Odds are, if you have a puppy you’ve had everyone tell you how important it is to socialize the puppy early on.. But, what is socialization? And, how do we make sure we do it right?
The truth is, there’s a big misconception these days that in order to socialize our puppies we need to have them meet and play with as many other dogs as possible.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Forcing our puppies into interacting with strangers and their dogs might end up okay… but it can also take you down two paths you don’t want to go down.
The first is that our puppies become over-excited about meeting new people and dogs. Well, this sounds ok, right?
That is, until your adult dog now pulls you down the sidewalk towards every person they see and isn’t able to pay any attention to you because everyone else around them is more interesting. This can also create a dog who doesn’t understand that not every dog wants to be greeted. The truth is, dogs who run up to and charge into the faces of dogs they don’t know are showing rude dog behavior. And while many dogs are trained to accept this, there are also many who won’t. In order to keep our dogs safe, we need to teach them to respect the space of strangers.
The other thing that can happen is that our dogs may become nervous or fearful of greetings. See, just like us humans not all dogs are a “people person”. Some dogs genuinely don’t enjoy being petted by strangers. And that’s ok. Now, this doesn’t mean it's ok for our dogs to growl or lunge at people out in public. Absolutely not, it’s our job to teach them the skills to be polite and well-mannered. However, it’s also our job to advocate for our dogs.
If our dogs are uncomfortable having their personal space invaded by strangers, yet we allow it to happen, this can create a situation where your dog becomes fearful of every person they see because they’re worried that “it’s going to happen again”. They may also feel like they have no control of the situation, and this can often lead to reactivity or fear aggression.
Your goal for your dog should be that they are comfortable and at ease around new people and dogs, but also that they can trust you to advocate for their safety and personal space. After all, our dogs do not exist for the entertainment and enjoyment of others.
What we should be trying to do with our puppies is more about exposure. We want to try to show them as many new places, sounds, environments, smells, and textures under their paws as possible. Think about all their senses - Sight, Smell, Sound and Touch.
Dogs weren’t meant to only ever live inside our backyards. We want to show them as many new and safe things as possible when they’re young so that new things aren’t so scary when they’re older. Here’s some ideas to get you started.
When our puppies are young it’s important to show them the world and all of it’s strange sounds and people. We want to make sure to avoid places that can be hazardous to their health, but we also want to make sure we start early. Stay away from dog parks.
Take your puppy with you to the local pet-friendly hardware store, your favorite brewery patio, or even just to sit on a bench at your local neighborhood park to people-watch. You want them to be able to hear the noises of traffic, children playing, squirrels in the trees, shopping carts… anything you can think of that they wouldn’t usually hear inside your house. Watching all the people go by, without the interaction, will also help them get used to men, women, children, hats, backpacks, etc. And because they aren’t forced to interact, these people just become… normal. Not over-exciting and not scary, just normal.
While on your walks, let them sniff all the (safe) new smells and pay attention to your surroundings. Try to find a new texture to get under their feet. Sand, gravel, woodchips, metal grates in the sidewalk. Get them used to the environment around them.
When you’re out and about with your puppy it’s also important to look out for them. Keep an eye on your surroundings and try to avoid any situations that can seem scary to your puppy. Your puppy is in a critical stage of development and even if something really isn’t scary, if they perceive it as such it can leave a lasting impact.
If your puppy seems unsure of something, don’t force them to move closer in an effort to “get them used to it.” Let them explore and investigate at their own pace. Puppies find the strangest things new and unusual. When my German Shepherd was a puppy he thought orange traffic cones were something to be growled at, but we let him explore on his own and he quickly learned that they don’t really mean much at all.
No. All this means is you shouldn’t let everyone pet your puppy. Family and friends are a big part of your life, and they’ll be a part of your puppy’s life too. We want your puppy to get used to being handled and pet by other people. People whom you know and are familiar with are fantastic. But strangers who we don’t know have no need to be so hands-on.
Yes, your puppy is awfully cute and who can resist that adorable face - but remember, we want our dogs to grow up to be neutral towards other people. Comfortable, but not excited or afraid.
Right away! Just like human children, our puppies go through developmental stages as they grow up. The same time we bring our new puppies home is the ideal time to get started with showing them the world at their own pace.
Now, there are some things we need to consider. Most puppies aren’t fully vaccinated until 16 weeks of age, so we want to make sure we aren’t taking them to places like dog parks where they could contract something from another dog. But, we also don’t want to miss out on our prime opportunity to build their confidence in the world. If you have concerns about safety please always reach out to your trainer or veterinarian to discuss the best places to start socializing.