by Jenny Turner
What puppies learn in the first few weeks of their life is vital and it stays with them forever. The exact timeframe is unknown and highly debated, so your best course of action is to start socializing your pup as soon as you can and keep doing so for the rest of his life. When should a dog stop being socialized? The answer is Never! Their dog/dog interaction skills will deplete if they are not kept in contact with other dogs for their whole lives.
The type of socialization that we’re talking about here will ensure that your pup is comfortable in new situations and starts as a well adjusted member of dogdom. If your puppy grows up at home and only sees his immediate family, he will be afraid of new situations, strange noises, children, the elderly. He will react with fear and may even react with aggression.
Until your pup completes his vaccinations you should avoid taking him to places where there may be unvaccinated dogs. But contact with other vaccinated dogs is quite safe, so put your puppy in the car and take him as many places as possible. If in doubt, carry him around and don’t let him close to other dogs. Or get the world to come to you. Invite friends and family of all sizes and ages to come over and give everyone a treat on their arrival to give to your pup. You could even go so far as to dress up – wear masks, hats, helmets, walk with a cane – the key here is “more is more”. The more exposure he can have to variety, the better.
You should expect that your puppy will be a little afraid of some new things that he comes across. His reaction may be to back away, hide behind your legs or bark at the object. When this happens do not use his lead to drag him towards the object. Instead, you go to the frightening object, touch it yourself and call the puppy to you, let him come in his own time and reward for any progress he makes. A very young pup will usually trust your judgment and accept the new object very quickly. If he does, give him huge amounts of praise and reward. If not, reward for any progress he makes, no matter how small, and try again at another time. Eventually you should be able to encourage him closer and closer until he’s comfortable.
Little story: I own a Samoyed, and if you’ve even seen a Samoyed you’ll know that they are completely white and each one looks the same. When my pup first went to puppy preschool at 9 weeks of age, he was scared of the other puppies and hid under my chair for the first class. It occurred to me that even though he could tell the other pups were dogs, they all looked strange to him because every other dog he’d ever seen had been white with pointy ears and a curly tail. These other dogs looked foreign to him. But by the second week he realized that he was in no danger and he began to play with them. This is a great lesson in socialization – all he needed was exposure over time to gain confidence.
The same applies when meeting new people. Your pup may be scared when meeting children, men or a person who may move in an unusual manner (walk with a limp, cane, muscle spasms, etc). Do the same as you would for an object – go to the person, touch them and talk to them and encourage your pup to come closer. You can also ask the person to offer a treat to your pup and to avoid eye contact, as this will frighten the pup. Instruct the person to squat down, sideways to the puppy, and when the pup does approach, have the person reach under his chin and scratch his chest, not the top of his head.
A note to breeders: You can start this process off by handling the pups from the day they are born. A good bitch will not reject her pups if you touch them because your scent should be a comfort to her. Expose them to things like loud noises, men’s voices, different scents and textures. Just because the pups are too young to walk or see it doesn’t mean they’re not learning from their environment.
Don’t forget, your dog needs to be socialized for the rest of his life, not just the first 4 weeks. Be patient and gentle, and build your dogs trust in you.