The puppy of your dreams is home with you. Your buddy for leisurely walks, playing ball at the park and snuggling on the couch. But, reality check: There’s another side to your dreamy time together — your sweet, little ball of fur is more like the unhinged Tasmanian devil cartoon character. Puppies have a lot of energy! They need activity and guidance navigating their new world.
Socialization has always been an integral part of raising and training a dog, but during the pandemic, opportunities for socialization outside the home were limited, which didn’t bode well for the surge in puppy and young dog adoptions during that time.
As this group of “pandemic puppies” has grown, both veterinarians and dog trainers have seen an increase in dogs experiencing anxiety and exhibiting a host of other behavioral issues. The effects of limited socialization have made clear the benefits proper socialization offers beyond a fun playdate.
When should socialization begin?
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recommends socialization between 3 and 14 weeks of age. This means that socialization and training should begin as soon as your puppy arrives home. Setting boundaries and encouraging good behaviors reduce stress for the dog and the family. Providing positive experiences and a comfortable environment help to establish a foundation for lifelong learning.
“Puppies have a critical window for socialization starting at about 1 month old,” says Dr. Laura Weis, who co-owns Doylestown Veterinary Hospital & Holistic Pet Care in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, with her husband Dr. Ransome Weis. “They need to learn how to get along with other people and pets, and how to handle all sorts of new situations. A well-socialized puppy is a happy and adjusted member of the family, and far less likely to develop separation anxiety and other fear-based behaviors.”
If you’ve missed this window with an older pup, don’t worry. There’s still time for her to grow in confidence and manners by taking charge now.
What are the first steps?
Although making friends and learning how to play with other dogs is key, building confidence through a variety of new experiences is an integral part of the process. The objective of introducing new experiences is to generate a positive, rather than a fearful reaction, to that stimulation. Start with these experiences:
AROUND THE HOME
- Ring the doorbell.
- Run appliances, including the garbage disposal and dishwasher; don’t forget the vacuum!
- Introduce walking and standing on different surfaces: carpeting, rugs, hardwood, ceramic tile, rubber mats or stainless steel. This will also help when encountering surfaces found in a veterinary office or grooming salon.
- Introduce stairs with assistance: one or two steps into a family room is a good start.
- Play with your puppy wearing a mask, a hat, a big coat or other types of seasonal clothing that your puppy may eventually encounter. Your dog might not find that hat with a big furry pom-pom amusing.
AROUND THE NEIGHBORHOOD AND TOWN
- Go for a walk in a different neighborhood: introduce your puppy to different people and dogs (when protective vaccinations are started). Adding a new place to walk will be a wonder of different scents to discover!
- Go for rides in the car: the car should be linked to positive experiences, not just for a ride to the vet.
- Spend time in parking lots at a shopping center or a school to discover new noises like kids playing, cars passing or honking, or the squealing brakes of a school bus.
- Visit pet-friendly stores and introduce your pup to people, pups and animals other than dogs.
To ensure a positive experience for your puppy, never scold a puppy for a fearful reaction or force the puppy (or dog) to endure repeated exposure to the situation.
What kind of puppy socialization programs are there?
Looking for more socialization experiences? Local pet resorts offers puppy socialization programs for additional experiences and learning.
Once your puppy begins receiving vaccinations, it’s safe to participate in social activities like a puppy social hour or puppy preschool program. Puppy socialization programs differ at various pet resorts, but the mission is the same: making friends, having fun and building confidence in a safe and loving environment. Participation in a socialization program is also an informal introduction to training, daycare, grooming and lodging services.
Here are just a few examples.
Bittersweet Pet Resort & Stables, Niles, Michigan. Bittersweet Pet Resort offers a free puppy socialization program twice monthly for puppies up to 1 year old and their pet parents. Staff supervise the puppies during play and educate the pet parents on manners training and encouraging good behaviors.
“Watching the puppies playing together helps the parents recognize appropriate play behaviors and when to intervene with a correction,” says Madison Dietz, assistant general manager. “Many of the pet parents form friendships with each other and arrange puppy playdates between classes.”
In searching for a daycare program for her Pit Bull Terrier, Scout, Kelli Zeese discovered the Bittersweet puppy socialization class and enrolled.
“Since she’s a Pit Bull, socialization was very important, and it gave me the chance to educate others about the breed. The classes were a great start for Scout’s training. She recently completed a Canine Good Citizen program and is on her way to becoming a therapy dog,” Kelli explains. “The parents talked about different places to take our dogs for new experiences and useful pet products. It’s a great community of people for helpful resources.”
More at bittersweetpetresort.com.
Green Acres Pet Resort, DeForest, Wisconsin. “My background in training dogs comes from working with rescues,” says Jenna Homburg, lead trainer for Green Acres Pet Resort. “I have experienced a variety of behavioral situations while working with rescued and shelter dogs. Not being properly socialized is the main issue for most.”
Green Acres Pet Resort recently introduced a free weekly socialization class. Jenna points out that dogs are not born with the innate knowledge of how to communicate and play. When puppies are adopted at an early age, humans must replace what the mother would have taught her pups. Jenna is excited about the program and looking forward to introducing the puppies to many fun things.
“It’s such a small window of opportunity to properly socialize a puppy,” she says. “If you wait too long, anxiety and fears can develop. Now I get to work with puppies and clients early for building confidence to avoid behavioral issues. Those problems often result in the dog ending up in a shelter. Nobody wants that scenario.”
Socialization experiences must extend beyond the home. At home, Jenna explains, there are no outward distractions. Real-life situations must be included. Socialization is a great introduction to a structured training program. Without proper socialization, teaching the dog can be more time-and labor-intensive, which is costly. More at greenacrespetresort.com.
Holiday House Pet Resort & Training Center, Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Puppy Social Hour is a free weekly class at Holiday House Pet Resort. One class is for 2-to 4-month-old puppies and another class is for 4-to-6-month-old puppies. Before the pandemic, parents accompanied the puppies to class, but now the pups are solo, which has benefits for the dogs.
“From a trainer’s perspective, without the safety net of a parent, a puppy not only learns to make friends on his own but also learns to be comfortable with being away from the parent. It becomes a positive experience for the puppy, and this reduces the chance of developing separation anxiety,” explains Cheryl Lindley, director of daycare and training programs with the resort.
More at holidayhousepetresort.com.
Meadowlake Pet Resort & Training Center, Houston, Texas. “Our 4-month-old Doodle pup was not socialized prior to us bringing her home,” says Amanda Shaw. “Her first day of puppy daycare at Meadowlake was ‘ruff’ but by the end of her second week, she was racing in to play with her friends. I truly think she would not have blossomed into the social butterfly she is today without puppy daycare. The program allowed her to slowly warm up to the pack and to figure out how to be a puppy.”
Meadowlake Pet Resort offers a puppy daycare program at its two Houston locations. Puppies attend the program until either their graduation from the puppy group at 6 months old or an introduction to the adult dog daycare program is completed. The puppy daycare program offers a variety of toys and play-yard equipment for days filled with fun, as well as nap times for recharging their energy.
“Puppies that attend daily quickly become used to the social environment,” says Laura Koch, executive manager with Meadowlake Pet Resort & Training Center. “Our daycare teachers introduce the puppies to proper play and good manners. These puppies usually transition to the adult dog daycare setting faster than other puppies or dogs.”
Pet parent Leigh Leppert says, “The experience transformed Benny’s life and mine. He is fearless and confident when meeting other dogs — I’m never worried about his demeanor. He is thriving in the daycare program, and I’m always grateful when he’s tired from playing all day after I’ve had a long day at the office.”
More at meadowlakepetresort.com.
The focus of any socialization program — whether the pet parents participate or not — is to guide the puppies in making friends and becoming a member of the pack. Socialization experiences inside and outside the home set the stage for successful training and reduce the chance of behavioral issues, like separation anxiety, developing as the puppy matures.