By Rachel Ash, CTC, CPDT-KA
“Socialization” is a word you hear a lot. It can mean anything from a specific time in a puppy’s life to a playdate with adult dogs. But what is it really? And why is it so important?
As a certified dog trainer, I can tell you that three to fourteen weeks is the most important age for dogs’ social development. We call it the “critical socialization period.” During this time, sociability outweighs fear. Puppies freely explore the world, discovering what’s safe and what’s dangerous.
We need to show puppies that the world is safe and predicts wonderful things. Otherwise, they’re likely to develop fear responses as adults. This diminishes their quality of life and makes pet parenting more challenging.
So how can we ensure every new experience is a good one? We can allow your puppy to explore new things at their own pace and also pair those novel experiences with yummy treats. If we provide our puppies with wonderful experiences now, then future negative experiences will be less traumatic.
Make a list of activities that you eventually want to share with your dog. Now consider all the sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations your dog will experience. You can incorporate these into your puppy socialization plan. Here are some examples:
- Camping: Strangers wearing sunhats and carrying large floating devices, tents, outdoor fires, wildlife scents and noises, the sound of rain hitting the tent, beaches, and the feel of soft sand and water under their paws.
- Brunch at an outdoor café: congested environment with multiple passing strangers and unknown dogs at close proximity, people carrying large trays with food, loud traffic noises, and passing skateboards.
- Trips to Home Depot: automatic doors, men wearing heavy work boots, and carts wheeling past them.
- Parks: new dogs, strangers, running/playing children, unique playground surfaces like gravel, passing cars, and minivans.
If we put in the work now, we can prevent future fear-related behavioral challenges like on-leash reactivity, stranger danger, resource guarding, and even separation anxiety.
The Maryland SPCA’s puppy socialization classes can teach you how to shape positive experiences so your puppy can grow up to be a well-adjusted and environmentally confident dog. Sign up today and take an important step to prepare you and your puppy for a long, happy life together.