This past Wednesday was National Dog Day, and to mark this day, we'll be discussing puppy and dog socialization. Puppies are adorable and fun, but it takes work and patience to ensure that they become well-adjusted dogs. Dogs depend on their people to navigate a complex human world, and this includes introducing them to a variety of people and animals from a young age.
The Importance of Socialization
As the ASPCA states in their info sheet on puppy socialization, puppies are quite open to new experiences. They can quickly learn to trust a wide variety of people, animals, and situations. Unsocialized puppies become fearful adult dogs who may try to escape when faced with unfamiliar situations, or who exhibit fear-based or territorial aggression toward other animals or new people.
Often, when pet owners surrender dogs to shelters due to behavior, the reason is that they were not adequately socialized during their puppyhood. While adult dogs can unlearn fear-based and territorial responses, it takes much longer to break an adult dog of an ingrained reaction.
How to Socialize Puppies
Generally, puppies should be exposed to various settings, people, and animals when it is safe to do so. If the puppy is nervous or uncertain in certain situations, positive reinforcement methods, including praise, toys, and treats, can help the puppy learn that new things can be positive.
Puppies should meet people of all ages, including babies, children, older adults, quiet people, boisterous people, men with beards, people wearing hats, and people wearing sunglasses, with as much variety as possible.
Walks are an excellent opportunity for providing socialization and for training puppies to walk on the leash. As the ASPCA states, "Your puppy is likely going to strain at the end of his leash to greet people and dogs. Repeatedly pulling your puppy away is bound to lead to frustration and possibly teach him to be afraid of people and dogs."
Fortunately, puppy owners can discourage such behaviors and reactions through positive reinforcement. As the ASPC advises, "it's very important to anticipate and distract your puppy with treats or toys before he starts to get excited about an approaching person or dog. This will ensure that he thinks people and dogs are safe while he's also learning to pay attention to you on your walks."
Safely Socializing Puppies With Other Dogs
Puppies should also meet other dogs of various sizes and temperaments when they are approved to do so by a veterinarian. Owners of puppies should take care when facilitating interactions with other dogs because young puppies who haven't had all their rounds of shots are highly susceptible to infections such as parvovirus and distemper. To minimize risk, pet owners shouldn't walk their puppy in areas where unfamiliar dogs are walked, such as at dog parks, until your veterinarian approves them for such environments.
To minimize the potential exposure to infections, the ASPCA recommends first limiting interactions to adult dogs who are up to date on vaccinations than visits to the dog park. Such playdates will allow the puppy to meet one or two known, safe dogs at a time so that when the puppy is old enough, he or she will be ready for the dog park and doggy daycare.
Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 When Socializing Puppies
During the pandemic, it is also essential to prevent transmission of COVID-19 between people. It can be safer to invite people over to your back yard to meet your puppy or visit friends and family who would like to meet the puppy in their back yard.
If these friends or family members have dogs who are up to date on their vaccinations, such interactions can serve as socialization with new dogs and people. Wearing masks and staying six feet apart from other people is advised by the ASPCA, as is wiping down leashes and collars after interactions. Always ask people if they have symptoms of COVID-19 or have been exposed to a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19.
Socializing Adult Dogs: What We Do at LCHS
While socialization can be successful in adult dogs, it requires a longer, more gradual desensitization and conditioning process. At LCHS, we provide socialization with dogs through our playgroups. We provide experience with new people through daily walks with staff/volunteers and volunteer dog enrichment sessions. Foster care provides amazing opportunities for our dogs to be socialized in a home environment.
However, when a dog is a flight risk, we will often provide advanced socialization by housing such dogs in one of our offices at the shelter. One dog at LCHS named Sunshine is an example of a dog we are working with at LCHS to reduce her fear of new people and the shelter environment. For her first weeks at the shelter, Sunshine resided in our admin office, where she was only exposed to a few people. Once she started to become comfortable with that environment, we moved her to our front office/break room area.
For the first few days, Sunshine hid in the corner of the office in the break room, but she has begun exploring and seeking out attention over time. Last Saturday, Sunshine even joined our volunteer dog enrichment session with another fearful dog, Finn, who helped her feel more confident when meeting new people in one of our shelter play yards.
By properly socializing puppies from the start, pet owners can ensure that their dogs are equipped with the experiences they need to be confident and comfortable in many different situations.