Dog owners all over the world know it: socialization is indispensable. Exposing your young puppy to new sights and sounds every day is not only possible, but essential in raising a behaviorally healthy dog. Though a dog’s sensitive period of socialization typically ends around 4-5 months, owners must continue their good work for at least the first year (though, ideally, for the rest of the dog’s life!). Failing to do so can actually undo the progress made in those critical early weeks. Keep the following tips in mind along the way:
Keep introducing Fido to new people. This is critical! Trainer Jean Donaldson has written about the “use it or lose it” clause in a dog’s socialization history: dogs only remain social when continually exposed to unfamiliar people. Too many owners thoroughly socialize their young puppies (taking them to Puppy Kindergarten, having strangers feed them, etc.) and stop when the dogs reach 5-6 months of age. They are then surprised – to say the least – when the dog lunges at the mail carrier or growls at the new neighbor raking his lawn. Continual, pleasant exposure to new people keeps that vital response – that strangers are good news – in the forefront of the dog’s mind.
Many people assume that dogs are “nice” unless someone mishandles them: in reality, dogs are hardwired to be cautious of people unless they are taught otherwise. It is up to the dog’s owner to constantly teach the dog to associate new people with nice things, such as food.
Continue the dog’s socialization with other dogs. There are lots of ways to do this: dog parks, play groups, “play dates” with friends’ dogs and simple leash walks can all help accomplish this. Without such experience, dogs can lose their ability to “read” other dogs or know how to behave appropriately around them. If your dog is on leash, keep all interactions pleasant and appropriate: do not allow strangers to let their leashed dog jump on yours, risking a dangerous and scary situation! A quick sniff coupled with praise and treats, if desired, can go a long way to keeping Fido comfortable around other dogs. Note: do not bring aggressive dogs, or those with a bite history, to play activities to “socialize” them…this is an entirely different situation, calling for specialist help!
Vary your walking routes. Try to avoid taking the same walking route every day. Drive to a different neighborhood when possible. Let your dog experience a variety of environments, from sidewalks to walking paths, from dirt roads to concrete, from busy lake paths to tranquil woods trails. This will be more interesting for both of you, and provide your growing dog with much-needed mental stimulation.
Keep teaching your dog to be alone. One can’t emphasize this enough! The simple act of scheduling daily alone-time – with neither people nor other pets nearby – is critical to preventing the nightmare and heartbreak of separation anxiety. Use baby gates and crates, if necessary, to prevent your dog from shadowing you constantly when you are home. Ask a friend to pet-sit now and then for an hour, and ask how your dog did. If your dog doesn’t practice being away from you, she will never learn how to do it.
Never punish a scared dog. Remember that most displays of aggression – growling, snapping, etc. – are the result of fear. Many owners are caught off-guard when their formerly easy-going pup reacts fearfully to a new dog or person. However, this change coincides with the end of the sensitive period of socialization. Starting around five months of age, dogs may interpret anything unfamiliar as a threat: they will typically either flee or confront what frightens them. Punishing this reaction will only confirm their fear, so simply remove the dog from the situation and ask for a different behavior (like “sit”). Going forward, let the dog decide whether or not she wants to approach the new person/dog: do not allow them to approach her if she appears uncomfortable.
Continue handling your dog. Make sure Fido remains comfortable with different parts of his body being handled. This will ensure that if he must be handled in an emergency (by yourself or veterinary staff) he will be less likely to bite. Please note that a dog that tolerates handling does not necessary like it, especially if the handlers are children. Be on the watch for a stiffly-held body, whites of the eyes showing (“whale eye”), a closed mouth and escape attempts: if you see these signs, stop handling your dog. Call the Training School right away for assistance with desensitization and counter-conditioning.
None of this is to minimize the importance of the primary socialization period: dogs that miss out on these activities during their first four months may never mature into behaviorally healthy dogs. It is just as important, however, to keep up the good work for as long as possible. While there are never guarantees in animal behavior, proper long-term socialization can set our dogs up for success in the best way possible.
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