There’s too much at stake. For that matter, most doggy daycares are little better than dog parks. That said, there are some exceptional doggy daycares who do a tremendous job at pre-screening, as well as matching and managing play groups. They are in the minority. We suggest getting a recommendation from a professional dog trainer as to which doggy daycares to trust.


What if You Don’t Know if another Puppy or Adult is Dominate?


A single bad experience where a puppy feels threatened, or worse is attacked, sets the stage for life-long, dog aggression. Is socializing your puppy with another puppy or adult you don’t know really worth it? Well, there are times when the answer may be yes. If you’ve just moved into a neighborhood and your new neighbor also has a young puppy, explaining to them their puppy might be a problem for yours, is probably not a good idea. At least not without concrete reasons for wanting to wait a few weeks to introduce them. We recommend making an educated guess based on personality.


As a general rule, a confident dog with a big, bold, personality, and strong presence is more likely to play rough and try to establish dominance than a dog with a soft, sweet personality. Do keep in mind, decisions based on personality cues, do have limitations. There are dogs with soft, sweet, personalities who are very dominate once interacting with another dog, and those with big, bold personalities for whom dominance is not on their radar. Again, dominance generally is more predominant in dogs with stronger personalities, so choose wisely your puppy’s playmates.


A Core Principle in All Socializing


As an owner you need to demonstrate confidence in your leash handling, physiology, and forward motion. When puppies are fearful, they tend to stop. In response, most owners will stop and try to reassure their puppy. What is actually happening is, the owner is allowing their puppy to remain in a fearful state, AND reenforcing it with encouraging, praise-like tones. This is the last thing an owner should ever do. This is where training and professional coaching is beneficial in order to correctly move your puppy through these situations.

If your puppy is not reacting ideally to people, environments or other dogs, you don't want to reenforce their experience again and again. Time is of the essence. As the saying goes, "you never get a second chance to make a good first impression".

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