When you bring home a tiny, vulnerable ball of fluff, you want to cuddle your new puppy nonstop, carry them everywhere, and protect them from the world. But, sheltering your new pup can do more harm than good. In fact, your puppy’s critical socialization window—from 3 to 14 weeks of age—is the best time for them to encounter as many new people, places, and things as possible to gain confidence. If you have already missed your puppy’s critical window, don’t fret—socialization is a lifelong process, and you can still help your pup learn that new experiences are fun.
Dogs who are not properly socialized as puppies tend to be fearful and reluctant to approach new people, navigate novel terrains, or romp with different dogs. Rather than having a traumatic past, as people often assume, they likely were not introduced to new experiences as a puppy, and became comfortable only with their limited surroundings. Socialization is essential to help your puppy grow into a confident, friendly dog who will be comfortable in all situations, so our Star of Texas Veterinary Hospital team wants to share their top five tips for successful socialization.
#1: Introduce your puppy to new experiences
When you see a dog bark at a man wearing a hat, do you assume they were previously mistreated by a man wearing a hat? Or, when you see a dog strain at their leash and bark incessantly at passing dogs, do you assume they are aggressive? More likely, these dogs are fearful of strange people or other animals because they were never taught differently. To show your puppy that new experiences are fun, and not frightening, you must expose them to as many novel situations as possible, including:
- People — Introduce your puppy to as many different people as possible, including:
- People of varying heights, including tall people
- People with different skin colors
- People with canes, walkers, and wheelchairs
- Animals — Introducing your pup to different animals is tricky, since their critical socialization period coincides with their puppy vaccination schedule, when they are most vulnerable to infectious diseases. Once your puppy is fully vaccinated, at approximately 16 weeks, you can safely take them to dog parks, the pet store, and for puppy playdates.
- Sounds — Prevent your dog from hiding behind the couch every time you run the vacuum by exposing them to a variety of loud sounds, including cars, appliances, and noisy children.
- Places — After your puppy is fully vaccinated, you have the green light to take them with you to the park, an outdoor cafe, a friend’s house, or the pet store. The more places you can take your pup, the better socialized they will become.
- Terrains — Walk your puppy over a variety of textures and ground coverings, such as mulch, pavement, sewer grates, and slippery floors. If your home does not have stairs, visit a friend who does, and coax your puppy to walk up and down.
#2: Make each new experience positive for your puppy
The trick to helping your puppy understand that new experiences are fun is to pair each situation with a positive reward. When your puppy allows a child to pet them, shower them with praise, and give them a small treat. Do the same when your puppy navigates the stairs, meets other dogs, and walks by the washing machine during the spin cycle. Carry training treats at all times, so you are always ready with positive reinforcement in a new situation. When you walk through the park, ask people to offer your puppy a treat, so your pup becomes excited to meet new people, instead of cowering behind you, or barking aggressively.
#3: Train your puppy to be confident at home
Good socialization is not only about your puppy confidently interacting with other animals and people—they must also become comfortable being alone. Separation anxiety is a common issue, and affected dogs become extremely stressed when they are left alone or separated from the person they most trust. To prevent this debilitating behavior problem, crate train your puppy at an early age. Set up a crate with a cozy bed and a few favorite toys, and place treats inside several times a day, so your puppy learns to go in and out with ease. After several days, close the door, and leave your puppy in their crate for a few minutes while you are home. Work up to longer periods, until you can eventually leave your puppy while you run errands or go to work. When you will be gone for an extended period, toss your puppy a long-lasting treat, such as a Kong stuffed with frozen kibble and peanut butter, so they don’t notice your departure.
#4: Prepare your puppy for successful veterinary visits
A veterinary visit can be stressful for your puppy whose feet have never been touched, their mouth opened, or ears handled. To prep your pup for a fear-free visit, handle your puppy each day, mimicking the way they will be handled during a physical exam. Wrap your arms around your puppy and gently restrain them, lift their paws and gently touch their toes, open their mouth, and handle their ears. Better still—bring your pup to Star of Texas Veterinary Hospital for a victory visit, where we prepare them for a physical exam, vaccines, and other procedures without actually performing them, all the while lavishing them with praise and treats. You can also bring in your puppy for happy visits, where we show them around our hospital and introduce them to our crew, so they will not be coming to a new place with strangers when they come for their actual visit.
#5: Be patient with your puppy
Every puppy is different—some will eagerly approach new situations, while others will be more hesitant. Whatever your puppy’s personality, be patient as they encounter new experiences, and let them move at their own pace. Forcing your puppy to approach a stranger or play with another dog may reinforce their fear, and make them less likely to accept the situation next time. Your small pup may not get closer than six feet from your neighbor’s rambunctious Lab, but still focus on positive reinforcement and small victories. If you make every situation positive, you puppy will eventually come around.
If you recently adopted a new puppy, make a visit to our Star of Texas Veterinary Hospital their first outing. We would love to help you start your puppy off on the right paw—schedule an appointment for their first exam, a victory visit, or happy visit.