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Puppy Socialization - Why, When, and How
City life in Chicago can be exciting for both you and your pet. On a daily basis, you and your dog are likely to encounter a spectrum of people, animals, noises, and environments. Therefore, urban dog owners have an increased responsibility to ensure their dogs are properly socialized and develop the ability to cope with the potential stressors of city life. The first three months of your puppy's life is the critical time period for him/her to learn to adapt to new people, animals, and experiences. Incomplete socialization at this time can increase the risk of behavioral problems later in life including fear, avoidance, and aggression.
- Between 8-12 weeks of age, expose your puppy to numerous people of differing ages, genders, ethnicities, and disabilities to make him/her a properly socialized city dog.
- All puppies should attend a puppy socialization class during this time to learn to communicate correctly with other dogs and be exposed to the different languages of different dog breeds. Per the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) Position Statement on Puppy Socialization: puppies can start socialization class as early as 7-8 weeks of age after receiving a minimum of one set of vaccines and their first deworming at least 7 days prior to the first class
- City dogs need to be exposed to the sounds of cars, buses, trucks and the "L". Although there is a critical "fear period" between 8-10 weeks of age, puppies are able to overcome these fears with exposure and positive reinforcement. Carry plenty of treats to create a positive association with these experiences.
- Even everyday objects can be scary if a puppy has not seen them before, so introduce new objects at a distance and distract your puppy with a toy or treat the first couple of times they see something new. Never force puppies to interact with something they do not want to. Let them approach objects in their own time and give them the choice to move away.
- Spend time desensitizing your puppy to touch and getting him/her accustomed to being handled, including touching his/her ears and paws. Encourage acceptance by rewarding your puppy with a treat. These efforts will be useful when it comes time for nail trims and ear cleanings.
Observe your puppy's body language. Fearful body language can include having the tail tucked between the legs, lifting a paw, backing away, licking the lips, yawning, panting, ears pinned back, and wide eyes with dilated pupils. If your puppy looks worried or fearful when he/she encounters something, work on helping him/her to feel more positive about it.
If your puppy becomes frightened in a situation and does not quickly recover, remove him/her from a situation and engage his/her interest in something else. Do not get upset with him/her and do not make a fuss. Later, try to re-introduce the object, situation, or environment in a more appealing, relaxing way and reward your puppy for positive behaviors.
Additional American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) Recommendations
- Classes and at-home training should be based on positive reinforcement with frequent rewards, praise, petting, play, and/or treats. Positive and consistent training is associated with fewer behavioral problems and better obedience than methods that involve punishment and/or encourage human dominance.
- Puppies should be encouraged to explore, investigate and manipulate their environments. Interactive toys and games, a variety of surfaces, tunnels, steps, chutes, and other stimuli can enrich the puppy's life.
- Puppies should accompany their owners on as many car trips as possible.
- Time must be scheduled for puppies to play alone with their favorite toys (such as puzzle-type toys or toys stuffed with food/treats), or take naps in safe places such as crates or puppy pens. This teaches puppies to amuse themselves and may help prevent problems of over-attachment to owners.
After 12 weeks of age, it is still essential to continue socialization of our pets! Continuing to offer a wide variety of experiences during the first year of life helps prevent separation-related behaviors. Further exposure throughout their lifetimes helps maintain the outgoing and social behaviors necessary for our canine citizens to have full enjoyment of our Chicago lifestyles. However, owners of puppies displaying fear should seek veterinary guidance immediately.