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Early Socialization

Updated: Jan 22, 2022

When I am called for a behavioral evaluation most of the time it is for aggression. The big question is what type of aggression is it? Most of the time I see fear aggression from the lack of socialization or poor genetics. Fear aggression in dogs is a form of self-defense and may be expressed toward people, other animals or even objects. When a dog feels threatened, they may use body language or behaviors to drive the threat away, increasing the distance between themselves and the threat. A frightened dog may freeze, flee and/or fight. My first two questions I ask the family are 1) Where did you purchase the dog? 2) Tell me about the parents if you can. Responsible breeders do their part and socialize puppies to a variety of sounds, smells, textures, animals, and people during the puppies first 8 weeks. This gives families a good jump start on socialization. Families still have to do their part! If I am told that one or both parents were fearful or aggressive then I can assume that part of the behavioral issue is genetic. Unfortunately, genetics cannot be change, so we can only manage the fear. If I hear the parents had good temperaments then I move on the ask the family how they socialized their puppy. There's always a reason why a dog is scared, but sometimes it takes some digging. A fearful dog could be from the family failing to socialize properly, the puppy was exposed to a traumatic experience, maybe we found aggression further in the pedigree and it showed up a couple generations later. The list goes on, but mainly the answer is right there in front of us and it's from poor socialization, genetics, or both.

Most assume this sweet puppy will learn to love everyone that comes over and be ready to go wherever they take this puppy. In reality, it doesn't work that way. In the beginning, you may notice a little hesitation in new environments which is normal. Encourage your puppy it's okay and keep working in that environment. Puppies need to be socialized at home and outside the home. For example if you keep your puppy home for a year then decide to go to the park, the dog is going to be scared. You may not even able to get the dog in the car and drive down the road. If you can, then once you arrive at the park the dog is on high alert, jumps often, might even bark, growls, or has a complete melt down and won't move. Why? You have failed to socialize your dog to new environments. Your dog now only feels comfortable at home. It is a long recovery for a fearful dog. As you continue to read, I will discuss the basics of puppy socialization.

The sensitive period for socialization in dogs is three weeks to six months. This is the time in your puppy's life when she is curious about new things and ready to meet and bond with people. It's important to take advantage of this development stage so you can teach your puppy that people, dogs, and environments are safe. Also, keep in mind your puppy goes through two or three fear stages during the first 18 months. Once the development window closes, your puppy's default behavior will be to fear anything new. Ideally, you want to expose your puppy to a variety of environments, sounds, textures, people, animals, structures, and everything in-between by the time the puppy reaches 6 months of age.

The more positive experiences you provide for your puppy during the critical period, the happier and less fearful your pup will be when she confronts new things in the future. Give your puppy plenty of positive experiences so that she can learn that the world and people are fun and interesting. Intensive socialization should continue throughout the pup's first year.

A great way to introduce your puppy to other dogs, people, objects, and environments is to enroll in a puppy socialization and training class such as AKC S.T.A.R Puppy. These classes provide a safe and fun space for you and your puppy to explore together and develop a strong bond. You can most definitely socialize the puppy on your own, but be sure to take the puppy out on a regular basis. You should be taking your puppy out a couple times a week. Once every couple weeks will not benefit your puppy.

Training Your Pup to Enjoy Handling

The first step in socialization is teaching your puppy to enjoy the kinds of handling that will be necessary for her everyday care, as well as hugs and cuddles.  What many people don’t realize is that most dogs don’t naturally enjoy being hugged.  However, they can learn to not only tolerate, but to like being held close.

Start by getting your puppy used to every position that she might potentially be held in.  While you hold your pup, give her treats to reward her and distract her if she starts to struggle.  Avoid letting her go when she struggles.  Rather, release her when she relaxes.  It’s important to support the puppy well while you are doing these exercises.  These activities will teach your dog to be the perfect patient at your veterinarian’s office.

Practice grooming your pup, cleaning her eyes, clipping her nails, brushing her teeth, and grabbing her tail.  Always provide plenty of treats when you are first doing these exercises.  Don’t forget to take treats along to your pup’s veterinary and grooming appointments!  Be sure that everyone who will be involved in your pup’s care does these exercises with her.  Remember to hold your puppy so that she feels secure, and use food to distract her from struggling and provide a positive association.

Train Your Puppy that Having Her Collar Grabbed is Fun

We often grab dog’s collars to get them out of trouble.  Many dogs are scared by this sudden grabbing and become fearful or turn their heads to bite the hand holding the collar.  Teach your dog a “gotcha” collar grab so she learns that having her collar grabbed is fun or "okay."  To do this, grab her collar and use it to gently guide her towards a special treat.  You will build a positive association between the collar grab and the food so that your puppy will react happily to being grabbed in the future.  You’ll know that you’ve been successful when your pup reacts to the collar grab by looking to you for a treat.

Providing Positive Experiences with All Kinds of People

The experiences must be positive, not just neutral or negative.  Have unfamiliar people feed your puppy treats while she greets them.  Be sure that your puppy looks happy and relaxed during these interactions.

Prevent your puppy from learning the bad habit of jumping on kids and guests by having her sit and feeding her a continuous stream of treats.  Once your puppy is staying seated reliably, you can decrease the rate of treat delivery.Your puppy should meet men, women, kids, people wearing hats, tall people, people with deep voices and, well, you get the idea.  It is important that your puppy be socialized to people of all kinds, as her reaction to one individual may be different than her reaction to another individual.

Providing Positive Experiences with Well-Behaved Dogs

Just as it is important for your puppy to meet many different people, it is essential that your puppy is given positive experiences with many different dogs.  Make sure that she interacts only with dogs who behave appropriately with puppies.  For example, do not force her to interact with a large dog who continually pounces on her.  If you do, she may become fearful and defensively aggressive towards other dogs.  Set up playdates with vaccinated, well-behaved dogs so that your puppy has positive associations with members of her own species.  Avoid allowing her to play with dogs who are too rough so that she does not learn to play in an overly aggressive manner.  Also avoid dogs who pounce on and scare her, or who pester her when she tries to get away.

At the same time, be sure that your puppy does not pester the other dog.  Some dogs like to play a little, but not as much or as often as a puppy.  Puppies can learn from older dogs’ body language when they are being inappropriate.  A raised lip can tell a puppy to back off.  It’s important to teach your puppy that when the other dog raises his lip, roars, or snaps, your puppy should leave him alone and come back to you when you call her.

Recognizing Fear and Anxiety in Your Pup

When socializing your puppy or adult dog, it is important to recognize signs that she is fearful or anxious.  Your pup must have a positive experience to make the socialization experience a good one.  Some signs to watch for include:

  • Holding the ears out to the side or back, accompanied by a furrowed brow.

  • Licking the lips in the absence of food.

  • Not eating, even special treats.Yawning when not tired.

  • Panting when not hot or thirsty.

  • Acting sleepy or lethargic, and moving slowly

  • Cowering.  The dog leans away with his head and body lowered and his muscles tense.  He averts his gaze to avoid confrontation.  The dog may show the whites of his eyes (whale eye).  His ears may be flat against his head, and his tail tucked.

If you see any of these body postures, put more distance between your puppy and the thing that is scaring her.  Tell her how brave she is when she begins to relax, then end your socialization session for the day.

Providing your pup with socialization experiences is one of the best things you can do for her.  These early experiences will help your pup develop into a confident and happy dog.  Shelter dogs that people think were abused were often simply under-socialized. Lack of socialization can result in fear of people, other dogs, and changes in the environment.

Though the critical window for socialization closes around four months of age, it is vital that newly-adopted adult dogs be given the kinds of experiences described above.  In some cases, you must progress more slowly as you introduce your dog to new things.  There is evidence that socialization may not be as easy or successful for fearful adult dogs, but this should not discourage you from doing everything you can to provide your dog with positive experiences.

Our puppies are exposed to a variety of sounds, smells, textures, animals, children, other animals, and car rides.

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