Updated: Apr 9, 2021
All puppies experience a “sensitive socialization period” in their development.
Established by research as a window of time during which if they are not exposed to things they will encounter throughout their lives or are exposed in a way that is frightening to them, they may be at significant risk of developing undesirable problems when exposed later in life. The generally agreed upon time frame for this window is until approximately 16 weeks of age. By “things” I mean objects, sounds, substrates, people, body handling, other animals, etc. During this period puppies decide what is safe and what is dangerous in their world based on what they have encountered and how pleasant, unpleasant, or inconsequential that encounter was to them.
To build confidence two things are important: puppies need to experience all of those things they may come across during their lives, and they need to experience them in a way that is not frightening. Remember that even everyday things can be scary if your puppy has never seen them before. Introduce new objects at a distance that your pup finds comfortable (watch for relaxed body language), and even distract her with something pleasant.
-Dr. Daniel Mills, Professor in Veterinary Behavioural Medicine
University of Lincoln, England
The default survival setting programmed into an animal’s DNA is fear, it’s the reason deer don’t generally come out of the forest to say hi to us, it aids survival to be fearful of novelty. Despite domestication being on their side, dogs are still animals, and this embedded fear default also holds true. Genetics can play a big role in how resilient our puppies will be to novelty, but when it comes to adopting a rescue many won’t have the luxury of meeting the parents of their puppy (something a good breeder should always do) to gain reassurance that they pup will be predisposed to sociability or otherwise. Fear is very easy to install or strengthen in an animal, and unfortunately it can in some cases be very difficult to overcome. Therefore, everything we do during this time should be to counteract that natural predisposition.
Exposure, or socialization as it’s often called in dog training, is one of the most critical areas of training for your pup so must be done properly to get the desired outcome. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour supports that the standard of care for puppies should be to receive intentional, properly executed, socialization training before they are fully vaccinated since the benefits to doing so greatly outweigh the risks. You can check out their full position statement here: AVSAB Position Statement On Puppy Socialization
So how do we do this right? We change our perspective from “I need to expose my puppy to everything”, instead to “I want my puppy to feel happy about the things to which I’m exposing them” and we always keep safety top of mind.
What are some examples of actively putting time and energy “eggs” into this training “basket” every day?
Get in the habit of keeping some good treats either in your pocket, or in a treat bag on your waist so you can be ready to capture opportunities outside of deliberate socialization sessions more easily. Your pup is always learning and timing is key to them forming the associations we want. All dogs are born liking food. Some have more refined palates, but if they didn’t desire food they would not be long for this earth, so using food as the pleasantry is a no brainer because we know they intrinsically like it (especially if it’s something really smelly of course!) it’s also fast and easy to deliver.
PRO TIP: Keeping the treats on you all the time for the first little while helps to remove the sight of your treat bag as the predictor of goodies because it’s always in sight, but it’s not always being used to dole out treats.
Mental and physical safety must be top of mind while doing socialization training. To avoid purposefully overwhelming them (aka throwing them in the deep-end to learn) let them make the choice to get closer to something/someone and explore – follow their lead and you’ll see confidence grow if experiences are kept pleasant.
Since this development window starts and often closes before your puppy will be fully vaccinated you must take precautions so that they don’t interact with unvaccinated dogs over 20 weeks of age, puppies who may be sick, or encounter the bodily fluids from other dogs who may be sick, unvaccinated, or parasitic. Avoid off leash dog parks, public spaces which tend to be dog dense (even if dogs are leashed) and organic surface areas (like soccer fields or playgrounds) that may be frequently used as a restroom for neighbourhood dogs. Keeping your dog on a paved path/walkway will be best but can be hard if you have a keen explorer on your hands so think ahead to keep your stress low and their safety high.
Spend time developing a happy emotional response from your puppy every time you enter the room. After you walk into the room start interacting with them using “happy or jolly talk”, provide them with food/treats (toss toward them if shy), get down low, pet, praise and use a toy to play. It won’t take long before you see your pup’s tail wag, or bum wiggle, or paws get “tappy” with a happy anticipating face as soon you enter a room.
Follow the same procedure as above – once your puppy has noticed the novel thing you’re trying to expose them to count to 2 and then turn on your jolly routine with lots of happy talk, paise, treats and/or toys. Look for that same happy anticipation response as noted in the point above around people, animals, objects, sounds, and surfaces once they’ve had several consistently positive exposure experiences with it.
Puppies are notably “plastic” during this period of their lives – meaning the brain’s ability to change and adapt because of experiences. Notice when your puppy is startled or surprised by something and actively respond to cultivate happy feelings about the scary thing by turning on your jolly routine. Engage with your pup using happy talk, try to increase the distance by a few feet between them and the scary thing, provide delicious treats, and patting/praise to counter-condition the fright.
Let your puppy explore at their own pace vs. forcing them to get closer to something new which can hinder resilience development which is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve. Contrary to popular myth you may hear, your dog will not see this as a reward for behaving fearfully, it will simply start conditioning them to have better feelings about the scary thing if we execute properly and consistently.
Getting our puppy happy about body handling - ears, mouth, paws, tail, etc. can be accomplished in the same manner. Reach for the target body area with a gentle touch, count to 2, then reach into your pocket to provide a treat while still touching. Once they eat the treat remove your touch. Repeat. If the touch is too scary in the beginning, start with just a reach toward the body part and then reach for your treat, gradually work up actual handling.
Keep your sessions short, but frequent. Puppies can be pokey on walks since there is so much going on for them so don’t plan this time to get your own exercise in or you’ll be frustrated. This is a training session to work on socialization experiences. Aim to cultivate happy feelings about everything they encounter by associating the feeling of an intrinsically reinforcing thing like food that makes their brain feel good with something they have not yet fully formed an opinion about – it’s an extremely impressionable time in their lives so let’s make a good impression, shall we?