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Socializing is key for puppies

Didi McElroy

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POSTED September 22, 2013 6:11 p.m.

DEAR DIDI: We just adopted a gorgeous Boxer puppy a couple of weeks ago.  Our veterinarian said that we should not take him outside until he has all of his shots.  At what age do you recommend that we begin a training program?  — New Dog Parents in Manteca

DEAR NEW DOG PARENTS:  I am so glad you asked this question!  Your veterinarian has the very best of intentions and is concerned about the physical health of your dog. My specialty is in the psychological and behavioral health of your dog.  Parvo is a very real threat to puppies. The virus is spread through fecal matter and can stay on the ground for up to two years despite sun and rain.  Your veterinarian is solely focused on protecting your new canine baby on a physical level.

There is, however, a less obvious threat that is just as lethal. It causes hundreds of thousands of dogs to be re-homed, surrendered, abused, neglected or euthanized each year. Socializing a puppy is the single most important form of training that owners can provide to their young dogs. Dogs that were not properly socialized at the optimal age tend to grow up with behavioral issues. Excessive barking, jumping on people, territorialism, aggressive behaviors, are just a few examples of common issues that grow from a lack of socialization.

The concept of socializing is not an easy one to grasp for us humans. Socializing your dog is not about taking him to the dog park to meet other dogs and make friends.  Dogs are innately designed to notice anything that is different in their environment.  It is a life saving instinct dating back thousands of years. A young puppy’s mind is born like a sponge so it soaks up information and is, for the most part, fearless. His mind stops being super receptive to new data around 16 weeks of age. Some new studies are suggesting even earlier. Once that window of opportunity shuts down, it becomes much more difficult to help your puppy overcome new and different situations.  If you don’t take your puppy anywhere outside of your home, then the sights, sounds, and smells specific to your family will be all that he knows and is comfortable with. The moment anything changes, no matter how insignificant that change is, he might freak out.  Dogs only know two things to do when they are nervous or scared about a change in their environment. Most dogs will choose to run. If they are scared enough and run fast enough, they might survive the event.  Modern dogs live with us in our homes and it becomes difficult for them to run when they are nervous because they are often on a leash which prevents any escaping from scary situations.  Many dogs will then choose to turn, face the source of their fear, and try to intimidate it by barking. Perhaps if they bark loud enough and act intimidating, the scary thing will go away before it can get them.  If a dog is scared to a higher degree, then growls or snapping may ensue, which eventually can lead to biting.

To answer your question, I wholeheartedly believe and recommend that training should start the moment you get your puppy. It is all about socializing them early on.  I am currently working with a new puppy I just brought in from the Netherlands. In order to be physically safe, I don’t put her down on the ground in areas where stray, unvaccinated dogs are likely to have pooped. I want her to see other dogs but not go nose to nose with them.  She is being introduced to a variety of textures under her feet such as, gravel, sand, bark, cement, grass, uneven surfaces, grates, water, etc. Our goal is to have her meet 1000 different people before her window of socialization closes down at 16 weeks old. This way she understands that humans come in all shapes, sizes, heights and skin tones. I want her to understand that although I don’t wear hats, some humans do and it isn’t anything to worry about. Some humans are bald, some smoke, a few have limps, and the young humans move suddenly. When she becomes aware that all of these things are very normal then she won’t be reactive to the differences as she encounters them.  Our world is so normal to us that it is difficult to think of what all you should show your puppy. To that end, I provide a checklist to my clients. Please feel free to email me for the list. The more you socialize your young canine the better your chances of being able to have him participate in most of your family activities without behavioral issues.  Formal training for sit, down, stay, etc can also begin at 8 weeks old. This socialization period makes training much easier because puppies are happy to please, explore and experiment with you.  I hope you enjoy this stage of your dog’s life. It is a very short stage but such a crucial one to being a well adjusted, confident adult dog.

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