Before I get into socializing, let’s quickly talk about vaccinations. It’s important to be careful exposing your puppy to different environments when they are not fully vaccinated. Many veterinarians feel it is safe to increase your puppy’s exposure after the second set of vaccines, which would be around 11 weeks of age with our pups. Some are fine with careful socializing a week after the first set of shots. Keep in mind though that they are not considered fully protected until after the final shots (16 weeks) so proceed with caution. The reason they are not protected is because of timing. Puppies have immunity from their mom but no one knows when that immunity wears off, it could vary from pup to pup. So for the vaccine to be effective, the timing has to be right so that the immunity the puppy has from its mother doesn’t interfere with the vaccines effectiveness.
I would not recommend places like dog parks, rest areas if traveling with your puppy, or even pet stores. Places where any dog can just walk in is a place to stay away from. Even if your puppy is fully vaccinated, I really don’t recommend dog parks for socializing at all. It can be a very overwhelming experience for the puppy there. You don’t know all of the dogs temperaments and your puppy could easily get hurt by another dog. There may be exceptions if you know of a very laid-back dog park or if you actually know the people and dogs that frequent it of course. But generally, if wanting to socialize your puppy, quality Puppy Classes are more safe as long as it is a requirement for all puppies to have age appropriate vaccinations before enrollment.
So socializing…many of you know even with experience and raising so many dogs, I continue to educate myself and incorporate ideas that I feel would be beneficial in raising our puppies. I am not a trainer but a breeder with the best interest of our puppies and future puppy owners in mind. Recently I have been studying and implementing some exercises from Puppy Culture. Puppy Culture is a program that was developed to raise rockstar puppies. Socializing and building confidence are key points in the program.
I feel that when talking about training a puppy, the word “socializing” might give people the most anxiety. Everyone wants a well rounded, happy confident dog! You’ll hear different opinions about when to socialize your puppy. Some believe the socialization period ends at as young as 12 weeks old, however it is more commonly believed to end around 16 weeks of age. Please do not let this scare you! The socialization window is really just the best time to expose puppies to different things because they are like little sponges and it will help shape them into a more confident dog. The last thing you want to do is panic socialize, meaning flooding your puppy with too much too fast and having the opposite effect. Instead of a confident puppy, you end up with a confused, insecure puppy. Never knowing what’s going to jump out at them next. Puppies can experience single-event learning, meaning one experience with something can impact him for the rest of his life. The goal is to have as many positive experiences as possible. If a negative experience happens, you’ll have to work harder to condition the puppy to no longer be afraid of whatever that negative experience was.
Even after the prime socialization window ends, puppies can still improve! You’ll never be able to expose them to every single thing you will ever encounter. But if you’re puppy grows confidence and looks to you in any case of uncertainties, it will help them handle different situations.
So the best thing in my opinion and experience is to remain calm and expose your puppy in a manner that isn’t forced or rushed. With the current pandemic, we can get a little creative…simple things such as wearing different hats, glasses, high heels or boots, walking with a cane around the puppy gets them used to different things. You can ask your neighbors to walk the road or along the property line so they can see different people. If you’re mowing the lawn, have your puppy sit with someone at a safe distance to observe. Doing some home improvement projects? Have your puppy hang out with you as long as you’re not using equipment that is too loud. And of course make sure he doesn’t eat something like a nail! Supervision is a must!The point is to let him hear and see different things. Going to the grocery store? Take the pup along for a car ride. As long as someone can sit in the car with your puppy while you shop, it’s a great opportunity. Some of the fun ones listed next are most likely going to be put on hold at the moment due to the pandemic, but will be available again at some point. Places such as Lowes or Home Depot, most of them love dogs and allow yours to be there as long as they are well mannered! I believe every Tractor Supply store allows dogs. Some outdoor garden centers allow dogs. Starbucks allows dogs in the outdoor seating area and some Panera Breads do as well.
Keep in mind the vaccines though…depending on the age of your puppy, you may want to carry him while in the store. You can even take your puppy to playgrounds but make sure kids are respectful of your puppy and take turns gently petting. You want GOOD experiences. I would avoid a crowded playground. A few kids is plenty. Being trampled by a mob of excited kids is not a good experience! There may not be any kids at the playground at this current time but its still a good place to let your pup sniff around just to see the different equipment. Walking trails, hiking trails, parks, creeks, if you’re an outdoor person this is great. It exposes your puppy to various sites and sounds. We have a popular bike trail behind our house that we frequent. Before going on walks or hikes though, remember that it is not good for your puppies developing bones to be put under stress. They cannot go long distances. So when I am saying hiking trails for example, depending on age, you might be there for 10 minutes. You may just visit the parking area at first or sit along the side of the trail with your puppy to watch passersby. It’s all about just getting them to experience different things safely. Take lots of treats for encouragement. You want the puppy to associate the place with a good thing. And treats also help enforce that your puppy should be looking to you in new places. If your puppy is frozen in fear in a new place, do not baby them or coddle them, but gently encourage and remain a confident leader. But this reaction may mean you are moving too fast for them so take it back a step. Try to end on a good note and next time you go out, try something not as stimulating. You can even set up some different things in your own yard. A little bit of puppy agility can be fun and help build confidence. You won’t have them jumping over jumps, but, for example, they can walk over a ladder that’s flat on the ground. If you have a Bosu exercise ball, you can even use that to get the puppy to put its front paws up on and eventually balance on (start with ball side up so its stable). A wide board (again laying flat on the ground, not suspended in the air) can be like a puppy balance beam.
It might be a little trial and error. Each puppy is different and I don’t think you can say that there is one program to put every puppy through that is going to result in a perfectly balanced dog every time. Personalities are different and puppies build confidence in different ways. The important thing is to watch your puppy’s response to different things so you know they are enjoying and benefiting from what you’re doing with them.
I should mention that individual socialization can vary too. Above are just common suggestions but if you are someone who never wants to take your dog to the store, there is no reason to rush out and take him to every store that allows a dog just because you think you’re supposed to. You should be tailoring your socializing to your lifestyle. For example, if you want to kayak with your puppy, you’re going to want to get him used to the kayak at a young age. He needs to be comfortable with it. Even if you can’t get out on the water, put the kayak on the floor or out in the yard and practice!
Also, in an ideal situation, when wanting to socialize a puppy to other dogs, we would all know some super trustworthy dogs to let our puppies meet and happily play with, but that’s not always the case. Remember you want quality experiences over the quantity of experiences so if you are unsure of a good puppy friendly dog, don’t let them interact just because you want to socialize your puppy. In this case, less is more. All of our puppies that we raise interact with friendly adult dogs in our home so they already have a good start with this!
And one final note, I promise! Sometimes puppies go through what is called a “fear period” where things that weren’t scary to them before are now suddenly scary. If you think your puppy is going through this, do not overexpose the puppy. Wait until the fear period is over. Every puppy is different, it may be a few days or a week but the last thing you want to do is stress out an already frightened puppy.