by Debbie DeSantis, CPDT, Going to the Dogs Obedience Training, www.topdogtraining.org, (610) 344-7799
When you get a new puppy, there are so many things to do: housebreaking, training, and dealing with all the normal puppy behaviors. In addition to all of the above, one of the most important things you can do is properly socialize your pup. Socialization is the process of appropriately introducing a dog to new situations and people and animals. Doing so will help you have a puppy who will behave in all situations and will help prevent unnecessary fears from developing. Unsocialized or improperly socialized dogs are much more likely to have behavior problems. Because of past experiences, breed type, or genes, some dogs are more easily socialized than others. Socialization is especially important for young puppies—but it’s a lifetime endeavor for all dogs. The puppy should be safely on a leash when socializing it.
You should introduce the pup to new sights, sounds, and surfaces. Also, introduce the puppy to all types of new people. This means more than just exposing the puppy to your best friend or your neighbor. The pup has to be exposed in a positive manner to all types of normal experiences in order to have confidence and be able to deal with them later in life.
You want to ensure that each experience is a positive one. Make sure the people are gentle with the pup, and they can even give the pup a very small treat to make the experience a positive one. At first, it might be too overwhelming for the people to reach over the pup’s head and pet it. Instead, it may be better to have the pup go up to the people and have them gently give it a treat held at the level of its mouth. Go at the pup’s pace.
Also, walk the pup on many new surfaces, such as carpet, tile, linoleum, and concrete. Take the pup where there are normal, everyday noises, such as those made by traffic, crowds of people at shopping centers, the vacuum, kitchen appliances, the television, radio, and music. Get the pup used to common objects and sights, such as people wearing hats or sunglasses, and umbrellas opening and closing at a safe distance away.
If at any time the puppy seems to be afraid of anything, go back a step to where the pup was successful. You may want to slowly distance yourself from the source of discomfort to a point where the pup wasn’t afraid. Don’t run away or tense up when you see the pup become afraid, or it will believe that something really is wrong. Keep your body language relaxed and tone of voice happy and upbeat, so that the pup will enjoy the socialization experience. Then, once the puppy’s desensitized at a further distance, you can move closer. This may take time. Don’t pet the dog or otherwise try to comfort it when it is fearful, or it may believe that you are praising the fearful behavior. Instead, positively reinforce successes with verbal praise and even small pieces of treats. You want the pup to know that its calm, confident behavior towards new experiences is what you desire.
Some puppies will also experience certain times during their lives when something (a noise, an object, a being) that wasn’t previously frightening will suddenly become very scary. For example, all of a sudden, the car parked in the front of the house becomes scary to the pup. The puppy may have passed the car a hundred times before and suddenly it becomes scary. If this occurs, just resocialize and act calm and happy, as you would initially during the socialization process. Then progress. In this case, if the pup suddenly doesn’t want to walk by the car and acts fearful, you may want to just slightly distance yourself to a point where the pup’s not fearfully triggered. Walk the pup by at this distance. Remain calm and upbeat. Then, gradually work up to where you can walk immediately past the car calmly and happily. Do not just drag the pup up to such a feared object or situation, or you may create a much bigger problem. Be patient and good results should follow.
You also want to socialize the pup to other puppies and dogs. You must ensure that the other canines are friendly. Don’t risk bad experiences—which can stay with a dog for its entire life. Try to avoid any areas where there are loose dogs. Your pup may be friendly, but not all dogs are. You can even make a “play-date” with friends who have friendly puppies or dogs who know how to properly play with puppies.
Dogs who aren’t appropriately socialized can have problems throughout their lives in their adjustment to the real world. It’s best to start socializing the pup from the time you get it. Make an effort to take the pup many places where it will experience everyday sights and sounds. Also, have friends over to meet the pup, so that it learns to accept people on its own territory. The time and effort you put in will pay off for the pup’s life. Good luck with your new canine family member.