The most critical part of puppy-hood is proper socialization. More important than potty training, obedience or anything else. Many of my puppy clients come to me knowing that socialization is a something they should do. What people don’t always realize is that the first 12 weeks of a puppy’s life are the most critical time for socialization.  During this time dogs are more accepting of new environments and experiences.  Puppy-hood is a time to be proactive and prevent problem behaviors from developing. The goal of this blog post is not to tell you how many people or dogs your puppy needs to meet; it is to stress the importance of proper puppy socialization and help guide you through that process.
Socialization is all about your puppy having new interactions in a safe and supportive way. Now, before we start talking about what to do, let’s come up with a blueprint for these interactions. There are a few essential elements of socialization that I am going to stress for you.
Exposure alone is not socialization. Just because your puppy was exposed to something does not mean that he was properly socialized. When being introduced to new things your puppy should walk away from that experience thinking it was great, and wanting it to happen again.
Your dog is the one who determines if an interaction or experience was positive. Not you. Not anyone else. You should see loose wiggly body language. If you do not see loose wiggly body language, your dog probably is not enjoying themselves too much, and you should move on.
Never force your dog into an interaction. If your dog does not want to interact with something, that is ok. They will do it at their own pace and in their own time. Forcing them will often make your dog more scared.
Now that we know what to do let’s talk about how to do it. There are three main categories of things to socialize your puppy with: people, dogs, and environments. All interactions should be short and sweet. Three seconds is plenty of time for your puppy to meet a new person or dog, and to explore a new space.
While you are socializing your puppy, you have one primary job: be your puppy’s advocate, at all times. Your puppy’s well-being depends on you. Stick up for them, don’t let people do things to your puppy that your puppy doesn’t like, and don’t let unfriendly dogs pick on them.
Bruce Stella Riggins
A critical aspect of socialization is getting your dog out and about as soon as possible. But, it can be a little tricky to do so before they have finished all their shots.
What we have to do, is get our puppy exploring new environments and going to new places but do so with some safety measures in place. It is true that during these first few months your puppy’s immune system is still developing. But, according to American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, “the combination of maternal immunity, primary vaccination, and appropriate care makes the risk of infection relatively small compared to the chance of death from a behavior problem.”So, just do it! Get your puppy out and about. Avoid behavior problems in the future and enjoy your new puppy.
As you get out and about, there are a couple of things to keep in mind to help keep your puppy safe. Whenever possible avoid letting unknown dogs greet your puppy. If they rush over to you do not panic, it is not the end of the world, simply move on. Do not let your dog drink any liquid off the street, especially stagnant water. Also avoid any areas that might have a thriving rat population, like garbage pickup zones.
Your goal should be to get outside with your puppy almost every single day. Heading out once or twice a day, for ten minutes at a time will suffice. You can put your puppy on a leash and let them explore at their own pace. Or, if your puppy is still teeny tiny, you can put him in a dog carrier and carry him around.
Try to go to different places every couple of days. Lots of stores in New York are dog-friendly, take advantage of that when you can. Bring your puppy with you to a friend’s house, or to see a relative. Enter buildings so your puppy can get used to walking on different surfaces. Ride the elevator even if you would usually take the stairs, or, take the stairs when you would often take the elevator. Go to the park, and then a different park. Leave your apartment building and walk right one day, and left the next. Stop by the vet’s office just to get a cookie and say hello.
Ideally, your puppy will be gung-ho about getting out and about, and you will see lots of wiggly body language. If you are that’s great, keep it up! If you do not see that loose wiggly body language, that is ok too. New York is incredibly loud, and things are changing every moment, some dogs take a while to get used to it.
If your puppy is not too enthusiastic about being outside, don’t give up. Is it still important that you get your puppy out and about. Just take it slower. Try and go somewhere quieter, maybe the park. Sit and relax with your puppy, let him walk when he is ready. What is important is to avoid dragging, or pulling, your dog around the city in the name of socialization.
One great way to have your puppy meet new people is to have friends come over. Having two or three people over 3 or so nights a week provides lots of opportunities for your puppy to meet new people in a safe and controlled environment.
Allow your dog to control his/her interactions with visitors. When he wants to approach, let him, when he wants to retreat, let him. Do not allow visitors to pick him up, squeeze his face, pull his tail, or grab him. If your visitors are doing these things, ask them to stop immediately. Instead, instruct visitors to give your puppy treats, play tug, or throw a ball.
When your puppy is meeting new people, you want to look for loose wiggly body language from the pup. If you do not see loose wiggly body language then just take a break. Instruct your friends to leave your puppy alone for a little bit. You can also give the puppy a Kong or bully stick to chew on so she/he has something else to do in the meantime.
Sometimes it can be harder to control the strangers we often see on the streets of NYC. But the same rules apply to them as our invited visitors. We want loose wiggly body language, and we want to allow our dog to control the interaction. We don’t want people picking our puppy up, squeezing his face, pulling his tail, or grabbing him.
Sometimes people see a puppy and lose all sense of common courtesy. They forget that a puppy has feeling and emotions and act like your puppy is an object for them play with. Sometimes it can be difficult getting people to leave your puppy alone. To help this, I have provided a few sample dialogues that you can use. And don’t worry about being rude to random strangers, your puppy’s wellbeing is MUCH more important.
Person: Hi, can I pet your puppy.
Puppy Owner: Sorry, not right now we are in training. And walk away.
Person: OMG!!!! A puppy!!!! EEEEKKKK!!!!
Puppy Owner: Step in front of your puppy, sorry, no, you cannot say hi to my puppy.
Person: What? Why? I want to meet the puppy.
Puppy Owner: Sorry, he/she is not meeting new people right now. And walk away. Pick up puppy if necessary.
Person: That puppy is to die for! Can I say hello?
Puppy Owner: Sure, can you help us with something though?
Person: Yes, I would love to help the puppy!
Puppy owner: Can you open your hand flat, and offer this treat to my dog?
Person: Does it
Puppy owner: Thank you so much! And walk away.
Person: Bends down and initiates interaction without asking
Puppy Owner: Sorry, he/she is not meeting new people right now. And walk away. Pick up puppy if necessary.
Person: Can I say hi to your puppy?
Puppy Owner: You can say hi for three seconds
Person: Bends down to say hello
Puppy owner: Out loud, 1-2-3, thank you! And continue your walk.
For puppies who are desperate to play with other dogs one of the best ways to give your puppy the chance to play is to attend puppy playgroups. Not to be confused with puppy classes or puppy kindergarten. Puppy playgroups are a chance for your puppy to play with other dogs of the same age in a safe, controlled environment. You should be present for puppy playgroups, and a professional, certified trainer should monitor them. There should be enough space for your puppy to run around and play, but also space for your puppy to take a break if he wants. Puppy playgroups usually last about 45minutes to an hour. And you can expect a tired puppy who is ready for a nice long nap afterward.
Another option for playtime for your puppy is playdates. If you have friends with dogs or see any other puppies around your neighborhood, who might like to play, you can ask for their info and set up a nice playdate. Before setting up these playdates, it is crucial to make sure that the other dog does indeed actually like puppies. If your friend's dog or the neighbor's senior shepherd is not into playing with puppies, it is better to skip the playdate and find a local playgroup.
When your puppy is playing with other dogs we are again looking for the nice loose wiggly body language. Your puppy should be initiating play with play bows (front end down, and rear up in the air), and coming back for more. A good way to tell if your puppy is enjoying the play is to briefly remove your puppy from the play and see if he goes back. If he does great, let him keep playing. If not, that is ok too. Let him take a break and observe. He will likely reengage with the other dog after a short break.
As alluring as daycare and dog parks sometimes are, they are not the best option to get your puppy socialized. Daycares and dog parks usually have too many dogs in too small a space. And you never know if the dogs there are friendly. It’s also a good idea to avoid on-leash greetings.
And lastly, you should not be allowing your puppy to approach other dogs while at the vet. Dogs who are at the vet are almost always stressed, and are sometimes sick and contagious. It is common courtesy to give another dog space while there, this avoids your puppy picking up a contagious ailment, and also prevents a potentially dangerous interaction with another dog.
When socialization your puppy, look for loose wiggly body language. Your puppy should be excited to meet new people and dogs, and should be ok (he doesn’t have to love it) getting out and about. If your puppy is barking at every person and dog you meet, or running away from people and dogs, or shaking and frantically pulling you while outside, it might be time to call in a trainer. With socialization, time is of the essence and it is better to be safe than sorry. Any money or time that you spend on your puppy now is an investment in your dog’s, and your future
Above, a Socialization Checklist you can use
to help get your puppy out and about,
meeting new people and dogs, and going