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What is socialization?

Socialization is the process whereby the puppy learns about itself, its own species and the other species with which it will live. During this process the puppy develops relationships with other living beings in its environment. Another important term relating to the puppy's development is "habituation".

What is habituation?

As all animals develop there are numerous stimuli (sounds, smells, sights and events) that they need to become accustomed to in their environment. If puppies do not encounter these stimuli and place them in their frame of reference for the world around them then the stimuli can induce fear and anxiety when they are encountered later in life. Habituation is the process whereby dogs get used to a wide variety of stimuli, and stop reacting to them provided that there are no untoward consequences.

Why are these terms important?

To reduce the possibility of fearful responses as a puppy grows and matures, it is essential to expose young puppies to many stimuli (people, places and things) when they can most effectively socialize and habituate to these stimuli. Early handling and events that occur during the first 2 to 4 months of life, are critical factors in the social development of the dog. Dogs that receive insufficient exposure to people, other animals and new environments during this time may develop irreversible fears, leading to timidity or aggression.

What can I do to improve my chances of having a social, non-fearful dog?


The genetics of the breed and of the parents in particular play an important role in how sociable, playful, fearful, excitable, or domineering a puppy becomes. In order to maximize your chances of having a dog who is sociable you should choose a breed and parents (both male and female) that have the type of behavior that you would like the puppy to have. Of course, there is a great deal of variability between individuals, so that breed and parental behavior will not always be indicative of what the puppy will be like.

Puppy assessment

Even the most sociable and playful of puppies may become fearful and aggressive as they develop out of puppyhood. Avoid selecting puppies that are shy, withdrawn or fearful. But selecting a friendly and non-fearful puppy does not ensure that this behavior will persist into adulthood. Puppies under three months of age are still developing their social skills, but as puppies age these criteria do begin to become more reliable. Assessing the behavior of the parents, and understanding the behavior of a breed are far more critical than assessing an individual puppy.

Early handling

Puppies that are stimulated and handled from birth to five weeks of age are more confident, sociable, exploratory, faster maturing and better able to handle stress as they develop. Puppies obtained from a breeder or home where they have had frequent contact and interaction with people are likely to be more sociable and less fearful as they develop.

Primary socialization

There is a sensitive period in the development of most species when they develop social attachments with their own and other species, independent of punishment and rewards. In fact, both positive and negative events seem to accelerate socialization The events that occur during this socialization period determine the puppy's preferred social partners, as well as to what species it feels it belongs. By recognizing the time frame in which canine socialization develops, you can help to ensure a healthy social attachment to people and other animals, including other dogs.

The main socialization period for dogs begins at approximately 3 weeks of age and is diminishing by 12 to 14 weeks. Peak sensitivity is at approximately 6 to 8 weeks. Beyond 12 to 14 weeks there is a tendency to act fearfully towards new people, animals and situations. Many young dogs will regress or become fearful again if they do not receive continued social interaction as they grow and develop and especially during the first 6-8 months of life.

To help to maintain a healthy social relationship with other dogs throughout life, dogs should maintain their social contacts with their mother and littermates until 6 to 8 weeks of age. They should continue to have regular social interaction and play sessions with other dogs after they are taken into a new home.

What is the best age to obtain my new puppy?

Since it is so important for the puppy to develop and maintain social attachments to their own species, puppies should ideally remain with their mother and littermates until about 7 weeks of age. Then when placed in the new home they can expand their social contacts to new people and species while still in their socialization period. By this time puppies will also begin to develop preferences for elimination sites, so that this timing can be helpful for housetraining

What can I do to assist my puppy in its social development?

There should be little problem with a puppy that is less than 12 weeks of age developing healthy and lasting attachments to the people, sights and sounds in its new home. Your puppy is most likely to become fearful of stimuli that are not found in its day-to-day routine. Make a conscious effort to identify those people and situations that the puppy is not regularly exposed to. For example, if there are no children in the home, you might arrange regular play sessions with children. If you live in the country, make a few trips into the city, so that the puppy can be taken for walks on city streets. Conversely, a puppy that grows up in the city might become fearful or excited towards farm animals that it was not exposed to during its early development.

Introduce your puppy to as many new people and situations as possible, beginning in its first three months of development. People in uniforms, babies, toddlers, the elderly, the physically challenged are just a few examples that might lead to fear and anxiety, unless there is sufficient early exposure. Similarly, car rides, lifts, stairs, or the noises of cars, trains, airplanes, or hot air balloons are some examples of events and experiences to which the puppy might be usefully exposed. It is important that the puppy be given the opportunity to relax in these new situations and not just taken out and excited by them all.

One way to facilitate the introduction of the puppy to new situations and people is to provide a reward such as a favorite toy or biscuit each time it is exposed to a new stimulus. If strangers offer a biscuit to the puppy each time they meet it then it will learn to look forward to meeting people. Offering rewards will also discourage hand-shyness since the puppy will learn to associate new friends and an outstretched hand with something positive. Once the puppy has learned to sit on command, each new friend should ask it to sit before giving the biscuit. This teaches a proper greeting and will make the puppy less likely to jump up at people.

The puppy needs to have the opportunity to meet and receive treats from a wide variety of people of all ages, races, appearances and both sexes during the formative months. There will of course, be times when your puppy is in a new situation and you do not have treats. Be sure then to use a happy tone of voice and encourage your puppy to relax.

If your puppy seems to panic, back off a little and try again later, rather than aggravating the fear. Never reassure the fearful dog as this might serve to reward the fearful behavior

Is it healthy to take my puppy out in public at such a young age?

There is always a concern about the risks of taking the puppy out of its home before it is fully vaccinated because it may be exposed to infection before the vaccines have had time to become protective. However benefits gained from these new and early public appearances can be enormous and without them the risk of the puppy developing permanent fears or anxiety is a serious concern.

One solution is for people and healthy vaccinated animals to visit the puppy in its own home, until it is sufficiently vaccinated to be taken out. A compromise is to take the puppy out to meet people and other pets in low risk environments. As long as vaccines are up-to-date, taking the puppy for walks along the pavement and avoiding neighborhood parks where feces and urine might accumulate is generally safe and effective. Alternatively the puppy may be carried out to meet people.

Another valuable aid to successful socialization and habituation for your puppy is to enroll in puppy socialization classes. If these classes are held indoors in a room that can be cleaned and disinfected, and all puppies are screened for vaccination and health prior to each class, these classes provide varied and plentiful exposure to people and other dogs, in a low risk environment.

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