Raising a confident and happy dog starts with proper puppy socialization. Socialization is the process of helping your puppy form positive associations with new sights, sounds and experiences. How can we possibly accomplish socialization during a pandemic while following stay at home orders and social distancing guidelines? We just need to get creative. We’ve outlined specific suggestions below, but first, let’s talk about how socialization works and why it is important.
How does socialization work?
Socialization uses classical conditioning to teach puppies that new stuff is safe and predicts praise and treats. In essence, you are building a library of positive experiences for your pup. There are two elements to a good socialization plan:
1. Praise and treat when your puppy looks at or interacts with new sights, sounds and experiences. This act of pairing (new stuff leads to good stuff) is how you create a positive emotional response.
2. Give your pup space and let them proceed at their own pace. Remember, your puppy has no reason to think that noisy garbage trucks or flags flapping in the breeze are safe. How can you tell if your pup feels safe? Your pup will eat treats, is not barking or hiding, and can respond to easy cues like sit or touch. Don’t force your puppy to interact with new things; just let their natural curiosity take over, and then praise and treat while they explore the world around them.
Socialization is the process of helping your puppy form positive associations with new sights, sounds and experiences.
The socialization window and fear periods
The socialization clock starts ticking the moment our puppy is born. The main socialization window is between three weeks and four months of age; this is when pups are most comfortable around new experiences, so it is the ideal time to focus on socialization. Your pup will benefit from continued socialization efforts throughout adolescence, however. The adage of “use it or lose it” definitely applies to socialization!
Note that puppies typically go through an initial fear period between eight and ten weeks of age, when it is particularly important to ensure that new experiences are positive and fun, and to avoid unpleasant experiences.
Between three and four months of age, most puppies will begin displaying caution around new sights, sounds and experiences, and a secondary fear period occurs in adolescence, between six to twelve months of age.
During fear periods, which can last one to three weeks, you may notice your pup avoiding or withdrawing from both familiar and unfamiliar sights, sounds and experiences. Be patient, give your puppy plenty of space, and continue offering praise and treats when your pup notices or interacts with new things. Corrections are only going to make your pup more stressed out, so be nice while your puppy is navigating this challenging time.
Let’s get creative
So, how do you socialize your pup to new sights, sounds and experiences when you are supposed to stay home? Here are some suggestions:
Vary your walking route to include new streets, trails and parks.
On your walks, create a positive association towards new people and dogs (at a safe distance), squirrels, and birds by giving your pup praise and a treat for noticing all of these things. If you don’t typically see other animals on your walks, ask a helper to pretend to walk a stuffed animal past your yard.
Encourage your pup to explore their environment; praise and treat for sniffing, climbing onto rocks, logs, stumps, benches, playground equipment, stairs, etc.
Go for rides in the car to see new people, dogs, and sights.
Become “new people” by having a costume party! Put on your mask, hats, sunglasses, helmets, costumes, uniforms, swim goggles, or hold a cane or umbrella. Act normal; you’re not trying to scare your pup.
Let your pup experience different surfaces; give praise and treats for walking on linoleum, gravel, landscaping rocks, concrete, bricks, sand, tarp, a board laid on the ground, an empty kiddy pool, a crate pan laid on the grass.
What’s in your garage? Get out your bike, skateboard, scooter, stroller, wagon, wheelbarrow, lawnmower, or roller suitcase. Praise and treat when your pup looks at the stationary object, then ask a helper to move the object while you give praise and treats to your pup.
Place a variety of novel objects on the floor or in a fenced yard (consider buckets, pots and pans, laundry baskets, yard tools, traffic cones), then scatter a trail of treats around and through them.
Let your pup experience a variety of sounds: alarm clock, dishwasher, laundry machine, sound of stove burner ignition, car horn, musical instruments, kids’ toys that make sounds or speak. Praise and treat when your pup orients to the new sound. If your pup reacts to sounds, you can record the sound on your smartphone, then play it back at a low volume, and gradually increase the volume. For novel sounds like sirens, fireworks, or a crying baby, download an app like Sound Proof Puppy from the App Store or Play Store, or check out the calming music and desensitizing sounds from Calmsound and iCalmPet.
Combine movement and sound: let your puppy check out kids’ toys with motors (arranged so they are moving away from your puppy), observe laundry hanging on the line and moving in the wind, or watch while you rake, shovel or sweep.
For personalized coaching on puppy socialization and training, check out our online classes here.
Plan some socialization activities every day to have a confident pup who is ready to take on the world!