Eileen Koval, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA
Puppy socialization has always been an important topic, but even more so during the last year when southern Nevada has experienced a parvovirus outbreak. Some owners, out of fear and sometimes following the guidance of local rescue groups, have forgone socialization completely until after their puppies have received all of their shots at sixteen weeks. This may be a conservative choice, but skipping puppy socialization is harmful. A fair percentage of fear and aggression cases involving adult dogs that come across my desk could very possibly have been prevented by undertaking good socialization before the dog reached twelve weeks of age. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) states that the risk of contracting a disease such as parvovirus during this three month period is very small compared to the risk of death later in life from a major behavior issue if socialization is skipped.
What is socialization anyway? Socialization is where a puppy explores the world at his/her own pace -- new people, new dogs, new smells, new sounds -- and learns how to safely and effectively navigate their way through it all. Socialization does not mean that your puppy must learn to accept petting from all strangers, or that your puppy must like every dog. It is OK if your puppy would prefer to watch from a distance. It is also OK if your puppy likes to be with people more than other dogs. What a puppy learns with socialization is that he is safe in this world, that he has the freedom to choose whether to interact or not. He learns that if he does not want to interact with a person or dog, he can simply offer cues that he is uncomfortable, or simply turn away and leave the interaction. A puppy learns how to navigate these situations without aggression or excessive fear. A puppy learns confidence.
Why must socialization be done before 12 weeks? The socialization period from three weeks to twelve weeks (sometimes sixteen weeks) is a period where puppies' are more open to new experiences with less fear, and these experiences shape their approach to future situations in a permanent way. Socialization affects puppies' overall disposition and approach to stimuli that they will encounter in their everyday environments. Undersocialized puppies can take many forms. As adult dogs, may be highly anxious in new situations, fearful of strange people/dogs/noises/environments. This fear could come out as aggression, over-excitement, or avoidance. After this window, puppies feelings on these situations have been formed and are more resistant to change.
How can I safely socialize my puppy in a positive way? Invite friends and family over to your home -- but not too many at one time! Similarly, you should take your puppy to other people's homes if their dogs are vaccinated and healthy. This minimizes the risk of contracting illness. Introducing them to a variety of new environments is ideal. Exposure to as many people of different sizes, ages, shapes, ethnicities, and clothing choices are encouraged. Puppies can approach people for food or toys, but should not be forced to do so. Fearful puppies can be encouraged by rewarding them with a high value treat when they look at a stranger. Sometimes, pairing a fearful puppy with a confident vaccinated dog who they know and trust (another dog in your home, or a friend's dog) can help your puppy to explore new situations with a little more confidence.
Public places can be safe if your puppy does not come into contact with dirty surfaces. Going to Lowes or Home Depot with your puppy on a blanket in a shopping cart, stroller, or purse can work to help socialize them. Public places that do not have many dogs and do not have dog poop are safer. Avoid parks, dog parks, and pet stores. That said, many pet stores have puppy socials each week where they sanitize the floors prior to puppies coming to the stores. Be sure to call your local pet stores to inquire about this.
Puppies should initially meet one-on-one with calm , friendly, vaccinated dogs or other healthy puppies of similar size with similar play drives and styles. Have them come to your home so your puppy is not exposed to public surfaces that could have disease from unknown dogs, coyotes, or other animals. Always step in if your puppy seems overwhelmed and his need for space if not being respected. Your puppy should ALWAYS be able to get away. If he cannot, then the situation is flooding, not socialization. Remember that if your puppy is trying to signal that he is uncomfortable and it is not being respected, he may see other dogs as a bad thing. He may also skip those signals in the future and jump to a signal that may be more effective, such as biting, since the more subtle signals did not work to help him escape a stressful situation. The common belief that "dogs will work it out" rarely holds true in a way that we would like. They may work it out, but in a way involving teeth, or in a way that leaves one dog emotionally damaged and changed in how they approach dogs in the future. If your puppy is comfortable in his meetings with calm dogs, try pairing him with higher energy dogs of similar size. It is OK if your dog does not care to play with the other dogs. Learning how to convey that to other dogs is important for your puppy.
How much socialization is enough? Well, that is a tough one that no one can really answer. It depends on your dog, his breed, his genetics, and him as an individual. Puppies of breeds that are predisposed to shyness or a dislike of strangers/dogs may need more exposure to these things to feel comfortable around them. Exposing them to as much variety as possible (as many different people/dogs/environments/noises/etc) in a fun and positive way is ideal. If they never meet a tall man wearing a hat, they may be suspicious of people who look like that in the future. They may be afraid of places outside the home if they are only socialized inside the home. They may only like small dogs if they never meet large dogs. These are examples of why variety and giving your puppy the choice of whether to engage are the keys to good socialization.
Here is a link to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior's position statement on puppy socialization. It is filled with helpful information for new puppy owners. https://avsab.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Puppy_Socialization_Position_Statement_Download_-_10-3-14.pdf