Note from Con Slobodchikoff (www.conslobodchikoff.com): The following post was written by Starr Ladehoff, Certified Professional Dog Trainer -- Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA), and Director Elect, Board of Directors, Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. She is an AKC Canine Good Citizen Evaluator (#71153) and a Canine Life and Social Skills Evaluator (#E750403). Starr does training and behavioral consulting at Arizona Pet Professionals, LLC, www.ArizonaPetPro.com. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most of us have been told we should socialize our dogs for them to be ok with other dogs, animals and people but what does that really mean? Is it free-for-all play with all types of dogs and letting them “figure it out?” Should we take them to different places with lots of people and/or animals so they can “work through their fears?” To answer these questions, we should consider how a dog’s social development progresses from the time they begin the process into adulthood.
The primary socialization period starts at age 3 weeks! Puppies learn they are dogs. The littermates begin to play with each other practicing survival techniques for later on in life such as biting, barking, fighting, posturing and chasing. During this period, which lasts up to approximately 12 weeks, puppies go through major changes both physically and socially. They learn to accept corrections from their mother and to use submissive postures. They learn to relate to their littermates and develop a loose hierarchy within the litter. If puppies are separated from their litter before 7 weeks, their ability to get along with other dogs may be affected and they may not have learned to inhibit the force of their bite.
Between the ages of 7 and 12 weeks, they learn what human beings are and to accept them as safe. This is the time when rapid learning occurs and any experience the puppy goes through has the greatest impact on future social behavior, good or bad. Teach your puppy the house rules and give them structure but keep in mind their short attention span and physical limitations. Although puppies can continue to learn to be comfortable with new things, it is not as easy as during this period. This is why the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior recommends proper socialization classes and experiences as early as 7 to 8 weeks of age. Although puppies are not completely immune to disease this young, there is greater risk for behavioral problems developing later on in life due to incomplete or improper socialization. To read the position statement on puppy socialization from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, go to www.avsabonline.org.
As puppies age, they go through two “fear imprinting” periods. Any traumatic event the puppy experiences can have a more lasting effect and may last for life. The first fear period is between 8 and 11 weeks. Be careful not to put your puppy into stressful or frightening situations. No wild costume parties during this time of their life! The second fear period is between 6 and 14 months old. Many dogs will become more reactive during this time or become suddenly apprehensive about new things. In large breeds, this period could extend longer. Puppies have individual personalities just like we do so what is scary for one may not be for another. By becoming familiar with canine body language you will learn to recognize fear signals your dog might display.
So what is proper socialization? Socialization is not simply dog/dog play, though that can be part of it.
Socialization really is:
- Exposure to the world the dog will be a part of in a safe manner with rules and guidelines
- Learning to be calm when the world is stimulating
- Learning to respond to signals when that is not what they want to do
Yes! Socialization is learning and maintaining acceptable behavior in any situation, especially when they would rather not. It is learning to handle any experience they will normally encounter throughout their life without becoming fearful, overly stimulated, reactive or aggressive.
Getting to know the breed(s) in your dog will help you understand their predispositions to sociability. Some breed types are more likely to continue puppy sociability into adulthood like sporting dogs and companion dogs (retrievers and spaniels). More of the breeds however become less tolerant such as terriers, guard dogs, herding dogs and bully breeds. Some dogs grow to become consistent challengers and others consistently remain passive.
Seeking out proper socializing experiences such as well-structured puppy classes or one on one play dates with other appropriate dogs is a vital part of proper socialization. A great puppy class may have a safe, mature dog for the puppies to learn from who will teach them boundaries. Puppies should be matched by personality and play style. Sharing games like the retrieve/drop should be taught to avoid possessiveness and teach relinquishment of unsafe items. Learning to come happily back to their person during play is an extremely important skill to learn at any age. Your dog should look to you for guidance and be willingly dependent upon you.
If you have a mature dog who is easily stimulated, teach them to relax before allowing them to socialize. If you have an adult dog who would rather not be around other dogs or people, don’t force them to socialize – they may never change and you might end up with a fight or other problem behavior. Encourage and teach passive play instead of overly aroused play. If you have a dog or multiple dogs who play rough, do a lot of interruptions and call them to you happily rewarding them for paying attention. Teach them to play together with toys instead of mouthing each other. Overly aroused play can lead to aggression as dogs mature so be careful, particularly with the breeds who tend to go from 0-60 in about 2 seconds!
Proper socialization is an art! Be patient, kind and consistent while teaching social skills. Both you and your dog should be having fun. If you feel you have a dog with socialization issues, seek advice from a qualified behavior professional.