Socialization is the most important thing we can teach puppies between 4 and 16 weeks old (roughly). It is during this period that puppies most easily learn to accept new things as safe and normal. Once puppies are over about 16 weeks old, they are less inclined to see new/novel things as safe and so socialization becomes more challenging and must be approached even more carefully. Quality socialization experiences help prevent a puppy from developing behavioral problems later in life.
Socialization is the artful science of teaching a young puppy how navigate our human world confidently and with ease. While puppies begin learning from their mom and litter-mates, coming to live with human families is an entirely novel experience, with a complicated adjustment, and lots of new things to learn.
It is not enough to simply expose your puppy to tons of things. We have the responsibility of ensuring that the puppy has great experiences around those things.
Think about the situations you want your dog to be comfortable with as an adult, you should make sure they have good experiences with those things as a puppy. If you want to have a dog who is comfortable having lunch at an outdoor cafe on a busy sidewalk next to a busy road, you should make sure your puppy has good experiences with loud traffic sounds, with people of varying sizes, shapes, and colors, with people carrying things, crowds of people walking, people talking loudly, and dogs walking by them.
A thoughtfully designed socialization plan should include :
A Reinforcement Strategy - Always carry food rewards and toys to offer your puppy as he is presented with new things so that he continually makes positive associations with what is happening around him.
Environmental Management- Be selective when choosing where you take your puppy and how much access your pup will have to what is around him. You can achieve this by keeping your puppy on leash, offering plenty of distance from exciting things, and communicating effectively with the people interacting with your puppy.
An Exit Strategy- Always watch your puppy’s body language for signs of distress or over-arousal so that you can quickly create distance. If something does not go well do not spend extra time dwelling on it, move farther away from it, try to feed your puppy yummy things once they are away from the situation, and move quickly on to something easy and positive.
A Safety Plan- Always keep your puppy safe. When you are planning a socialization adventure, be sure to think about how you are going to keep your puppy safe in that environment. For example, vigorous play with large dogs could be very dangerous even if the large dog is appropriate and friendly OR taking your puppy to a busy event at a brewery at night could result in him getting stepped on or being frightened by people who are acting strangely.
Here are three fast facts about socialization:
1- Puppies teach each other bite inhibition through play. Puppies explore the world through mouthing and chewing which can become problematic for the humans who handle them. Offering an outlet for this behavior is crucial for developing puppies and what better way to curb a mouthy puppy than to teach them what they ARE allowed to do with those shark teeth : chew on other puppies!!!
2- A puppy does not need to make direct contact with something in order to have positive exposure. Sometimes it is fine to take things in at a safe distance rather than getting up close and personal.
3- Dog parks are NOT the best place to start. It is virtually impossible to follow an effective socialization/training plan at the dog park because there are too many variables. While you might get lucky and your dog might never have a bad experience, the risks of exposing your puppy to a variety of unfamiliar dogs in an area where you have minimal control could really backfire. This is a lot like taking a preschooler to a frat party. The best place to start socialization with other dogs is a well- designed puppy class directed by a certified professional dog trainer (see Choosing a Puppy Class).