Attention Puppy Parents! Get the Facts on Puppy Socialization

Training a puppy
On walks, ask your puppy for some simple behaviors such as responding to his name, allowing you to pet him or sitting on command.

Adapting to our complex, interspecies world isn’t easy for pets. Like children, puppies need to explore and discover their world in a safe and nurturing environment. Yet I can’t tell you how many times clients get it wrong. It’s not uncommon for owners to say, “I took my puppy to the dog park to get him socialized to people and other dogs” or “He’s afraid of people and pets, so I took him to the pet store to meet strangers and become socialized.”

This approach to puppy socialization is akin to tossing your young child into the deep end of the pool and telling him to swim. It’s called flooding — the sudden exposure to a fear-inducing stimulus with the intention of getting the individual “used to” the stimulus. The problem is, flooding invariably winds up having the opposite effect. We see the pet, or the person, become more panicked or phobic of the situation. Why? Because flooding tends to overwhelm the nervous system and may create a negative association with the very thing you’re trying to get your pet to accept.

To make matters worse, “behaviorally abnormal” dogs, or dogs who have a reduced ability to adapt to stressful situations, can overreact when confronted by perceived threats. Honing your ability to read a dog’s body language is one way to help prevent these “deep end” moments from overwhelming your dog’s ability to cope. But there is another way to help your young pet acclimate to our world: puppy socialization.

What Is Socialization?

In short, socialization is a process that helps animals adapt to their surroundings. Most of the time, the best opportunities for socialization occur during one of the “sensitive periods” of puppy development when the nervous system is maturing. The socialization period generally takes place between 3 to 14 weeks of age. During the first half of this period, puppies are expected to adapt to individuals of their own species, allowing normal recognition of important for adapting to other species and learning to function inside and out of our homes. In the case of companion animals, such as dogs and cats, this means providing positive exposure to people and their associated activities.

Why Puppy Class?

Puppy classes emphasize socialization with humans — and the world — and support normal development. In fact, many responsible breeders will hold puppy parties before their litters are placed for adoption. These parties expose the youngsters to a diverse group of people in a controlled environment.

Puppy classes, on the other hand, typically cater to pups between 8 and 14 weeks of age, exposing them to a wide variety of stimuli, including children, other dogs, other species, various unfamiliar surfaces and objects, as well as new sounds: the vacuum cleaner or bicycles, for instance. In addition, these classes may introduce your puppy to positive, reward-based training.

To find a reputable puppy class, ask you veterinarian for suggestions. You may find certified trainers in your area online who practice reinforcement and reward-based training, but run your selection by your vet before beginning any program, and consider attending one located at your local animal hospital. Making regular hospital visits to join puppy class will help increase your pet’s positive association with the facility and its staff and may help alleviate fears during future medical visits.

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