Congratulations!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 your pup – if you take some simple steps and invest the time necessary.
You want to get your puppy used to their surroundings and the life they will now be living – both with you specifically and within society in general.
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 beneficial 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 a puppy's young life.
- It will make your own life easier.
- Proactive Exposure Training includes exposing your puppy to people, sounds, places, and items they 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 daycare, 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
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 creeps up and closes quickly! Studies in canine cognitive science clearly show 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.
*Puppy older than 4 months old? Don't worry; all hope is NOT lost! You should still do 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. Check out this article for more information about how to help a dog that missed out on early socialization.
Take care not to miss the important 3–4 month window, and please see this article for additional information and advice on the timing of puppy socialization in relation to vaccinations.
Go at Your Dog's Pace
Patience is so important when it comes to working with your puppy! 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 their world.
Work at your dog's pace and keep the process safe and fun — you’ll be amazed at how fun and easy (and rewarding) the socialization process will be for both of you.
How to Socialize Your Puppy 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 them to do anything they're 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; (2) make sure to use treats that are safe to feed your pup. Speak with your veterinarian before feeding any “people food.” Even grapes, as healthy as they are for humans, are dangerous for 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 them around your yard and let them sniff and explore. Be sure to keep your pup on a leash and keep a very close eye on them, as you don’t want them nibbling on anything in your yard.
- 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 being picked up by a 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.
Out and About
Along with working with your veterinarian to start and keep your pup up-to-date on their 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. 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.
- 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 they see and hear skateboards, bikes, passing cars, and other people. Give them plenty of controlled, fun, and closely observed opportunities to hear traffic, sirens, fireworks, and other sounds that they're likely to encounter throughout their 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 our free Pupstanding App that includes sounds, and we also have additional resources for sound exposure.
- Travel: To prevent travel anxiety and carsickness, spend some time with your pup helping them feel comfortable in a car or truck. Get them used to being protected for travel in a crate, carrier, or car harness. Stay with your puppy 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).
Our free Pupstanding Smartphone App with an Interactive Socialization Checklist has a great list of things to expose and adapt your puppy 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.
Get help for your puppy's socialization plan in our Puppy Essentials: Socialization Foundations Workshop
Includes self-paced training modules and a LIVE one-hour virtual session with certified dog trainer, Cathy Madson
– all for only $29