"Why does my dog have a behavior problem? I TOOK him to puppy class!"
I hear this - or variations of this - a lot. Like, all the time. In fact, at least half the dogs in my aggression cases have taken a puppy class. That's way up from 10-15 years ago.
While more dog owners are aware of the importance of socialization than they used to be, the complex concept of socialization has been boiled down to almost useless sound bytes. Online articles give generic advice like "Socialization is very important. Enroll your puppy in a socialization class."
I taught puppy classes for many years. And I can say that even the best puppy class provides only about 5% of the socialization that a new puppy needs.
A puppy class is held in just one environment, with one group of people and one group of puppies. Imagine if a child were only exposed to two places - home and the same classroom - for the first 10 years of their life...they would not be a well-socialized child! Socialization means exposing a puppy to many novel sights, smells, sounds, and surfaces, in as many different environments as safely possible, ensuring a pleasant experience in those environments, especially for (but not limited to) the first 14 weeks of their life, the critical period of socialization.
Basically, be prepared to come home from work and take your puppy on a safe socialization field trip to a new location every day for the first six weeks in your home. After that, you can drop it to 2-3 days a week until your puppy is at least 5 months old. Ideally, until your puppy is past the adolescent stage (approx 18 months old).
Seem extreme? I didn't say these trips have to last for hours. They can be quick trips to the local grocery store parking lot or even sitting on a local park bench (keeping new puppies off the ground) for 10 minutes before heading home. But you need to do something new every day.
Or, you know, you could wait 6 months and then spend $900 or more to hire a trainer to help you undo your dog's leash reactivity or stranger-directed aggression. Totally your choice.
Socialization prepares your puppy for life in your world, which frequently presents unusual and even scary situations.
What is NOT a socialization program:
Breeder/rescue having a lot of dogs
Having a "friendly" breed
Having a puppy who is already friendly
Having other dogs at home
Having other people at home
Introducing a puppy to one dog
Taking a six-week puppy class
Just because your puppy is currently friendly to dogs and people now, in your home, or in one or two environments, does not mean you don't need to provide the same amount of socialization that a more reserved puppy needs. Not if you want to ensure that your puppy remains friendly.
The more novel experiences your puppy has which result in a positive, pleasant outcome, the more prepared your puppy will be for his or her future life.
Contrary to popular belief, a puppy does not need to make contact with dogs and people for socialization to occur. This is why you can still provide socialization without putting your puppy at risk.
DO'S AND DON'TS
Carry your puppy into dog-friendly stores (this doesn't just mean pet stores - you'd be surprised at how many banks and non-dog retail stores are willing to help a responsible owner with socialization).
Be generous with rewards. Cheese. Hot dogs. Small little tasty bits of meaty, cheesy goodness that accompanies all new and potentially scary experiences. No, your puppy isn't going to get fat.
Watch new people from a distance - overly-exuberant puppies can learn that they don't get to greet everyone just because they want to (impulse control - important life skill), and shy puppies can learn that the appearance of strangers does not mean a scary encounter.
Carry your puppy into the vet for non-vaccination visits, and the groomer (if your dog will require grooming) for a quick treat without the shampoo.
Expose your puppy to other dogs...from your car: Sit in the parking lot of the dog park and let your puppy watch the dogs come and go.
Fill a kiddie pool with water bottles, boxes, and other strange objects and let your puppy explore...then repeat this in different areas of your house, in your yard, even on your front porch (if you can safely contain your puppy and prevent him/her from getting on the front lawn).
Buy a fun playset with tunnels and tents from your local toy store. Fill the tunnels with toys and treats to encourage your puppy to explore.
DON'T ever force your puppy to approach, enter, or interact with anything that they aren't willingly approaching, entering, or interacting with. EVER. Shy puppies sometimes need multiple approaches to work up the courage to interact. Don't force it. If you do, I might just show up on your porch and squirt you in the face with a water bottle. No! Bad puppy owner!
DON'T place your puppy on dirt or grass in public areas or in back yards where friends/family have lived for less than two years. That's because viruses like Parvo can live in the soil for that long.
DON'T take your puppy to the dog park until they are at least 5-6 months old and have already been socialized to a variety of other dogs. Dog parks are for socialized dogs, not for socialization. Being charged, swarmed, knocked over, humped, and generally terrorized is definitely not a positive experience.
DON'T let well-meaning strangers overwhelm your puppy with enthusiastic greetings, invasive handling, or their own, special form of training that they claim to have gleaned from dog ownership.
DON'T let your puppy meet strange dogs you encounter in public unless you are prepared to embark on a significant behavior modification program. Relying on a complete stranger to be honest and objective about their dog's behavior is gambling with your puppy's safety.
DON'T let your friendly puppy get away with murder in the name of socializaation. Part of socialization is learning how to interact with the world. For confident, friendly puppies, that also means learning good manners around strangers and strange dogs. Allowing a friendly puppy to treat the world like his mosh pit when he is little is going to make life super fun when he's 60 lbs.
The best socialization program starts at the breeder or foster home, who introduces puppies to new sights, sounds, surfaces, and smells long before they come home with you. This breeder provides a fun play area for her puppies:
Starting around 5 months of age, your puppy is going to freak out a little. Part of this is normal adolescent behavior (oh, and has anyone told you that this is when teething really starts?), but adolescent dogs go through multiple and brief fear periods. During this time, you're going to need to renew your socialization efforts.
Here's the key: Listen to your dog. If something is scaring your adolescent dog, the fear is very real to them. Don't force the issue just because you know it's just a statue or garbage can. Give your dog the distance they need to feel safe, then reintroduce the scary thing from a distance, accompanied by LOTS of great things. This is where a good trainer can help you. The goal here is for your dog to learn that a) scary things usually aren't as bad as they seem and bravery is always rewarded, and b) they can trust you to keep them safe.
YEAH, IT'S A LOT OF WORK...BUT YOU ONLY GET ONE CHANCE TO DO IT RIGHT
Waiting until a puppy has received a full set of vaccinations to begin a socialization program is too little, too late! Socialization begins on Day 1 with you. The first 8 weeks in your home should be devoted to teaching important life skills that you only get one chance to get right.
Don't worry about "obedience" training right away, outside of a good name response and recall. A solid down-stay is not going to make for drama-free nail trims or prevent your dog from biting strangers.
Could you skip all this work and still end up with a happy, well-adjusted pet? Maybe. But that's a big - and expensive - risk to take with a 15+ year commitment.
Could you do all this work and still end up with a dog with a behavior problem? Maybe. There are a lot of other factors that contribute to aggressive behavior, including genetics (trainers can't fix your dog's DNA) and learning history (if a trainer tells you to yank on your dog's pinch collar every time he sees another dog, he's got a really good chance of getting cranky when he sees other dogs).
Dog behavior is about risk assessment and management. My recommendations to my clients are designed to minimize the risk that their dog will develop a behavior problem in the future. There are no guarantees - behavior is not static, it changes and adapts depending on the dog's needs. Your job is to reduce the odds that your puppy's behavior changes for the worse.
By doing all this work, you significantly minimize the risk that your dog will develop a problem that could jeopardize his success in your home...or even his life. If this seems like more work than you can handle, you might not be ready for a puppy. Check out your local shelter for a nice 4+ year-old dog. There are no longevity guarantees no matter what age dog you get, so you may as well pick a dog who fits your lifestyle now. 10 years with the right dog for your lifestyle is far better than 15 years with one who doesn't.
Finally, if your puppy's veterinarian insists that your puppy stay indoors until they are "fully vaccinated," find a new veterinarian who is up-to-date on the importance of puppy socialization.
And if a veterinarian or a member of their staff tells you that you must physically manhandle, pin, roll, or shake your puppy to establish dominance, pick up your puppy and RUN out of that office as fast as you can!
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