Historically, pet owners have been told to avoid bringing their puppy out in public until their pet have received all puppy vaccinations. In recent years, the veterinary behavior community has changed their position to advocate positive reinforcement socialization classes for puppies.
Why the change of heart? Socialization saves lives. Behavior problems are the number one reason for euthanizations and shelter overpopulation. Most behavior problems can be avoided if breeders and dog owners focus on early socialization. Well-socialized puppies rarely grow into dangerous adult dogs. It is always easier to prevent behavior problems from occurring than to fix established problems; and one of the best ways to do so is through extensive, appropriate puppy socialization.
This article is intended to be a primer on socializing your puppy. I must stress that while socialization is especially important for puppies; socialization activities should continue throughout the dog’s life. If you have an adult dog with an inadequate and/or inappropriate socialization history, you will have to do remedial adult dog socialization.
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What types of things should you socialize your dog or puppy to?
Husbandry: Ear examination, paws being handled, toenail clipping, oral care (teeth brushing), eye examination, grooming, brushing, relaxation during gentle restraint, being picked up/held, accept collar/leash/harness, being on table and scale, collar grab, etc.
Sounds: Vacuum cleaner, hair dryer, thunderstorm or fireworks, CDs (start at low volume!), clapping, deep voices, high pitched voices, sound of clippers or a Dremel, doorbell, knocking on door, dishwasher, etc.
Sights: Remote control car, umbrella opening, moving objects, bicycles, skateboards, cars, etc.
People: Of all ages/skin colors/physical builds; with: wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, irregular speech/body movement; wearing bathing suits, puffy coats, Halloween costumes, hats, sunglasses, various uniforms; men with facial hair, etc.
Events & Environments: Car rides, veterinary visits, groomers, puppy class, pet store, rural, urban, suburban environments, parks, pet stores, etc.
Other animals: well socialized puppies and non-aggressive adult dogs, cats, horses, etc.
Toys: Introduce a variety of chew toys, tug toys, balls, etc.
Walking on different surfaces: bubble wrap, grass, concrete, through a stream, on grates, flattened cardboard boxes, through a ladder or tunnel, etc. (This list is not intended to be exhaustive; I encourage you to think of as many other socialization stimuli as possible.)
Beyond introducing your puppy to these events and items, you must make her experiences with them positive. A well taught, positive reinforcement puppy class will be a great help here. Keep training sessions short and fun, 1 to 3 minutes is more than long enough for most puppies.
Employ classical conditioning techniques: New things in the environment make “good stuff” happen for the dog. Click and treat any interest in the socialization stimuli, even for looking at the item in question. In classical conditioning, the reinforcement is contingent upon the presentation of the stimulus rather than on the dog?s behavior (food is presented as soon as the vacuum is turned on and taken away as soon as the vacuum is turned off, for example).
When doing husbandry exercises, it often helps to have two people – one to handle the dog and one to deliver treats. The treats should start being delivered when the contact starts, and when the contact ends, so do the treats (1:1 ratio of contact – treats to start with). As your dog is more confident about the socialization stimulus, you can begin thinning out the reinforcement schedule.
Once your dog is more confident, you can switch to operant conditioning – clicking for calm behavior around the stimulus or for approaching, investigating, and interacting with the stimulus.
Learning canine stress signals will help you keep your dog under threshold. If she is hungry but can’t or won’t eat, she is probably too close to the object. Increase distance until she notices the object but is not startled by it and proceed more slowly – only decreasing distance when she is comfortable at the current level of exposure. For more on stress signals in dogs, check out this site.
Each time you are able to make interacting with novel stimuli a positive experience for your puppy, you are one step closer to a confident, well-adjusted, non-reactive adult dog.