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Puppy Socialization

Do I Need to Take My Puppy to Puppy Class?


What is Socialization????

Socialization of your puppy means teaching him to grow up to be comfortable and act properly with people, other animals and new experiences from riding in a car, walking around the neighborhood or playing with other dogs or greeting cats.

We all want that dog that can go to the park, chase a ball and come back to you.  The better trained your dog is the more you will enjoy them and the more they will enjoy life.  The time to start is now!

There is a “proper” way for your puppy to act to new things and experiences in his world.  But “proper” is defined by you, not by him.  He is not born with an understanding that he shouldn’t be afraid of people he has not met, that he shouldn’t fight with other dogs, or that he shouldn’t be afraid of loud noises.  It is up to you to teach him.

Puppy socialization class, or “Puppy Kindergarten”, provides a crucial step toward helping your puppy with this part of his education or training.

Canine behavioral specialists agree that puppies are the most impressionable early in life.  It is generally thought that when a puppy is between 4 and 16 weeks of age, you have the greatest opportunity to teach him the proper responses to the world around him.  It is not that an older dog can’t be socialized, but it is far easier to accomplish during the “socialization period” prior to 16 weeks of age.

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) recently released a position paper (AVSABonline.org) outlining the importance of early puppy socialization, preferably before the puppy reaches 12 to 16 weeks old. The AVSAB. I encourage owners to take their pets to puppy classes as early as possible ideally between 8 and 12 weeks of age.

Is There A Risk???

You may have been told that obedience class starts at 6 months of age or that you should avoid “Puppy Class” because young puppies aren’t fully vaccinated yet. Six months is far past the critical socialization period and many objectionable habits may already be formed.  You may have been told to avoid puppy socialization class because young pups are just starting out with their vaccinations and the risk of contracting illness is too high.

This reasoning fails for at least two reasons:

  • First, most puppies start puppy kindergarten around 8-10 weeks of age.  If your puppy has followed a proper wellness and vaccination schedule, he should be well on his way to being protected from the diseases he would most commonly encounter in class by that time.
  • Second given the fact that behavior problems are the No 1 reason dogs are placed in shelters and 56% of dogs that enter shelters in the United States are euthanized and poorly socialized puppies are at much greater risk to develop behavioral problems. Think of puppy kindergarten as “vaccination against behavioral problems” – it is just as important as your pup’s other vaccinations

What happens in Puppy Socialization class?

Benefits are positively huge: Puppies learn 1) bite inhibition through puppy play and 2) proper interaction with people during off-leash play and while being handled by strangers. And owners learn to train their puppies in a controlled setting in which training is integrated with play. In this setting, a puppy’s reward for training is play with other dogs.

Poorly socialized puppies are at greater risk of behavior problems such as fear and aggression toward other dogs and people, and of being unable to engage in safe play fighting where they inhibit the force of their bite. Puppy class not only offers an opportunity

for critical socialization, but is also a great forum for owners to help prevent other types of behavior problems such as housesoiling and hyperactivity (the two most commonly reported behavior problems of relinquished dogs)4 and to develop more realistic expectations of their dog—both of which play key roles in reducing the chance of relinquishment.

“Should I Be Afraid of That???”

Dogs do not have this reasoning capability, and they do not generalize well.  An adult dog that has met only a very few people in his life will likely be fearful of a new person he has not met before.  Dogs that are poorly socialized are likely to lead a life full of anxiety, and their quality of life is poor.  In addition, when confronted with a person, animal or object they are unfamiliar with, they have a strong “fight or flight” response.  If flight is not an option, they are likely to respond with aggression, which may result in euthanasia. As a human, when encountering something new you have the capability to use reasoning, and deduce that you are not likely to be harmed.  You know, for instance, that most people under most circumstances do not intend to harm you.  Even if you have never met someone before, you are unlikely to be afraid of them in most situations

On the other hand, puppies when they are young are naturally forgiving of new experiences, as long as they don’t come to harm.  A primary goal of most puppy classes is to expose your pup to as many people, other puppies, sights, sounds and experiences as possible.  The instructors at your puppy class may have your pup walk through obstacle courses or walk across unfamiliar surfaces.  They may help desensitize your puppy to noise by rattling objects or making other strange noises.  You might sit in a circle and pass all the puppies around the circle from person to person.  Puppies need dozens or even hundreds of these encounters.  When they occur in a safe, secure setting, and nothing bad happens to your pup, he will learn to naturally trust new things, rather than growing up fearful.

By taking your pup to puppy kindergarten, you can help instill in him a sense of trust in the world around him so he can grow up to be a happier dog.

Puppy Play Time

Throughout his life, your pup will likely encounter many other dogs, and you want him to be well-behaved when this happens.

You have probably seen dogs when they encounter one another.  They engage in a complex sequence of eye contact, sniffing and posturing that will determine the nature of their relationship – who will submit to whom, under what circumstances, and what behavior will be tolerated.

Dogs are remarkably adept at establishing proper relationships with one another if they are well-socialized.  But like with other interactions, this capability is not necessarily innate – it must be learned.  Puppies will learn these skills to some degree by interacting with their littermates.  But it takes more than that.  To learn proper social skills, your pup must engage in many encounters with other dogs.  As with other experiences, this is much more easily accomplished when your puppy is young, at an age where he will not seem as threatening to other dogs, and where he will be more forgiving of new experiences.  Dogs that become adults without having had much exposure to other dogs often will be socially awkward.  When face to face with another dog, they may not send proper signals, or they may not properly understand signals they receive.  Consequently, they may be quick to act fearfully or aggressively.

A common remark by new puppy owners is, “Oh, my puppy will be socialized … he plays with the neighbor’s dog.”

This is great, but it is not enough.  Happenstance encounters with one other dog will not be enough to teach your pup proper doggy etiquette.  Most puppy socialization classes devote a portion of the class to allowing the puppies to play with one another.  This may be as simple as sitting in a circle with the pups in the middle, doing what puppies do.  They will learn a tremendous amount from one another about what will be tolerated and what will not be.  For instance, this is where puppies learn bite inhibition.  If one puppy nips another too hard while playing, the victim will likely yelp and disengage from playing for a short while.  The nipper learns the lesson that nipping too hard causes the fun to end.  He will be less likely to nip that hard in the future.  There is little substitute for letting puppies learn from one another this way.

Keep in mind that socialization is an ongoing process.  We encourage everyone to take at a minimum puppy socialization class and a basic obedience class.  To remain socialized we recommend that young dogs continue to meet and interact with three unfamiliar people and dogs a day until they are 3 years of age.  Get out and greet and meet!  Great for everyone!

Puppy Socialization class is a fun and easy way to start your new puppy off to a great start.  I have trained 2 obedience champions, take my dogs with me to work every day and teach competition obedience classes.  Do my puppies go to “Puppy Class?” Absolutely!!!

Keep in mind that socialization is an ongoing process. Breeders must never forget that by 8 weeks, the sensitive period of socialization is two-thirds over, and they must expose the puppies to a variety of people before adoption. Likewise, owners need to introduce their young puppies to people in their homes. We also encourage owners to participate in additional training classes after they’ve completed the first course. To remain socialized, we recommend that adolescent dogs continue to meet and interact with at least three unfamiliar people and three unfamiliar dogs a day until they are 3 years old.