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The Importance of Early Puppy Socialization
Nothing is quite as exciting as finding just the right puppy. The next step for most new puppy owners is a shopping trip. You need a crate, dishes, appropriate toys, food . . . well, the list goes on and on.
But, before picking up that pup from the breeder, consider how you are going to make it part of your family. One of the most important aspects of planning for your new pup is often given little thought: early puppy socialization.
What is socialization and why is it so important?
Puppy socialization is the exposure and the experiences you give your pup to help it develop the skills necessary to interact appropriately with two-legged and four-legged critters. Your pup needs to know what is and what is not acceptable behavior when it meets people, dogs and other animals. By exposing your pup through a variety of controlled situations in its early life, you will be helping to insure a calm and confident adult.
Remember: genetics plays an important role in your pup's development of personality, character and temperament. So does the interaction your pup experienced with its dam and littermates. A good breeder will begin the foundation for puppy socialization when pups are only a few days old.
Not all pups are born equal. Some are little bullies, others may be shy or even fearful. A good breeder will ask about your family and training expectations before matching you with a pup.
A pup's temperament is not a clear indicator of what it will be like as an adult. Proper training during the early formative weeks will help build confidence and new skills, as well as overcome potential problem areas.
If your pup repeatedly demonstrates fear or aggression, then you must seek professional help.
Imprinting, Habituation - What Are They?
Many canine behaviorists have developed specific programs and activities that breeders and new owners can do with a puppy. Some call this "habituation" or "puppy programming." Others may call it "early imprinting" and go on to talk about using "a daily socialization calendar." Much of the information is the same, as is the purpose: to expose your pup to a variety of experiences within a controlled and positive environment in order to end up with a dog with stable nerves.
If you are a breeder, or if you desire more information about day-to-day activities for the first 16 weeks of your puppy's life, you may contact your veterinarian for referral to an animal behaviorist who is experienced and knowledgeable. He or she will be able to assess your individual situation and offer a very specific regiment suited to your ultimate training goals.
Is One Exposure Enough?
Puppies learn by repetition. Therefore, one exposure to traffic sounds will not ensure your dog is confident walking on leash down a busy street. You must repeat the experience at regular intervals, especially during the critical adolescent phase of development.
Note: Never begin socialization exercises that require your pup to be on leash, such as walking near traffic or meeting new animals, until the pup has been properly introduced to the leash and is comfortable walking on lead.
Remember: Make socialization work pleasant for both you and your dog. Although repetition is important, socialization lessons must take place over a period of weeks, and be repeated throughout the dog's adolescence. In this instance, a little is good - - and more can lead to disaster. Keep each session short and work on one thing at a time.
NEVER overwhelm the pup.
When you begin obedience training, proofing commands your pup already knows can be added into your adventures. Consistency and long-term repetition will "set" the exercises you've done for early socialization.
A Word of Caution - Fear Periods:
Canine behaviorists know that there are two fear periods during a pup's development. Although they may disagree about the exact dates and their lengths, the general consensus is that the first occurs somewhere between 7-12 weeks and the second about 17-21 weeks. The once confident and outgoing puppy may now be hesitant to approach new people or places. The shy pup may visibly tremble or back away from new experiences. Sensitivity to temperature, noise or rough play may be evident for the first time during a fear period.
Research has shown that this has little to do with when the puppy leaves the litter or with your home environment. Even when the litter is still together, pups will experience fear periods. Your job is to ease your puppy through new situations, rather than overwhelming him or her.
For example: If you want to introduce the pup to mature dogs, select one very calm, leashed, obedience trained dog who has the patience and experience to deal with a wiggling pup. It isn't wise to place your pup in the backyard of a friend or neighbor who has 3 or 4 grown dogs just to see how they will play.
During a fear period, don't over-react and isolate your pup. Instead, limit exposure to events where you can insure success and encourage your pup with praise and rewards. Remember to control the environment and the activities until the pup is once again seeking out new experiences and regaining confidence. And don't forget to praise your pup and hand out lots of treats.
Make certain your timing is correct: praise when the pup is accepting the new situation or person. Never pet, coddle or reward the pup when it is acting fearful - - or you will reinforce the fear-based behavior.
How Do I Begin?
Most breeders will want to keep the pups until after the 7th week. With some breeds, this may be even longer. By then, the pup has learned from its dam and littermates what it means to be a dog. Through play, pups learn about dominance, submission and even mating behaviors. Puppy play also serves to stimulate development of the physical body, the brain and neural network throughout the spinal column, as well as the senses.
Hopefully, your pup has been handled from nose to tail, daily, and has been exposed to a variety of people - children, adults, males and females by the time the pup is placed into your home environment and begins to experience the "real world."
Note: Review your plan for socialization with an experienced trainer or mentor before you start. It is much better to prevent a problem than to accidentally create a behavior that must later be eliminated.
The first twenty-one weeks of a pup's life are critical. Experiences, both positive and negative, can impact the dog for a long, long time. That's why you should not to let this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to socialize your puppy pass by.
Here is a brief outline of activities to begin proper puppy socialization. Before placing your pup with other dogs, be certain to check with your veterinarian about necessary immunizations and precautions to insure continued good health.
WARNING: Canine Parvo Virus is epidemic in some parts of the United States. Be certain to have your pup's complete inoculations prior to exposing it to other dogs and areas, such as parks, where other dogs frequent. Check with your veterinarian for tips to minimize your pup's risk to exposure of any contagious disease.
Basic Socialization Checklist:
Don't forget: a second fear period will pop up somewhere between 17 and 21 weeks. That is the time to reinforce, reward and repeat. And, as you add new experiences, remember to go slowly and keep your sessions short, always ending on a positive note.
This socialization process may sound like a lot of work; but really, it isn't. It is a game plan for having fun with your pup and introducing it to the world it will live in. Being with your pup for training, exploring and bonding is FUN. Remember to carry lots of treats and share them with people your pup will be meeting on these journeys.
Good luck and good training!