How Do I Socialize My New Puppy?
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Becoming a puppy parent is one of the most exciting things you can do.
And as you prep for your new pup, you keep hearing about puppy socialization and how important it is.
But what is it, exactly?
The Dodo spoke with Iris Ulbrich, a behavior consultant and owner of Trust Your Dog in Los Angeles, to find out everything you need to know about puppy socialization.
What is puppy socialization?
No, this doesn’t mean turning your puppy into the most popular dog at puppy class.
“Socializing your puppy is more than just making sure they get along with humans and dogs,” Ulbrich told The Dodo. “It includes safely exposing a young dog to outside stimuli, such as sounds, scents, motion, inanimate objects and different environments.”
Part of this means getting your puppy comfortable with things that could spook her — like that big, loud, scary vacuum of yours.
It also includes familiarizing her with all sorts of touches, textures, objects and sounds.
Why puppy socialization is important
It’s crucial to socialize your puppy because it allows her to create positive associations with the things around her so she isn’t afraid of them as she gets older — which will make her happier, but also help avoid related behavior issues (like fear-based aggression).
“Enabling a puppy to navigate the world without triggering any fight or flight responses later on in life [is the goal of puppy socialization],” Ulbrich said.
For example, getting her comfortable with being touched and handled could help make her less afraid of trips to the groomer or visits with the vet.
“I always ask people to imagine a toddler being dropped in the middle of Times Square, after being locked up for the first few years of its life,” Ulbrich explained. “The child would be completely overwhelmed and in shock.”
That’s what socialization is for — to prevent those feelings of being shocked and overwhelmed.
When is the puppy socialization window?
“The puppy [socialization] period is usually between 3 and 16 weeks,” Ulbrich said. “It is crucial to work within that window.”
That’s because this puppy socialization period overlaps with a very important time in your pup’s brain development, when the impressions and associations she makes will really last and shape her personality.
If you miss the puppy socialization window, it could make it harder for her to make positive associations with her environment and the things in it.
“Improper or missed socialization during the first few months of a dog’s life can lead to behavioral issues later on, such as fear, avoidance and aggression,” Ulbrich explained.
But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost!
You can still create good associations for your puppy outside that window with some positive reinforcement training.
There are also ways you can socialize an older dog, too.
How to socialize a puppy
If you adopt a pup who’s still in that socialization window, you’re probably wondering just how to socialize a puppy.
Here’s what you should do.
Make a puppy socialization checklist
A puppy socialization checklist is a great way to keep track of all the things you want to get your puppy comfortable with, especially since it might feel like you have a lot to do in a limited window.
“I recommend making a socializing list, putting it on the refrigerator and every day ticking off at least a handful of items on that list,” Ulbrich said. “In total, the dog should be appropriately exposed to every item on the list at least three times each.”
Not sure what sorts of things to put on a puppy socialization checklist?
According to Ulbrich, it should include categories like:
This list should also include things your puppy will be exposed to or interact with pretty regularly throughout her life so she’s not afraid of them every time she comes across them.
These could be things like:
Use desensitization and counterconditioning
Making the checklist is just the first step — here’s where the actual journey begins.
In order to make sure your puppy builds good associations with her world (and everything in it), you’re going to want to use techniques like desensitization and counterconditioning.
Desensitizing is when you’re gradually getting your puppy used to something, usually in stages.
For example, if you’re getting her acquainted with the vacuum, start off by making sure she’s completely comfortable with it when it’s unplugged and off.
From there you would get her used to it plugged in and turned off, then plugged in and turned on and finally plugged in, turned on and moving around the room.
You could even include a stage where the vacuum is plugged in and off, but you’re pushing it around so she gets used to the motion.
The important thing is to do these introductions gradually so your pup doesn’t get overstimulated or scared.
Counterconditioning is when you’re using rewards (usually treats) to get your puppy to actually have good associations with something she finds frightening.
To really make those associations stick, you should reward your pup for even the slightest progress.
In the vacuum example, that includes everything from looking at the vacuum, to moving towards the vacuum, sitting near the vacuum, sniffing the vacuum and even interacting with the vacuum.
What you need for puppy socialization
Since this is a treat-heavy process, you’re going to need a bunch on hand — look for smaller treats so you can give them more freely.
And since you’re going to want these treats on you at all times, Ulbrich recommends getting a treat pouch as well, so you can carry goodies everywhere.
Since your puppy’s still young and probably hasn’t gotten all his vaccines yet, it’s also important to try to avoid exposing him to too many germs as you take him to new places.
“[Pet parents should also get] a clean blanket to take somewhere to make sure the puppy can be placed somewhere safely to avoid catching anything in case the second round of shots hasn’t been administered yet,” Ulbrich said.
With these tips, you should be well on your way to socializing your puppy at home.
However, if you’re experiencing challenges — or if you suspect your puppy is having a reaction to a trigger that’s more serious than it should be — don’t hesitate to reach out to a trainer for help!
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