Socializing your puppy
→ Socialization isn’t an “all or nothing” project. Socializing a puppy a little bit or a whole lot depends on the amount of time you’re prepared to devote. Doing nothing may negatively affect the mental and physical health over your pets’ lifetime.
→ The goal of ALL responsible dog owners: to have a sufficiently socialized dog that you can introduce to other pets and people without fear of anxiety, aggression and reactivity.
→ There is a window at about 4 to 14 weeks of age when it is optimal to introduce a puppy to new things and environments so as to reduce fear of them later in their development. It’s believed that after approximately 12 weeks of age there are diminishing returns on the long-term benefits of socializing your puppy.
→ There are safe ways to familiarize your puppy with other people and animals during COVID-19 while maintaining social distancing protocols.
→ Helpful tips on socializing your puppy.
Imagine this scenario: walking blissfully through streets and trails with your perfectly socialized bestie, stopping to chat with other owners and their equally well-mannered dogs. Then heading off to the local dog park where your dog can join the high-spirited – and friendly – pack to burn off some energy. You gaze affectionately at the results of your socialization efforts, sip a delicious mocha caffe latte and talk about the lovely fall weather with other pet parents.
Reality rarely reflects our expectations or experiences. Socializing a puppy is much less glamorous and a lot more work to get to our dream scenario. Awkward rear-end sniffing and temper tantrums usually happen before this picture can even occur. It takes time and effort to get your dog in the mindset where they’re relaxed around new people, places, and especially other dogs.
Your puppy’s genetics can’t change and training can come later. Socialization, however, has only a small window of opportunity before it is lost.
Why socializing your puppy is important
Puppy socialization means learning to be part of human society and thus, pet parents have one singular mission – to help their dogs learn to happily live within it.
The puppy socialization period should be a top priority for all pet parents. The ultimate goal is to have a dog that you can take places and introduce to other pets and people without worry. The idea behind socialization is that you want to help your puppy to react to all types of sights, sounds, and smells in a positive way.
You also don’t want to be known as “that person”. Generally, people don’t want their dog’s poor behaviour to reflect poorly on them. Oddly, some don’t care.
When done properly, your dog can learn how to interact positively with other dogs, people and animals. Dogs who are relaxed about honking horns, cats, cyclists, veterinary examinations, crowds are easier and safer to live with than dogs who find these conditions intimidating.
Socializing a puppy a little bit or a whole lot depends on the amount of time you’re prepared to devote. Doing nothing may negatively affect the mental and physical health over your pets’ lifetime.
Lack of socialization can cause:
- Anxiety: Dogs that skip the socialization process regularly exhibit nervousness and stress when encountering an unfamiliar situation, person or animal.
- Aggression: As a member of the ‘pack’, where a dog resides and who they live with are their possessions. They will defend their property should another animal (or human) encroach on their territory. This is baked into their DNA.
- Reactivity: This type of behaviour means they will be difficult to control given a specific environment. The environment may include going to the groomer, the vet clinic (we’re Fear Free Certified – dogs love it here!) or any other pet-friendly area. Not to be confused with aggression, a ‘triggered’ dog will overreact to certain stimuli or situations.
Almost all behavioural issues can be traced back to a combination of insufficient socialization, training, and/or genetics. Unsurprisingly, pets with behaviour problems are more likely to be surrendered to shelters or re-homed before the age of three. As you may imagine, this is super-stressful scenario for adolescent adult dogs. Cats, too!
When should you start socializing your puppy?
New puppy pet parents are keen to get them out into the world as soon as their immune systems allow. In a puppy’s first three months of life, he will experience a socialization period that will forever shape his personality.
The puppy socialization window is limited. They aren’t usually adopted until 8 to 10 weeks old. After about 12 weeks there are diminishing returns on the long-term benefits of puppy socialization. There is a window of about 4 to 14 weeks* of age when it is optimal to initiate the process.
* in our research, there is no exact puppy socialization window. This time frame is an approximation: breeds and environments differ, so it’s safe to assume variations exist within any particular socialization window.
Puppy Socialization during COVID-19
At the Cabbagetown Pet Clinic, we’ve seen a substantial increase in adopted puppies and kittens since the beginning of the pandemic. This is not surprising, as people are working from home and have time to foster a relationship with a new companion.
How does this affect the puppy socialization process?
Most people are doing the right things with respect to protecting each other from COVID-19 when out in public. For pet parents, however, there are legitimate fears for their new pet’s health. One unintended consequence of social distancing measures is that some new puppies may have had limited exposure to another human beings and animals – aside from family members – during a critical time in their development.
Will we see a generation of unruly, reactive and anxious dogs?
It’s anyone’s guess how pets adopted during the pandemic are going to react when pet parents begin a return to their normal routines (?) as the pandemic passes into the history books. There will be lots written about SARS-CoV-2 in the coming years. Only then, will we have a clear picture of the many effects on pets and pet parents.
While it’s important to maintain social distancing from each other, there are ways to safely introduce your dog or puppy to other people and animals in the age of COVID-19:
- Take your dog or puppy for a walk in an area where other people walk. Keep your distance at least 5m away from others and gradually decrease the distance over time as your puppy becomes more confident within the environment.
- Pay close attention to your puppy’s body language. Slow the process down if they appear anxious or fearful and increase the distance from the new experience, if necessary. This could mean starting further away from the action. When the comfort level stabilizes, continue as described above.
- Be overly cautious when meeting new dogs – they may have their own socialization issues. You want your puppy to have consistent and friendly associations with other dogs and people. Have treats at the ready for your puppy when a new person or dog comes into the frame. Don’t forget…verbal praise is greatly encouraged to complement the treats!
At our Fear Free Certified vet clinic, behavioural issues are always given the same level of consideration as a medical concern.
We are very fortunate to have a veterinarian on staff with a special interest in behavioural medicine – Dr. Amanda Low. She’s an expert at building client-puppy relationships and is highly skilled at identifying and preventing emerging behavioural issues.
In addition to the conversations involving all things puppy-related, such as vaccination schedules, preventive healthcare, heartworm and flea control, nutritional advice and spay/neuter considerations, our veterinary hospital incorporates behavioural medicine as part of our holistic healthcare approach.
We’re thankful to all of our clients with new puppies (and kittens!) that trust our animal hospital to give their new pet the best chance at leading a happy and healthy life.