Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Socialize Your Dogs, for their Whole LIfe!

Have you ever heard a breeder or a trainer say “Socialize, socialize, socialize, take your new addition everywhere with you”? Or perhaps you have heard a veterinarian preach from the opposite side of the fence, warning you not to take your new puppy anywhere until he has completed his entire vaccination series. Yet studies have been shown that the critical periods of socialization are between three and sixteen weeks. Does it stop at 16 weeks? A few dog professionals will tell you that a dog needs to experience new things and new people at least weekly until they are closer to two years old. Which is correct?

If we look up the word “socialize” on www.dictionary.com, the first definition given is: “to make social; make fit for life in companionship with others.” Let’s use that as our goal, the goal of socializing a dog is to make him social, fit for life in companionship with others (other dogs and other people).

In order to do this, ideally we first developed a bond with our puppy or new adult dog, so he feels secure with us (if you have questions on this, please consider the inexpensive dogebooks available on www.knowingdogs.com). Hopefully the puppy has come from a breeder who allowed the pup lots of new experiences in his home environment before you purchased or adopted him, so the pup understands various household objects (like the noise of a vacuum or dishwasher, for example). If he has been in a home which had plenty of visitors, he understands that it is not unusual for a new person to appear on the scene. A good breeder will also expose a puppy to varying types of footing, so that he understands surfaces such as tile, linoleum, carpet, concrete and grass. Breeders tend to be very protective of their pups, especially when children come over to visit. Hopefully they have had the children sit on the floor, with the pup in their laps, so they are not accidentally dropped. Responsible breeders instruct children on how to pet gently, plus they make sure the puppy does not get out of control when interacting with visitors. But please do not panic if you have a dog that was rescued from a shelter or came from an imperfect breeder, because socialization is an on-going process. No, we cannot undo the past but we can build confidence in our dogs from the day we get them until the last day of their lives--socialization is never ending.

Up to the time of adoption or purchase by the new owner, usually a pup has been carefully guarded (in the case of a young pup that is just now old enough to go to a new home, whether it is coming from a breeder or from a foster home). This is normal, because often there IS disease risk that the pups must be protected from, although I personally feel if you allow visitors and have them wash their hand and take off their shoes, it is wonderful for young pups to meet new people and that the risk of any disease is so small it is far outweighed by the benefits of careful, early socialization.

Anyway, once pups reach the magical age of going to their new homes, suddenly, breeders and dog trainers are yelling “socialize—socialize—socialize!” Take that pup to as many new places, to meet as many new people, as you possibly can each week. I myself have published someone else's article that suggested that each week, a pup should go 7 different places, meet 7 different people, be on 7 different types of surfaces, etc. But I spend a lot of time rethinking things. Let’s step back and look at this from the puppy’s point of view.

Puppy has been taken away from the security of his breeder’s home, from his mother and littermates,and introduced suddenly to a new pack (often the new pack does not include even a single individual of his own species). Wouldn’t it be better to give this puppy a little time to bond with his new family, so that he feels secure with them, before casting him out in the world to experience a myriad of new situations?

Some puppies will bond quickly, and be ready for a puppy class or trips to the pet supply store and the park within a week or two. Less confident puppies may need a little longer, and the pup that is full of energy may need some basic leash training and obedience taught at home before he goes out in public. Private instruction in your home, even with a trainer helping you as your walk your pup in the neighborhood, can be invaluable.

Most training facilities also offer “puppy kindergarten” or “puppy socialization” classes. Puppy class can be a wonderful place for your pup to meet new people and other dogs. But keep in mind, in the case of a class, you do not have the advantage of limiting interactions to dogs and people you already know and trust. Treat puppy class the same way you treat any other new experience with your pup. Think about the way a human mother treats their newborn child or toddler. Remain protective and in control at all times---do not allow your puppy to be bullied, or to bully others during play periods with other dogs. If the class you participate in has play sessions, then step in as necessary, to make sure your pup does not become frightened or defensive. In the off-leash puppy play environment, it is common, even natural, for puppy owners to stand back and chat, socializing among themselves, while puppies work out their own hierarchy. This can be disastrous for pups that are low on the totem pole, as their confidence can be easily destroyed if there is a bully pup in the class. It is also not good for the over-exuberant pup who does not know when to stop, or tends to bully other puppies. This pup should be corrected immediately when he plays too rough or picks on dogs smaller or less confident than himself. Pups that do not have enough impulse control to play appropriately should be put on leash and kept near their owners. If your puppy seems afraid, there is nothing wrong with letting him sit on your lap at first, or even take him home early if the play session is too rough for him.

If the instructor does not encourage owners to control their dogs, then consider finding another class. There is nothing wrong with a puppy class that allows interaction only on-leash, especially during the early age puppy kindergarten class. The puppies are still getting the benefit of going to a new place and meeting various people and other dogs, without the worry of inappropriate interactions. Instructors that feel as I do will closely monitor any off-leash reactions, but some do not subscribe to this philosophy. In either case, it is ultimately your responsibility to watch out for your pup. When I had a training facility, we only allowed off leash interactions in very small group classes where the dogs where of similar size, and we did not allow it at all util about the third week of class, where the puppies were given a ten minute playtime in a fifty minute class.

Hopefully the puppy class will also include socialization with “objects”, getting your pup used to things which look out of the ordinary. This can be agility tunnels, or even things as simple as a large red bucket turned on its side. If your class doesn't have these, you can buy some inexpensive things to have at home in the backyard, introducing them one at a time...after the pup is used to the big blue bucket you bought at a home supply store, and can handle it being turned on its side where it rolls, then next you can do something like make a tiny dog walk, where you put a piece of wood on top of two or three small cinder blocks.

What about socialization with people? Of course your pup will be meeting new people if he goes to a puppy class, but walking your dog at the park or in the neighborhood is also an excellent means of socializing. Dogs love to explore new territory, and doing so on leash, with you as their pack leader, will help them learn that you are protective, and you are there to help them great new friends (because you are there to instruct people how and when to pet your dog, and you can stop any inappropriate interactions immediately). You can wait on these walks until your pup is fully vaccinated, if you and your vet feel more comfortable with this option, since walking in these areas may expose your dog to areas where unvaccinated dogs have roamed. I personally feel the socialization benefits to my pup are worth any risks I might be taking, with the exception that I do not take young puppies to any area where I know sick dogs have been (I don’t walk them in the grass at a vet’s office, for example and I would not take a young pup to any dog related events on or near an animal shelter’s grounds). Even a dog walk at a park will have risks, your pup could be overwhelmed and it may be exposed to disease risks that you will not have when you take your dog on a neighborhood walk, so use common sense. Pups of most breeds are fully vaccinnated by the time they are four months old, at which time it is safe to take them anywhere. Pups of certain breeds, such as Rottweilers, may need to wait until they are six months old to go to areas where there are dogs all around. Remember, a well run dog training class is different, because the puppies there will have been required to have the vaccinations required up to their current age, so there is very little risk there.

How long do you need to work on socializing a puppy? A common misconception is that a dog has been socialized simply because he attended a puppy socialization class or was taken to visit a few people at a young age. Socialization is an on-going process which continues throughout the dog’s life. Especially before the age of two years, dogs should be carefully exposed to new things and new people weekly if at all possible. This requires that you take the dog off your property, whether with walks around the neighborhood, or if you live in a rural area, you may need to put your dog in the car and drive to a park or shopping center where the dog will encounter other people. After your pup is 3 or 4 months old, then at least monthly, begin leaving pup for a few hours at time in the home of a trusted friend of neighbor, or at the pet care facility you will be using when you go on vacation. Your pup needs to learn that he will be okay without your constant presence. These visits do not need to be lengthy--the main thing is that they should be positive experiences.

Your puppy also needs to be exposed to well-behaved children. Don’t have children?
Ask friends or relatives to bring their children by to visit with you, and take your pup or young dog to parks and other areas where children are playing. If the pup is shy, you may not wish to allow strangers to pet him quite yet, but if he goes to a park and has a positive experience with you, while hearing children playing in the background, it will help him understand that little people exist in the world, and they are not to be feared. Then as he becomes comfortable with the noise and sight of children, let them come up and simply give him a tiny treat (teach them to lay it in the middle of their hand and let puppy lick it off their hand as opposed to holding it out towards pup with their tiny igures).

The socialization period should also include exposure to novel things and places, in addition to all types of people. Pups that have been kept in fairly isolated conditions at the breeder’s home may have a difficult time adjusting to novelty, to anything different than what they have already seen. Expose puppies to all types of places, as well as all types of people - big people, tiny people, men with beards, people in strange clothing, etc. Puppies need to see and hear many different types of things as well--such as loud toys, the noise of traffic and things which roll like bikes or dollies. If you are purchasing a pup from a breeder, find out what types of things the puppy has been exposed to during his first couple of months of life, but also make sure you continue to expose him to new things every week.

Before leaving the topic of socialization, I want to stress that there is such a thing a negative socialization experience. You must be observant and protective when you are socializing your pup. Always manipulate the environment as needed to make sure your dog’s interactions with other people and other dogs are positive ones, particularly during the dog’s critical learning periods. Pups go through their first fear imprint period (meaning that anything that frightens them during this time may be “imprinted” and have a lasting negative effect) between the ages of 8 and 10 weeks. This first imprint period lasts around a week. The second fear imprint period, which corresponds with the onset of adolescence, is harder to pinpoint, but normally occurs between the ages of six and fourteen months. It also is harder to define in terms of time--some dogs seem to go through only a week or two of being “spooky” or unsure of themselves during this time, while others seem to be overly sensitive for a month or two.

Just remember to remain calm and in-control, and help your dog deal with anything which frightens him. If a dog is “babied” when he is afraid, then fearful responses will be reinforced, making them more likely to happen again. It is much better to take a “that didn’t bother us a bit, now come along” type of approach, much as you would with a small child if you wished to divert their attention from what was worrying them and on to something more positive. Just quickly distract the pup and keep on walking. So yes, expose your pup to everything, but carefully, in controlled environments and avoid anything frightening around the 8 and 9th week of the pup’s life.

If something should frighten your pup, don’t panic, simply be sure to “jolly him up” and give him something else to concentrate on, so that he will not remember the experience negatively. If it happens while on a walk, don’t stop, but keep walking, because stopping and making a big deal out of the thing which frightens your dog will further “imprint” the experience in his brain. Continuing to walk and keeping a confident posture will help your dog realize the incident was no big deal. The use of a training collar can help you keep your dog close to you and stop him from lunging forward or away from distractions. Buckle collars can be fine at training class, but on a walk a pup can slip out of buckle collar, so use of a collar such as a Premier martingale type (often called a semi-choke), which can be purchased at any Petsmart or Petco store, is much safter since puppy cannot slip out of it.

And do not forget the most important part of the relationship between dog and man--pack structure. Your pup will feel more secure when he is under the protection of a strong pack leader, so continue obedience training and relationship building exercises while you are socializing your pup.

Again, if you need help and you don't have access to a good dog trainer in your area, please consider the easy-to-read short dog training booklets that I co-authored, which can be found on the Knowing Dogs website. All those who purchase an ebooklet can then email me for free advice as well. From that site you can also find a link to the free Knowing Dogs blog, which is full of dog training articles on all types of subjects.

Have fun socializing your pup or new doggie--socialization is one of the best steps in dog bite prevention! And remember, socialization is not just for pups, it should continue throughout your dog's life. Your dog will enjoy it, and you will be insuring yourself of a well behaved canine family member!

(c) Melanie Schlaginhaufen, 2013, all rights reserved. 

1 comment:

  1. I actually did a lot of these when training my black miniature! I probably should socialise him again though - he's taken to barking at people who are small when I take him for walks on the field :(

    Also, please check out my page I wrote on the poodle, I think you'll enjoy it - http://www.squidoo.com/everything-you-need-to-know-about-poodles