The average age that people acquire their puppy is 8-10 weeks. The critical socialization period of that puppy’s life begins closing at 12 weeks of age, and the door to that critical period has slammed shut by 16 weeks. What does this mean?
It means you have only 2-4 weeks left to set your puppy up for success in being comfortable with all the experiences life has to offer him for the rest of his days!
Regardless of where you acquire your dog from, it is your job to continue pleasant socialization experiences for the rest of your dog’s life. This means lots of treats, toys, love, and praise when you are introducing them to new things. If you are getting your dog from a breeder, your job should be a little easier. You need to make sure that your breeder has already done 90% of this for you, and if he/she hasn’t, then pick a new breeder. Seriously.
If the pup was raised in a foster home, a home with kids is usually a good thing. Kids usually mean lots of chaos and lots of visitors, and if handled correctly, the chaos should be very beneficial. If the kids are given no boundaries with the puppies, then that could pose a huge problem (learned fear of children). If your puppy is from a shelter, ask if the puppy was involved in any enrichment programs.
If the puppy is from a pet store, well, I can just about guarantee the only exposures that puppy has received has been whatever has passed by his display window, and they probably weren’t all that pleasant, either. Just overwhelming. Pet store puppies come from “large commercial breeders” that breed for profit, not for health or for temperament, and they do not socialize their puppies unless you count stacking large groups of puppies into crates in the same room as socialization.
So here’s the list:
1) 100 strangers: 40% Men, 40% Children, 20% Women, and of as many different races and ethnicities as possible.
2) Body handling: Make sure that puppy enjoys every inch of his body being touched and poked and prodded.
3) 100 dogs: all breeds, sizes, ages, sexes, and reproductive status. Just make sure the dogs are healthy and friendly. It is perfectly fine for a dog to gently correct your puppy for being rude, but we do not want the dog attacking or over-correcting your puppy.
4) Different floor surfaces: Try for at least 10 variations from wet grass to metal exam tables to rickety old decks. Think about all the different textures puppies will experience in their lives.
5) New environments: Parking lots, busy streets, children’s parks and playgrounds, vets offices, pet supply stores, cafes, etc.
6) Household noises: From dishwashers and pots & pans to vacuums and blow dryers, as well as thunder, fireworks, and cars whirring by on a busy street. Don’t forget babies crying, children laughing, and people shouting! Purchase a sound CD if necessary.
7) Children’s toys: From remote control toys and noise-making toys to balloons and kiddie pools.
8) Things with wheels: strollers, bikes, skateboards, shopping carts, etc. (oh, the wheels of evil!)….
9) Costumes & appearances: everything from hats and helmets to beards and masks, lab coats and hooded jackets to high heels and big boots, canes and walkers to umbrellas and people carrying boxes/big bags (think mailman/UPS/FedEx). Heck, go and meet the actual mailman with your puppy. He’ll thank you for it! Don’t forget the treats!
10) Household objects: computer printers (they all make lots of noise and spit paper at you!), stairs (both open stairs and solid stairs), step stools and ladders, trash bags (both black and white – it makes a difference, I promise!), exercise equipment, lawn signs…. I have seen dogs (including my own adopted dog) spook at all of these things!
11) Smells & scents: From grass to gasoline at a gas station or window cleaner, perfume, pizza….whatever you can think of. Obviously you don’t want your puppy breathing in chemicals, but you also don’t want your dog to freak out when he does a ride-along at the gas station, when you wash the windows, or when you get dressed up for a date. New smells can really freak a dog out.
12) Dog stuff: Leashes, collars, harnesses, crates and gates, food dishes of various types, car rides, and TOYS! Toys of all types. Yes, you actually have to teach them what toys are appropriate or they won’t know what to do with them. Here’s a hint: get a red Kong toy one size larger than they recommend (skip the “puppy rubber” unless you have a truly delicate pup; it won’t last). Fill it up with your dog’s meal and add a little canned food, baby food, or plain greek yogurt to keep it from all spilling out. Then wiggle it in front of your dog’s nose and then let roll it away from him, telling him to “Take It!” THAT ought to get his attention and keep him busy for quite a while!
So you got your puppy. Now what?
Well, it’s up to you to either continue the socialization process that your breeder started, or to make up for the possible lack of socialization that occurred at the shelter, foster home, or pet store. But how? Well, for starters, use a socialization checklist (such as mine linked below) and find some volunteers for a “puppy party” to play dress up and to bring over their healthy & friendly dogs and/or babies and well-mannered children. Don’t throw a huge party to overwhelm the poor pup, but be sure to invite over a new friend or (three) every day.
If no one you know has children’s toys to borrow, go to a garage sale or a thrift shop. Set up puppy play dates with your friends’ and neighbors’ puppies. Attend a puppy socialization class (not a puppy obedience class, but a socialization or “Puppy Head Start” program – there is a HUGE difference). They should be exposed to all 12 of the experiences listed above, and there should be off-leash puppy play time.
Lastly, find a members-only multi-age play group and/or puppy parties.
They are very hard to find, but I happen to run them! Unlike the dog park, only friendly and vaccinated dogs who have been fecal tested for parasites (and/or dewormed) and who have been evaluated for temperament may attend. Dogs that act up at all are immediately moved to private training so you don’t get that guy whose dog viciously attacks someone’s puppy, leaves, and then comes right back in with his dog on a muzzle (yeah, that actually happened at the local dog park).
Not only will your puppy learn to act appropriately with other dogs, but he will also be exposed to many kinds of people, objects, sights, sounds, surfaces, etc, and he will be learning to focus on you even in the presence of all of these people, dogs, and distractions! Maintaining membership in this type of group will help prevent your dog from back-sliding in his socialization during the fear periods that can occur throughout the first year of life and help keep him social (read: confident and friendly) for life!
Please be sure to contact me if you are interested in attending my Puppy Social Hour for puppies under 16 weeks or my Country Club for puppies over 16 weeks!
My extended Puppy Socialization Checklist is under construction, but it should be available within the week. In the mean time, try to bring your puppy everywhere you can safely bring him (bring a mat to set him on and wash his feet afterward), and be sure to bring treats and love everywhere you take your puppy!