You’ve added a new puppy to your home and family. What a wonderful feeling and what a great adventure you’re in for!
That adventure can be that much better – both for you and for your pup – if you take some simple steps and invest the time necessary. You want to get him used to his surroundings and the life he will now be living – both with you specifically, and within society generally.
This process is generally known as “socialization,” but here at Preventive Vet we like to call it "Proactive Exposure Training" to better encompass all of the different experiences your dog will have. It's more than just providing social time with other dogs and humans — you want to introduce your pup to different noises and textures as well! It’s easy and fun to do, as well as vitally important, too.
The Many Benefits of Puppy Socialization and Exposure Training
When done early and in a safe and appropriate way, proactive exposure training can help to reduce the development of fears and anxieties in your growing pup. This would be benefit enough, but amazingly this one process can provide many additional, long-term benefits, too. Here are just a few…
- It is a vital part of his young life.
- It will make your own life easier.
- Proactive Exposure Training includes exposing your puppy to people, sounds, places, and items he will experience later in life.
Proactive Exposure Training:
- Makes car and other travel with your dog easier, safer, and less stressful
- Decreases any stress or anxiety your pup may experience when hospitalized, groomed, pet sat, or boarded
- Increases the ease and number of exercise options available to you and your dog (doggie day care, dog parks, etc.)
- Reduces your pup’s risk of suffering from the injuries, poisonings, and shelter stays often associated with dogs who “bolt” away from their homes or owners after being startled
- Decreases your dog’s risk of relinquishment, relegation to the outside, neglect, or even euthanasia
Important Steps and Considerations for Appropriate Puppy Socialization
Timing: While dogs can always learn new “tricks” (yes, the old adage is false), when it comes to proactive exposure training there are definitely important “windows of opportunity.” The most important one both creeps up and closes quickly, too! Studies in canine cognitive science are clearly showing that the first 3-4 months of a dog’s life are some of the most important in terms of proactive exposure training. It’s the period where a dog’s curiosity about and openness to the environment heavily outweighs the fear and anxiety of the unknown. Take care not to miss this important window and please see this article for additional information and advice on the timing of puppy socialization in relation to vaccinations. (*Puppy older than 4 months old? Don't worry, all hope is NOT lost! You should still do these socialization exercises, you'll likely just need to be that much more patient and go that much more slowly. But the payoff will still be so well worth it... for both of you! Check out this article for more information about how to help a dog that missed out on early socialization.)
Pace: Patience is so important when it comes to working with your pup! Like training, socialization shouldn’t be viewed as a race. It’s an investment in the long-term health, happiness, and wellbeing of your pup. It also sets the stage for the relationship that your pup has with you and the rest of the people, animals, and objects in his world. Work at his pace and keep the process safe and fun for him — you’ll be amazed at how fun and easy (and rewarding) the socialization process will be for both of you.
How to Socialize Your Pup and What to Expose Them To
One of the best ways to keep the socialization process fun for your pup is to take your time. Do not force him to do anything he’s uncomfortable with or scared of, and always provide frequent and reliable positive reinforcement throughout the process. Positive reinforcement should include a combination of tasty treats, verbal praise, petting, and fun play breaks. Two important notes about the treats – (1) make sure to account for the calories in the treats. Take care to not overfeed with the treats in respect to your pup’s regular food. (2) make sure to use treats that are safe to feed your pup. Speak with your veterinarian before feeding any “people food.” Learn about Grape, Raisin, and Currant Toxicity in Dogs.
In and Around Your Home
- Sights and Sounds: Get your pup used to the sights and sounds of common household items. Turn on vacuum cleaners, blenders, dishwashers, hairdryers, and others. Take him around your yard and let him sniff and explore. Be sure to keep him on a leash and keep a very close eye on him though, as you don’t want him nibbling on anything in your yard. Be sure to bookmark and explore the ASPCA Toxic and Non-Toxic Plant List.
- Friends and Family Members: Give your pup plenty of opportunities to sniff and interact with visitors and the other members of your home, including those in wheelchairs, those wearing hats, and those carrying umbrellas. Here again though, it’s important to take this at your pup’s pace and to supervise all such interactions. An overaggressive play session or pick up by young child could set your pup way back in their socialization and development.
- Procedures: We vets always encourage owners of new puppies to gently play with their pup’s ears, paws, and teeth. This is an effort to get those pups used to medical or care procedures that are likely to become a common part of their life as they grow. Prepare your pup for ear checks and cleanings, nail trims, and tooth checks and brushings. It’s important to remember the speed here again though. It’s (sadly) often not highlighted during the course of a (typically very busy) “puppy visit,” but you should do this procedure play slowly, at your pup’s pace, while providing lots of encouragement and positive feedback.
Out and About*
- Sights and Sounds: Give your pup plenty of controlled opportunities to experience and get comfortable with the sights and sounds of things outside. Try to make sure he sees and hears skateboards, bikes, passing cars, and other people. Give him plenty of controlled, fun, and closely observed opportunities to hear traffic, sirens, fireworks, and other sounds that he’s likely to encounter throughout his life. For a safer and more easily controlled way of exposing your pup to the sounds of traffic, thunder, fireworks, and a host of other common anxiety-inducing sounds, check out the Canine Noise Phobia Series™ of CDs and downloads from Through A Dog’s Ear™.
- Travel: To prevent travel anxiety and carsickness, spend some time with your pup helping him feel comfortable in your car or truck. Get him used to being protected for travel in his crate, carrier, or car harness (read all about the importance and ease of pet travel restraint). Stay with him throughout this process and take care not to do this part of socialization when it’s too hot or too cold outside.
- Places: Bring your pup to your local hardware store, mall, or similarly populated shops. You want him to safely experience other people and other settings, but you don’t want him having interactions with unknown dogs at this point (dogs that you know to be healthy, well socialized, and behaved are ok).
Check out our fantastic 100 Things in 100 Days Proactive Exposure Training Checklist for a great list of things to expose and adapt your pup to. It's an interactive checklist that allows you to check off things your puppy has been exposed to, and lets you give them a "grade" as far as how well they did. If your puppy doesn't enjoy certain things, you can show your certified dog trainer the list to get help with desensitization and counter conditioning for those items.
*Along with working with your veterinarian to start and keep your pup up-to-date on the initial series of vaccinations, to further minimize your pup’s risk of catching an infectious disease — such as Parvovirus, Leptospirosis, or another — you definitely want to avoid dog parks and other areas where groups of dogs gather or many individual dogs frequent (learn more about when your pup can go to the dog park). The exception to this is your veterinarian’s office or local puppy training center, where strict cleaning and disinfection procedures are followed. Please see our article on the timing of puppy socialization in relation to vaccinations for more information and advice on this important consideration.