Of all the things you can do for your new puppy, socialization is probably the most important. Introducing your puppy to different sights, sounds, people, animals, and places in a positive way can help your dog form positive associations that will last a lifetime. And timing is crucial. The younger the puppy is, the better. Up until she is about 4 months old, there’s a window of opportunity in which your pup is more accepting of what she comes across. This is called the critical socialization window. After that, it can be more difficult to introduce her to new things.
One of the most important things to remember is that you can’t rush this process and flood your dog with an overwhelming amount of new sights and sounds at one time. Slowly introducing your pup to these new sensations will prevent your dog from forming a negative association to something. In other words, don’t turn on the vacuum cleaner and start moving it when the puppy is right there. And don’t shove your puppy’s face into another dog’s face the first time they meet. Do it slowly, step by step. Because it’s just as easy for a dog to form a negative association to something that can last a lifetime. Observation of something from a distance is the best way to start socializing your puppy. Slowly start desensitizing her to new things while watching for her reactions. If she’s shows distress, you’ve gone too fast.
Easy steps to successful socialization
In my experience, if done right, socializing your pup can be loads of fun. I mean, who doesn’t want to meet a young puppy? I’ve always loved showing off my dogs to new people. But there are a few key rules to follow that will make this experience go much more smoothly.
1. Pair new experiences with treats. Most dogs love treats and are easily motivated by them. So when you encounter a new situation that you want your dog to acclimate to, give her some treats so she creates a positive association with the new stimulus.
2. Try to get it right the first time. If the encounter doesn’t go well the first time, it’s going to be harder to undo that negative association your pup has formed and turn it into a positive one.
3. Timing is everything. The second something new happens and your puppy first notices it, reward her so she makes a positive association with the stimulus. So if the lawnmower is about to be turned on, creating an unpleasant noise to your pup, reward her the second it goes on so she begins to associate the loud lawnmower with treats.
4. Think baby steps. You have to advocate for your new puppy so judge the situation before you bring your puppy into it. Read her body language and be prepared to create distance if your pup shows fear. I’ve had clients that have used the “throw your kid in the pool so he’ll learn how to swim” approach and have created the most fearful dogs I’ve had to train. It can take literally months to years to undo a bad association, if at all.
5. Find a reputable puppy class in your area. Letting your dog meet new pups and humans in a controlled environment like a class versus a dog park is a great way to make a giant leap forward in terms of socializing your puppy.
Planes, trains, and automobiles … what social experiences should my puppy have?
So maybe you don’t need to worry about planes and trains, but automobiles, yes. Bring your pup securely in your car as often as you can. Be aware of the temperature if you need to leave your pup in the car, but start with short rides. Most dogs end up loving their car rides and go nuts when they hear the jingle of the keys. What are some the other experiences your pup should have? Think people, places, sounds, animals, and objects. Your backyard, your neighborhood, your friends, children, strangers, the vet’s office, the groomer, other dogs, cats, vacuum cleaners, the mailman, the garbage truck, busy urban streets … the list goes on. Think of everything your dog is likely to encounter on a regular basis and start the process of desensitizing her to those experiences using the method described in step 1 above. And have fun with it! Aim to give your pup about 5 new experiences a day and she’ll be off to a great start that will last a lifetime.
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