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Puppy Socialization & Exposure

setting your puppy up for success

Spring is the season of new beginnings, but also the season of puppies! From crate training to potty training to socialization/exposure; there is a lot of training that comes along with getting a puppy. In my experience however, nothing is more important to a puppy’s development than proper socialization/exposure to the world around them. in this short article I’ll go over proper socialization/exposure practices that will help you develop a balanced and well-behaved puppy.

what is socialization/exposure?

Socialization is defined as the process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society. Exposure is defined as the state of being exposed to contact with something. These two terms go hand in hand with each other when it comes to puppies. In order to teach our puppy to behave in a way that is acceptable to society, we must first expose them to all the sights, sounds, and smells in the world around them. By exposing a puppy to as much as possible (safely of course) from an early age they learn to be comfortable in their environment. Proper socialization/exposure is the number one way to prevent your puppy from developing anxiety/fear related issues as they grow up.

critical period of socialization

So when is the best time to start socializing/exposing my puppy to the world around them? The time between 3 and 12 weeks of age is thought to be the critical period of socialization, the time in a puppy’s life where learning and development can influence and shape their behavior well into adulthood. The most widely accepted age when puppies can be removed from the litter and placed in a home is as early as 8 weeks, which means more than half of that critical period of socialization happens before we ever bring our puppy home. Despite that fact, what we do with our puppies from 8 to 12 weeks old will influence them for the rest of their lives. DO NOT WAIT UNTIL FULLY VACCINATED TO BEGIN SOCIALIZATION. By the time a dog is fully vaccinated the critical period of socialization has closed and we missed our chance. I can’t even begin to explain how damaging it is to keep your puppy inside until fully vaccinated. Keep reading for tips on how to socialize your puppy properly, and with minimal risk to their health.

how to properly socialize/expose

In that 4 week span, puppies are naturally inquisitive and constantly creating new experiences for themselves by readily approaching objects they have never encountered before, as well as other dogs and humans. Our goal is to make these experiences neutral for our puppy. We want neutral experiences; not overly positive, and of course we don’t want negative experiences.

Overly negative experiences during this time frame hinder and stifle the natural inquisitiveness of a puppy and can leave lasting effects such as fear and anxiety in relation to the trigger object that caused the overly negative experience. A puppy that is consistently having negative experiences will have significant issues as they develop. We want to avoid this at all costs.

Overly positive experiences can also cause long lasting problems. Consistently creating overly positive experiences can result in a dog that has difficulty in controlling their emotions around those objects, people, dogs, etc. If every experience is met with copious amounts of reward (whether they be food, toys, praise, etc), then the puppy can grow up being hypersensitive to the world around them, always looking for “the next high.” These dogs are unable to stay calm when they are out and about which means they are unable to focus on their owner. Dogs like this can be incredibly difficult to train because everything else is more important and exciting than we are.

Neutral experiences are the goal. We want our puppy to see other dogs and people and think “ok cool, that’s normal, no need to get all crazy.” If our puppy hears a loud sound we want them to think “no big deal, I’ve heard loud sounds before and I know nothing bad will happen.” A dog that is neutral to their surroundings is much easier to train, and experiences much less stress than dogs who are always overly excited and hyper sensitive to everything, and dogs that are afraid of everything.

Now, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t reward our puppy for experiencing new things. We just need to give some thought as to when and how we use those rewards. For example, if you see your puppy is unsure of the neighbors lawn mower, you can use food, toys, play, praise, etc to change your puppy’s mind about the lawn mower. This will most likely take several encounters before the puppy starts ignoring the lawnmower.

dogs & people

We want our puppy to grow up accepting and tolerating other people and dogs. What we don’t want is a dog that loses their mind with excitement at the sight of other dogs and people. We also don’t want a dog that is afraid of dogs and people either. Your puppy should not be engaging with unknown dogs before they are fully vaccinated due to the fact that they can get sick. You also want to avoid areas that are highly trafficked by other dogs. The ground is the danger zone in places like that because that’s where your puppy can get sick with something.

When it comes to socializing your puppy around other people, just being in the vicinity of people works wonders. Strangers shouldn’t be coming up to you and petting your puppy, and certainly not feeding it a treat. With a super young puppy, you can bring them to the park in a stroller, or even hold them, so they can take in the sights. Walk (or stroll) past strangers and don’t allow people to pet, because they will give attention improperly. Use your friends and family to get your puppy used to being in contact with new people. You can prompt your friends and family on how to behave with your puppy. Don’t get them super excited, stop engaging if they chew on you, etc.

Same thing goes for dogs. Just being near dogs is good enough at this age, but we shouldn’t be engaging with unknown adult dogs. You can try scheduling puppy play dates with other puppy owners you know who have puppies of a similar age that are in good health. Allow the puppies to play, make them take a break, and repeat.

 

sights, sounds, & smells

When exposing and socializing to new sights, sounds, and smells, brief encounters are much better than prolonged encounters. Back to the lawnmower example, go outside for 30 seconds to a minute and either feed your puppy or play with your puppy with the lawnmower in the background. Do this everyday for a week and your puppy will learn that the lawnmower is irrelevant. Don’t go outside for 15 minutes and try to get them to like it in one session. Short, repeated exposures will work wonders. This rule holds true with most of socialization; bite sized chunks of exposure throughout the days, weeks, and months. Go online and find a socialization checklist (like this one) to help give you new ideas as to what objects and sounds you should expose your puppy to.

summary

This article is meant to guide you in the right direction, not be the end all be all of proper puppy socialization/exposure. Use your best judgment when socializing your puppy, and if you aren’t sure of something or need help, consult your vet or find a dog trainer that offers puppy programs. Hopefully, this short article will help get you thinking about what you can do for your puppy to help set them up properly for the rest of their life!