The Importance of Puppy Socialization

Spring and summer is an exceptionally exciting time here at the clinic, mainly because we have the pleasure of meeting all the new puppies being welcomed into new families! It never fails to make me smile to see everyone so excited to show off their newest family member. Most people I see are pretty familiar with and have done their research into what is needed to care for a puppy properly. Everyone always wants to know what the best food is to buy, what vaccines are needed and when their puppy should be spayed or neutered. Something I don’t often get asked is: what is considered to be proper socialization for puppies and how important is it?
Did you know that behaviour problems are one of the main causes of relinquishment of dogs to shelters? Many of the behaviour problems seen, often stem from improper socialization as a puppy. It is so important, in fact, that the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour believes it is necessary to socialize puppies even before they are fully vaccinated (in a proper clean environment that is). Good puppies aren’t born, they are made! How you interact with your puppy now, will determine how well behaved they are as adults.

There are four general stages when it comes to socialization:

  1. The critical period for socialization is from 3-12 weeks of age, with 5-8 weeks being optimum. This means that proper socialization is not only in the hands of the new owner but also in the hands of the breeder. This critical period is when puppies need to have positive exposure to everything they may encounter later on in life. This means meeting a variety of people, including children, other dogs and animals, normal household and outdoor objects, handling and even exposure to sound CDs if necessary. With these experiences, it is very important to make sure the puppy is not overwhelmed and becomes fearful. Make sure these are experiences that you can control, with people and animals you trust, and make sure to pair it with positive reinforcement, like treats or a favourite toy. We want to encourage calm behaviour, as well as identify fears and work through them without coddling the puppy.
  2. The fear stage is the next stage in a puppy’s development. This stage usually happens between 8-14 weeks of age. During this period, it is very important that puppies are not overwhelmed. This is the stage that if a puppy has a fearful experience, they may have a hard time getting over it. This also means that if a puppy isn’t exposed to a number of things before this period, they will likely show fear of anything unfamiliar to them. This stage eventually ends and the fear decreases, as long as nothing harmful to the puppy happens during this time. For example, a puppy will often show some fear of other dogs during this stage. This fear will often decrease as they get a bit older, but if the puppy were to be hurt by another dog during this time, it will likely take some extra time and work to get them past that fear.
  3. The juvenile period is considered to be from around 12 weeks to maturity. This is when it is important to reinforce socialization and continue exposing to more new things.
  4. The secondary fear stage usually occurs from around 4-6 months of age. This is also a time where permanent fears can develop if harmful things happen during this period.

How can I make sure my puppy is properly socialized?

A great thing you can do for your puppy is to enroll in a puppy class. Many people think of puppy class as being obedience training, but in reality, a puppy class is more than just learning how to “sit and stay.” It is a great way for your puppy to meet a variety of other dogs and people, it is also a great way to get your puppy to start to bond with you. These classes often have great instructors that have great tips and tricks on how to work on socialization outside of the class. The obedience training often comes a bit later, once the puppies are a bit older.

Outside of puppy class, make sure to expose your puppy to a variety of different people: children, men, women, and different types of clothing (baseball hats can be surprisingly scary for a puppy). Stick to people you trust, don’t expose to too many people at once and always reward your puppy when they exhibit calm behaviour.

You will also want to expose your puppy to different types of dogs and other animals. Make sure again; it is with animals you trust. Be careful in places like dog parks when puppies are young. Dog parks are a great way to meet many different dogs, but there is also a high-risk of your puppy being overwhelmed, or having a bad experience with an unknown dog.

Environmental exposure is also very important. Expose your puppy to a variety of different floor types, different sounds (using thunderstorm or firework CDs at low volume can be beneficial), normal household objects and normal outdoor objects.

One last thing that can be very beneficial later on in life is trying to make “scary places” like the veterinary clinic, a fun experience! We do our best to make sure your puppy has the best experience possible, hence all the treats! But you can make it even better for them by bringing your puppy to the clinic at times when they are not going to get a dreaded needle. Bring them in on some of your free time, put them on the scale, have a staff member say “hello,” and give them lots of treats. We want them to be as excited to come to the veterinarian, as we are to see them!

I hope this overview has been helpful. Please don’t be afraid to ask for tips and tricks from any of the Aylmer Veterinary Clinic staff. We also have some brochures on trusted puppy socialization, obedience and behaviour classes in the area!

Written by Dr. Jessica White, DVM