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We’ve all seen examples of a shy dog, who cowers and sleeks away when strangers approach. Who maybe even growls at people who try to pet them.
We’ve all seen dogs who don’t get involved and be a part of things at social gatherings. Who stay close to their owners and don’t dare to go explore when out in the country, in a new place with new sights and smells.
Missing out on closeness and companionship, fun and adventure.
It’s usually the case of a dog who missed out on crucial socialization. But what is puppy socialization? And how do you go about it?
Find out in this article how to socialize a puppy, an essential, free, and easy way to raise a confident, behaviorally sound, and happy dog.
What is Puppy Socialization? Why is it Important?
Puppy socialization is a process in which you take advantage of your pup’s fearless first weeks to give them as many new exposures and experiences as you can.
The importance of puppy socialization can’t be overemphasized. This ongoing process will make sure your Labrador accepts new experiences in a happy and relaxed way, eventually becoming a confident and self-assured companion.
By planning and executing thoughtfully planned socialization, you not only give your pup an exceptional gift, but you also treat yourself to a dog that will walk by your side with the utmost composure and grace, through all kinds of situations and experiences.
To learn more about the benefits of socialization, please visit the first article in this series — What is Socialization? Why is it So Important?
Your puppy is dependent on you to provide new experiences. The world is a big and sometimes scary place, but with you by their side, your puppy will learn to take it all in stride.
This article will walk you through the socialization process so that you and your Labrador pup can make the most of each and every day you spend together.
When Should I Start to Socialize My Puppy?
Believe it or not, the critical period for exposing your pup to new experiences starts at about 3 weeks of age.
Labradors are naturally social animals, and between the ages of 3 and 12 weeks, they are social and fearless, making this a perfect time to offer new and exciting exposures.
According to the ASPCA, between the ages of 12 and 18 weeks is when the window of opportunity for easy socialization ends.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get your dog out exploring, but it can be a period of fear for your pup, and with each passing week, it becomes harder to expose them too distracting, exciting, or over-stimulating experiences.
After your dog reaches 18 weeks, it becomes very difficult to convince them to like something new, especially if your Labrador has developed a fear or misconception about a person, place, or experience.
What Should Socialization Experiences Include?
Early socialization should include exposure to all kinds of people, animals, objects, and experiences.
These experiences will vary from familiar routines that your pup will probably take in stride, to unusual or unfamiliar experiences that are more intense for your puppy:
- People – Your puppy should learn how to interact with different people, including babies, children, and the elderly, people using canes, people in uniforms, people in wheelchairs, and people of different skin colors.
- Dogs – Learning how to be a polite and respectful canine citizen takes plenty of practice. Your pup should have opportunities to play with puppies and dogs of different breeds and sizes. They should also experience walking past other dogs without meeting and observing as they walk right past your puppy.
- Places and experiences – Everywhere you go and everything you do gives your puppy different challenges and experiences. Even your familiar neighborhood changes at night, in the rain, or in the snow. In addition to taking in the world as an observer, your pup should also have the opportunity to participate in activities. Socialization experiences are as unlimited as your creativity. For starters, try exposing your puppy to some of these unique situations and experiences.
- Sidewalks, streets, and roads with different levels of traffic
- Parking lots or areas in front of strip malls where your pup can see people and cars coming and going
- Playgrounds or parks/ball fields where kids are playing
- Training classes
- Lakes, rivers, pools, and sandy beaches
- Parades or other busy events
Do I Need to Do Anything Special When I’m Socializing My Puppy?
Your most important job when socializing your new pup is to make sure every experience is a positive one, that they don’t become overwhelmed, over-excited, or frightened during the exposure.
The quality of each new experience is just as important as the number of experiences.
Your puppy should be able to think, learn, and cooperate with you when you are working together. If your pup is unable to respond to you or shows signs of stress, you need to make changes to keep the exposure positive.
Consider moving farther away from the distraction, touching your pup gently to offer support, or leaving the scene entirely to try a similar but more gentle exposure another day.
What Should I Do If My Pup Becomes Frightened During Socialization?
It’s critical that your puppy doesn’t associate fear with new experiences, even if they seem uncomfortable at first. So never try to ‘push them through the fear’ and try not to make too much fuss yourself.
If you’re calm and confident, your dog can sense this energy and it will have a calming effect.
As an example of what you can do, if your pup seems afraid of crowds, start by watching the situation from afar, using delicious treats as a reward for calm behavior.
As your puppy becomes more comfortable, you can gradually decrease your distance from the situation, using praise and treats to keep it positive.
Another solution is to start with smaller crowds gradually working your way up to larger ones. You can use this same technique with anything your dog is afraid or unsure of.
Make an effort to do something your pup loves immediately after each socialization. This will help them to look forward to each and every exposure.
Puppy Socialization Classes
Puppy classes are a great way to expose your pup to other people and dogs. Your puppy will learn how to interact and play with other dogs off-leash and how to accept being handled by many other people.
Some classes also work on exposing dogs to strange situations such as loud music, noises, people in costumes, and even battery-powered cars and animals.
Puppy class is also a great place for you to practice your own handling skills and to meet and work with other people who are socializing and raising puppies just like you.
Can I Socialize My Puppy Before They Have Had All Their Vaccinations?
Because the window of opportunity for proper socialization occurs at such a young age, it’s important to start socializing with them as soon as you can, even if your puppy isn’t fully vaccinated.
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior believes that the risks of behavioral problems from improper socialization far outweigh the risk of infection from disease or illness.
Take a few common-sense precautions before exposing your puppy to risky situations before they are vaccinated. Choose highly monitored puppy classes in sanitary environments over dog parks where there is no oversight.
Schedule puppy play dates with dogs who you know are healthy and vaccinated, and take advantage of lots of opportunities for meeting new people.
Do this in your own home, during organized activities and outings, or even in front of shopping centers, grocery stores, and strip malls.
How To Socialize A Puppy – Do’s and Don’ts
When planning appropriate socialization experiences for your puppy, there are many things to consider. Here are the most important ones I can think of, listed in an easy ‘do’s and don’ts’ format:
First of all:
- Do make sure that each event or exposure is pleasant for you and your puppy.
- Do keep experiences short so your puppy doesn’t get overwhelmed.
- Do increase the duration of the exposure over time, as well as the level of distraction to make things challenging, but not frightening.
- Do invite friends and family over to meet your puppy. Extend the invitation to babies, toddlers, men, women, and people from all different backgrounds.
- Do invite friendly, healthy, vaccinated dogs over to play with your pup and visit the homes of these dogs as well.
- Do bring your pup to places where there is plenty of activity.
- Do take your puppy for frequent car rides.
- Do introduce your puppy to new objects like umbrellas, boxes, trash cans, vacuum cleaners, bicycles, and skateboards.
- Do introduce your puppy to new and unusual sounds.
- Do introduce your puppy to all kinds of body handling, including brushing, bathing, tooth brushing, nail clipping, ear and teeth cleaning, and body inspections.
And while keeping the above in mind:
- Don’t expose your puppy to situations that they aren’t ready for.
- Don’t bring your unvaccinated puppy to places visited by unhealthy or unvaccinated dogs.
- Don’t reward fearful behavior. In trying to soothe your fearful puppy with praise or treats, you may inadvertently encourage fearful behavior. Instead, only reward the behavior you want to see, and if your dog is scared, move away from the situation.
- Don’t rush. Let your puppy work at a pace that is comfortable. Your job is to provide the opportunity. They will do the socializing.
- Don’t wait! This window of opportunity is very short, and the more you can take advantage of it, the easier it will be to work with your puppy in all kinds of situations as they mature.
While socializing your puppy may seem like a daunting task at first, it’s a crucial step you simply must take toward raising a confident, happy Labrador who is pleasant to live, work, and play with.
As you and your puppy explore the world together, you will form an unbreakable bond that will last throughout your dog’s life, and that is reason enough to take the time and energy to socialize your puppy now, while you still have the chance.
Have you started socializing your puppy?
If so, tell us about your experiences in the comment section below.
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