we can’t think of a more important quality in a pet dog than to be friendly to people, especially to children. Consequently, there are no more pressing items on your dog’s training agenda than socialization and habituation. Socialization and habituation make your dog fit to be a great companion. Well-socialized dogs develop confidence and do not become overly dependent on their owners. They are better equipped to calmly handle a variety of situations around people or when left at home alone.
Because friendly dogs are a pleasure to be around, owners enjoy spending
time playing with and training them. In turn, the dogs are much less likely to chew, bark excessively, or soil in the house. Obviously, a well-socialized dog has no need to hide or bite. And well-socialized dogs are certainly more likely to live longer, happier, healthier, and more enriched lives.
What Are Socialization and Habituation?
Socialization is the process that makes your dog-friendly with animals and,
even more important, with people. Sure, it would be a severe inconvenience if your dog were unfriendly to other dogs, especially if you must walk your dog on the street and pass other dogs every day. But it would be a more pressing and constant worry if your dog were unfriendly to people, and it would be a disaster if your dog were not friendly to family members.
First, you should socialize the dog to your family, but this step alone is not sufficient, no matter what size your dog. Many owners of super-friendly family dogs experience a rude awakening when the dog snaps at a visiting child, a stranger in the dog park, or the veterinarian. It’s great that the dog likes Mom, Dad, the two kids, and a couple of family friends since these are the people your dog will spend most of her time with. But socialization means teaching your dog to be friendly and accepting of all people you introduce to her, especially unfamiliar children and men, as these two groups of people are the most likely to be bitten by a dog. It is not sufficient to teach your dog just to get along with her usual social circle. There is always the chance that an unfamiliar child or veterinary technician will handle your dog, and you want her to be prepared for the encounter.
Puppy Socialization and Habituation
Although you can obedience-train a dog at any age, a sound temperament
is something that should be nurtured and improved upon early in life. If
you delay this process, you can still socialize your adolescent or adult dog,
but it will be much more time-consuming, and you could be playing catch-up for years to come.
The concept of early socialization and puppy training was rediscovered and popularized by dogs’ best friend, English veterinarian and behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar. No other training innovation has had such a dramatic influence on the lives of pet dogs and their owners around the world than this one. Early socialization is the best way to create your perfect companion and to avoid behavior and temperament problems.
Certainly, puppy-training concepts are not new. In fact, they’re so old
that they’re new again! Both dog and horse texts from the 1800s talk about early training and gentling procedures, but many of these concepts were lost to the world of dog and horse trainers for the greater part of the
twentieth century. However, the word has spread, and puppy socialization
and training are at the forefront of modern dog lovers’ agendas. In fact, you can find puppy playgroups, puppy-training classes, and adult dog socialization groups in just about every town and city. Thanks to Dr. Dunbar and others like him, the socialization revolution has been very successful!
A Puppy’s Development
An understanding of the developmental stages a puppy goes through in
the first few months of her life is valuable whether you are working with a
young pup or an adult dog. In either case, it’s important to consider that
these early weeks are the foundation for her behavior for a lifetime.
Birth to twenty-one days: throughout this era, the puppy has a very restricted mentality and reacts solely to her desires for heat, food, and sleep. At the end of this period, the pup’s eyes begin to open, and as a result, the pup begins to respond to movement and sounds.
21st to 28th day: During this time, the puppy’s brain and nervous system begin to develop rapidly. At this stage, the pup has a greater sense of awareness and is strongly affected by conditions and experiences.
5th to 7th week: At this stage, the puppy is likely to begin to explore her surroundings and develop a greater social awareness of both her littermates and any people she is exposed to (especially in regard to recognizing voices). A social order within the litter starts to establish itself; it is most obvious at feeding times, when some pups fight confidently for food (the pups begin biting), while others wait passively. The pups’ mother begins weaning them and teaching them basic manners, especially in regard to taking food gently from her. If they are too rough, she will get up to walk away.
8th to 12th week: The pup’s ability to learn is at full capacity by this point. It is crucial to take advantage of this period so that you can make the most of your pup’s ability to learn so much in such a short time. Your pup’s bladder and bowel muscles are starting to develop, and some pups at this age can sleep through the night.
13th to 16th week: During this period, the puppy is likely to begin asserting herself and displaying greater independence, much like a toddler.
It is especially important to control resources (food, toys, attention, and
the environment) so that they are useful as tools to teach your pup to behave politely, especially in regard to curbing nipping.
17th to 24th week: At this stage, the puppy is much like a 13-year old child. The pup is likely to demonstrate greater independence and may seem to be challenging you every step of the way. She is coping with the pain of teething as well as the hormonal changes that result from moving toward sexual maturity.
25th to 72nd week: During this period of young adulthood, the pup is likely to be full of energy and exuberance. It is crucial that you continue to help her focus that energy in positive ways and improve her understanding of how you want her to behave so that she can mature into the dog of your dreams!
Getting Used to Sounds
It is vital to expose very young pups to a variety of noises, especially during the first few weeks of life, as their ears are opening. This exposure enables developing pups to become accustomed to loud and potentially scary noises in a gradual fashion. Getting accustomed to many different sounds is a key ingredient in creating a dog who gets to experience and enjoy lots of social situations throughout her life.
When familiarizing a puppy with various sounds, perhaps the most important precaution you can take is to ensure that the puppy has been raised indoors not in a barn, not in a kennel, but inside a home, which is where you will want her to be with you for her whole life. Ideally, she will be situated in an area where she has exposure to the comings and goings of the household. This precaution is especially important with sound-sensitive breeds, such as guarding breeds. If you have done your homework and have chosen a pup who has been raised inside a home or in a shelter that provides an enriching environment, then you know she is already off to a good start on her journey down the socialization highway! But don’t fret if you are adopting a puppy or an adult dog and don’t know her background. Simply do your best to show her to a bunch of traditional, everyday noises in her new home. So no tiptoeing around this little girl. Turn up the radio, open the windows, and start vacuuming!
Getting Used to Surfaces
Some dogs are very sensitive to particular surfaces and will do all they can
to avoid walking across them. You can prevent such issues by gradually exposing your pup to various surfaces right away. Praise, food, and toys can
be useful motivators and rewards when teaching your dog to be comfortable on varied surfaces.
Getting to Know People
To keep up with her developmental timetable, your puppy needs to be well on her way in regard to socialization with people by the time she is 4 months old. As a general rule, your pup needs to have met at least fifty different people in a positive setting. Fifty people by 4 months old? Actually, it’s easy. All you have to do is invite people to your home and have a few puppy parties!
Some people have told me that this is an unrealistic demand to make of a new puppy owner. But again, nothing is more important for a pet dog than to be well socialized and friendly. And there is no better time to lay the foundation than in early puppyhood. Investing time and energy in this process early on will save you a whole lot of time and energy (and probably grief) later on. Anyway, socializing your puppy is fun! Put the word out to your friends that they can come and play with your new dog, and chances are you’ll have to throw a few little parties a week to accommodate them all! If you can find a puppy class in your area, all the better.
If you want a dog who is friendly with people and other animals, you must
begin socializing in puppyhood and maintain socialization throughout the
dog’s life. There is no better way to introduce your dog to numerous people in pleasant and rewarding settings than to host puppy parties in your home or at a local training school or veterinary practice.
Initially, invite close family and friends, and teach them all to use tiny bits of food (you can use your dog’s normal meals or special treats) to teach your dog to come, sit, and lie down. Not only will your friends train your dog for you, but your dog also will learn to love people. Be sure to invite women and men, as well as children, a few at a time.
Once the puppy is thoroughly at ease with all sorts of people, it’s time for a little frivolity. Have costume parties where everybody wears a hat, carries something unusual, and adopts silly mannerisms. This might sound a little ridiculous, but it’s for a serious reason. Basically, after a series of puppy parties like these, little in the real world will really scare your dog. For example, if a child who has dressed up for Halloween as a frog hops by your dog and taps her on the head with a wand, your pup will think, “Been there, done that!” and wag her tail happily.
If it is unrealistic for you to host a puppy party in your home, all you have to do is contact a local trainer or veterinarian, who may already host their own weekly puppy parties. If not, suggest that they do!
Get your dog used to the strange things people do, too, like staring and manhandling. Sadly, not everyone is respectful of a dog’s limits, and it’s likely that at some point someone will touch your dog a little more roughly than is appropriate. So get your dog used to this now when she is a puppy. In fact, if you do things right, you will have a dog who not only tolerates but enjoys just about any sort of handling!
Start by having family members hand-feed while they stare at and touch the pup. Touch her very gently at first. Gradually, increase the force of your handling. At the same time, you might want to increase the value of the
rewards. Work up to being able to be only as rough as a typical child might be if left unsupervised. Not that any young child should be left unsupervised with a dog, but if it happens by accident, you want a dog who is as prepared as possible. After practicing for a week or so, invite a friend over and have her hand-feed your dog while she gently touches the dog and you handle the dog a little more roughly. Eventually, you should have a dog who is comfortable with just about anyone handling her in just about any way.