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  Puppy Socialization
Copyright 2004, Barbara Long.

All puppies are cute and wonderful. How they grow up depends in part on the socialization to people, places and other dogs that they get during critical developmental stages. Just because you have a happy-go-lucky eight-week old puppy doesn’t mean that he will stay that way unless you help the process along.

Puppies raised in a static environment (even one where their physical needs are met) do not show as much exploratory behavior as puppies reared in a home. This means that pups whelped and brought up in a barn or a backyard with little stimulation may have a more difficult time adjusting to life in a busy family. They may be fearful of new situations and people. As a trainer, I see many dogs whose fear and aggression problems are rooted in their poor socialization as pups.

Ideally you want to adopt a puppy that has been gently handled from birth, gradually exposed to new situations, has had appropriate play training with litter mates and a mom who taught the puppy gently but firmly about bite inhibition. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. You can never totally replace what a pup didn’t get in those early days, but you can make a big difference. If you are a foster parent you have a wonderful opportunity to help the puppies get off to a good start.

Socialization does not mean flooding the puppy with new experiences all at once. It is a gradual, positive process of exposure that encourages confident behavior in the pup. Some breeds need more socialization than others do. Guarding and protection breeds can be aloof and need more people socialization. Herding breeds may be more reactive to sound and movement and will need more work with noises like the vacuum cleaner and dishwasher as well as exposure to kids on bikes and joggers.

Exposure to People

The most important skill for a dog to have is to be good around people. Ian Dunbar MRCVS, believes that a puppy should meet 100 people, at least 20 of them children, before the pup is 12 weeks of age. She should meet both men and women, all races, ages, wearing hats, glasses, carrying bags, backpacks, walking with crutches etc.

You want your puppy to think that she would rather meet new people than do almost anything else. Teach your pup sit for an extra special treat and then have her sit for every new person she sees. Keep giving her treats, verbal praise and petting. The person can also offer her goodies. The presence of the person becomes a predictor that good things are about to happen. Most pups enjoy all the attention. Soon your puppy will seek out new people.

Exposure to Other Puppies

One of the many benefits of attending a puppy class is the opportunity for your dog to learn to learn around other dogs (a major distraction for most pups). Many puppy classes also incorporate puppy play times. These can be a great socialization for your pup if run well. You want your pup to learn good dog skills and practice appropriate canine communication. The play group should be carefully supervised and not just a free for all. Excessive growling and bullying should not be tolerated. Pups should be separated into groups based on age, size and play style. Bully pups should only be allowed to play with adult dogs with good dog skills.

Exposure to Adult Dogs

Care needs to be taken when introducing puppies to adult dogs. An adult dog with good puppy skills is worth their weight in gold when it comes to socialization. The adult should be confident and firm in their interactions with the pups. The worst adult dog for your puppy to play with is one who lets the pups do anything and tolerates all kinds of abuse. While you may think that it is sweet, the puppy learns that he that he doesn’t have to respect anyone and he may learn to play even rougher. You want your puppy to be taught by a confident playful dog that set firm limits. My setter enjoys puppies and will play bow to them. She will even lie on the ground and let them romp with her. However, if a puppy crosses the line and bites her on her lips she tells them in no uncertain terms that they’ve blown it. It usually involves her pinning the pup and growling with no teeth contact. When the puppy submits she lets them up and will continue playing. This is normal behavior.

Location Training

Socialization is a continuous process through out the dog’s life. Some dogs may need more maintenance depending on their personality. Use it or lose it applies in this case. One of the best ways to keep your puppy or young dog on the right track is to take him to safe places.

Set up a socialization plan for your puppy. Don’t think of it as a chore but an adventure for you and your pup. Each trip or visit should have a goal whether it is to introduce the puppy to children, street noises etc. Keep the experience very enjoyable for the puppy. Bring lots of treats and speak to the pup in a happy upbeat tone. Treat and praise confident and exploratory behavior. If your puppy backs up or tries to hide behind your legs, resist the urge to comfort the pup. You will just be rewarding his nervous behavior and encouraging it. Rather be neutral and then move the pup away from the scary person or thing to a point where it no longer elicits fearful behavior from the puppy. Treat and praise the calm behavior. Always end each session on a positive note. Our tendency is to just do a little bit more, push the puppy too hard because we think that it is going well. Quit while you are ahead. You and your puppy can always come back tomorrow and practice some more.

If you follow these guidelines, you can help your puppy off to a great start.

Recommended reading:

Here are a few books that I recommend for puppy owners and foster homes.

What to Do Before You Get Your Puppy
What to Do After You Get Your Puppy
Ian Dunbar

Positive Puppy Training Works
Joel Walton

Taking Care of Puppy Business
Gail Pivar & Leslie Nelson

Puppy Primer
Brenda Scidmore & Patricia McConnell

The Perfect Puppy
Gwen Bailey

All books are available at