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Off to the right start:
Puppies and the critical period of socialization

The greatest window of learning in a dog’s life starts – and finishes – early:  it opens around 3 weeks of age and closes between 16-20 weeks.  This period allows puppies to be exposed to a wide variety of sights, sounds, smells and sensations without becoming fearful.  Why does this matter?  Because puppies who miss out on these experiences may never learn to be comfortable around unfamiliar things, paving the way for anxiety, fear and aggression later on in life.  While socializing puppies takes time and effort, such efforts are well-spent and can be very enjoyable at the same time.  Follow these steps to give your puppy the best start possible:

  1. Handling:  Young puppies should be cuddled and handled daily by as many different people as possible.  Keep the contact gentle and pleasant for the pup.  Hold the puppy in different positions (never harsh or punitive positions), gently finger her feet, rub her muzzle, stroke her back and sides, look in her ears…try to handle the pup’s body in as many ways as possible.  This is done most easily when the puppy is very young, before her eyes and ears are fully open (7-10 days from birth), but can also be accomplished in the first 1-2 months.
  2. Sound sensitivity:  Acclimate your puppy to lots of different sounds, being careful not to overwhelm him with too much noise too fast.  Expose him to kitchen sounds, telephones ringing, children playing, sportscasters yelling on TV, radios playing, buses moving by and so on.  
  3. Food bowl exercises:  Teach your puppy to enjoy having people approach her bowl while she’s eating.  How?  Walk up to your pup during her dinner-time, drop an even-tastier treat into her bowl and walk away.  Repeat (once or twice during each meal) until puppy is visibly excited about your approach.  Walk up, pick up her bowl, put in a treat, give bowl back, walk away.  These exercises are designed to prevent resource-guarding, which occurs when dogs feel anxious about others approaching their own valued resources. 
  4. Teach your puppy to be alone:  Puppies must learn to tolerate being alone (completely separate from other people and animals) each and every day so as to avoid developing separation anxiety later in life.  For details on how to proceed, click here.
  5. Prevent aggression:  There is no need to “show the dog who’s boss” or try to “dominate” him.  This includes pinning the dog down, “scruffing” him or popping his leash.  Confrontational approaches like these frequently backfire and create the very aggression dogs owners seek to avoid.  Focus on rewarding correct behavior and preventing undesirable behavior to teach your puppy human rules and build a trusting relationship.
  6. Socialization:  Expose your pup to at least five new people every day, keeping the interactions pleasant and unthreatening.  Focus especially on setting up pleasant encounters with unfamiliar men and well-behaved children.  Also expose the puppy to different surfaces, textures and objects.  Margaret Hughes’ handout, “The Puppy’s Rule of Twelve”, provides a handy checklist for such activities!
  7. Bite inhibition:  Provide plenty of appropriate toys to redirect puppy mouths to appropriate outlets.  Remember that this is how puppies explore their world…don’t take it personally!  When puppies bite too hard during play, making a sudden noise (“Ow!”) and ending the game will help them learn to use their mouths gently.  Never squeeze puppies’ mouths shut, yell at them or hold them down:  this will frighten them and likely make biting worse!

This material is copyright of Animal Humane Society and can only be used with written permission.

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