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Socialization: Going Beyond the Tip of the Iceberg

When getting a puppy, socialization is one of the most important things to focus on as this is when puppies are learning how to feel about the world around them. Many people are growing increasingly aware of its importance, but often feel overwhelmed by how to do it correctly, or misunderstand what ideal socialization entails. This can cause gaps in the puzzle to get missed and owners don’t find out about the pitfalls until later on in the dog’s life.

For me, this could be broken down into a familiar framework to cover the basics of understanding how proper socialization is meant to work.

WHO: Puppies.

I often hear owners of adult dogs tell me that they need help socializing their dog. What they mean is likely that their pup may not do very well with other dogs, or that they haven’t been around many and want to make sure that they will be appropriate when they go visit friends or family who also have dogs. In the human world, we consider socialization the act of interacting with other people, usually for the purpose of fun engagements. In dogs, socialization means learning fundamental social skills and true socialization is something that can only be done during a certain age range.

WHAT: Positive and gentle exposure to a wide variety of stimuli.

The idea behind this is not just having your puppy around a few people and a few dogs and then you’re good. It takes active planning to ensure you’re making the most of this time. Going out of your way to let your puppy experience lots of different things so that they build a robust sense of security about the big world around them is key. Socialization should be deliberate and your pup should be supervised and monitored during these experiences to ensure they are comfortable and happy. Any signs of stress or fear should be a signal to actively work at changing or molding their emotional responses with those circumstances that brought them on. It’s not just people and dogs that matter. Different sounds, surfaces, environments, smells, textures, and objects are absolutely on that list. Furthermore, the people and dogs they do get exposed to should vary as well. For example, people of different heights, ethnicities, and ages as well as those wearing things like hats or sunglasses are variations in people that might not seem significant to us but are important for your puppy to experience.

WHEN: During their critical socialization window.

As I mentioned in the “who,” true socialization can only happen during a particular developmental window. This window is from 3 weeks of age to approximately 16 weeks of age. Once this window is in the rearview mirror, socialization as we are speaking of it, is over. Exposures beyond this point, while if done right aren’t a waste, are not the same and will not hold the same impact.

WHERE: Ideally, lots and lots of places.

Seriously. Lots of places. This is part of the name of the game. Taking your pup to explore pet friendly stores in your area, fun visits at the vet’s office for cookies, friends and family’s houses, sniffaris, the list goes on! What we want to concentrate on in this category are places with different sights, sounds, scents, and textures to explore.

WHY: This period of time and what we make of it can heavily shape a dog’s future.

Under-socialization during this timeframe is one of the major culprits of behavior hurdles in dogs later in life. This can arise at any time, but we most commonly see deficits from this in their next developmental period: Adolescence. Adolescence runs from around 6 months of age to 3 years of age. We’re seeing a lot of the impacts from a lack of socialization right now due to puppies obtained during the pandemic. Now that people are making their way back to normal, their dogs are encountering things that they weren’t able to be exposed to during COVID and it’s wreaking havoc on lots of families. While socialization is not the only factor that shapes a dog’s future behavioral health, it’s a big piece of the puzzle and we know what problems not socializing will very likely create. When dogs are undersocialized, they tend to have trouble regulating their stress, fear, and/or anxiety. They may be timid of social situations we view as unreasonable to be wary of, or they may develop stranger danger, reactivity, or fear-based aggression towards people, dogs, cars, or handling. These are just a few of the potential outcomes of under socializing a dog. They can also be outcomes if flooding, AKA forcing a dog to “get used to” something no matter how they’re feeling, is mistaken for socialization.

HOW: This itself could warrant a whole host of other blogs, but for now I’ll lay out the general overview.

You know you want your puppy’s experiences to be positive, but it’s not just about him or her meeting other people and dogs with good intentions. I frequently talk about perception being as good as reality. There’s no more important time to care about your puppy’s perception (whether it aligns with reality or not) than during socialization. Your puppy gets to decide whether something is positive, neutral, or negative so learning the basics of canine body language will be helpful before you start. You can watch our body language series here if you’re interested. If your puppy is showing lots of signals that they are calm, relaxed, or happy then you’re on the right path, but if your puppy is showing signs of discomfort, avoidance, anxiety, stress, or fear, you’ll want to make sure that you give them space. This is not the time to make them face their fears, but instead let them investigate whatever is frightening them from a safe distance that they feel more comfortable with. Make sure you don’t fall into the pitfalls of assuming that because your puppy has been comfortable with everything up to now that they will be fine with everything else. As I’ve said, it’s a big world out there.

When learning about the importance of socialization and the weight it can have, it can become a bit intimidating to tackle for fear of mistakes. Thankfully, there are a ton of resources out there to help guide you through the experiences together. From articles and books to trainers, you can find something that meets your needs so you can learn to enjoy socialization with your puppy.

If you have any questions for us, feel free to reach out.

For information on our socialization programs such as Pup Scouts where we take your puppy on socialization adventures (offered in service areas - a 40 mile radius of Des Moines, Iowa or Wyocena, Wisconsin) and they earn badges for their experiences, or for general questions about socializing your puppy, you can always contact us!

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