This is an article I wrote for AKC Family Dog Magazine a few years back, and it is a subject near and dear to our hearts. That’s why we have PUPPY PLAYGROUPS on Monday nights and we have PLAYCARE 7 days a week. We realize that not everyone can have puppy socials, so we’re happy to do them with you or FOR you!
Once Upon A Time…..
A long, long time ago, dog owners were taught that puppies shouldn’t go out into the world until they had “all” of their puppy vaccinations. Typically, this meant that until the age of 5 months of age – also known as the beginning of adolescence – many puppies wouldn’t be allowed to socialize with other dogs (and sometimes even people outside of the immediate family) until that time. Because of this isolation, some of these “bubble puppies” developed behavioral issues such as fear of other dogs and/or people, and lacked critical social skills (such as being able to engage in appropriate play with other dogs) and the ability to “read” cues from other dogs. In some cases, they even developed aggressive and fearful behavior towards humans as well as dogs. While genetics, environment, and early puppyhood (birth – 8/9 weeks) development can also be contributing factors, it’s widely acknowledged that lack of proper socializing in the oh-so-critical 8-14/16 week puppy window can contribute to or even cause puppy behavioral issues.
Thankfully, today’s veterinarians and trainers understand and acknowledge that puppies NEED social interaction, and that when done correctly and safely, puppy socialization is a critical puzzle piece for a well-rounded dog. The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists released a position paper in January of 2009 stating categorically that it is more important for puppies to be socialized prior to 16 weeks of age than it is to be protected from the slight risk of disease.
Well….not so fast. The idea here is to have your puppy interact in a way that is emotionally and physically safe for him, so a dog park is NOT a good place to start. There’s too great a risk that in an uncontrolled environment, your puppy will be exposed to health and emotional stresses that can negatively impact him well after the fun day at the park is over. My breeder likes to say that we are “socializing them to anything and protecting them from everything.” This balance is not as difficult to achieve as you might initially think, but it is something that you have to keep in mind during every second of every interaction that your puppy is having. I think that one of the best ways to achieve your socialization goals is with a Puppy Social!
I love parties, and so do my friends and their dogs. I think….
Before you go inviting the neighborhood, let’s talk about some ground rules that have to be set in place before the parties (yes, plural) get underway:
1- Initial party guests are quiet and mild mannered. This eliminates your loud uncle, the over-enthusiastic teenage girl next door, and your sister’s screaming toddler. Eventually your puppy will learn to tolerate these types of personalities, but for the first week, you want your puppy’s interactions to be with people who are relaxed and calm.
2- Keep the numbers small. One or two people are more than enough to start with, but after a few weeks you can increase the numbers of guests on your list.
3- Be consistent. Twice a week socials are a reasonable, attainable goal, but Type A’s can go for more frequency. Besides, the window of opportunity is between 8-14 weeks of age, so you want to commit yourself to maximizing your puppy’s social interaction during that time.
4- Location, location, location. Initially these socials occur at your house, but eventually you can take the show on the road and visit other people’s houses. Ideally, I’d like my puppy students to have their puppies meet 15 new people every week. After a week or two, all but those with hundreds of friends realize that in addition to socials, they also have to take their puppies out in public for controlled interaction in order to hit those numbers! That’s when puppy socials move from your house to a quiet time at a local school (not recess!), an off-peak time outside a supermarket or post office. As your puppy gets older, these locations can be revisited during incrementally busier times, building up to the park when a soccer game is in full swing or the post office on April 14th!
5- Party Animals. I’m speaking of those with four legs and a tail, here. They need to be invited too, but they must be healthy, up to date on their vaccinations, have a generally calm disposition and be FRIENDLY towards PUPPIES. I love my border collie, but he would not be on anyone’s guest list for the first week of puppy socials! He has one gear – Fast! – and would be intimidating and overwhelming to an un-socialized puppy. It’s important that your friends are honest with themselves about the dog that they own (is their dog a “little grumpy”, possessive about his toys, or have personal space issues?) and they keep in mind what is best for your puppy. In addition, remember to keep the puppy and the visiting dog on leash and attended to at all times
6- When They’ve Got To Go, They’ve Got To GO!
In the midst of all the fun, please don’t forget that you have a puppy who you are still housebreaking! Set a timer for 20 mnts. to remind yourself to take the puppy out for a bathroom break, because chances are, he’ll be having so much fun that he’ll forget to ask to go out.
7- Party Favors! As with any party, this isn’t the time to worry about diets (within reason!). All of the extra special treats that your puppy is allowed to have (freeze dried liver, anyone?), will be generously passed out by the human party goers. Make sure that they are giving small pieces, so that the puppy isn’t full just as the party is in full swing. The idea here is that your puppy sees all people as human Pez dispensers! If your party includes another dog or puppy, reward all dogs for positive, calm interactions.
8- Thank you for coming. Now leave. As with all great events, eventually the fun must come to an end. Make sure your guests know before they arrives that your party will end at “___”, so they know when they need to leave. Initial parties should be brief – no more than 20-30 mnts. – but can eventually go up to an hour. Set (another!) timer to remind you when the time is up, so that if you’re tempted to have everyone stay longer, you can at least put the puppy in his crate for some well-needed rest.
9- Week 15 – Finally! Back to just hanging out at the house. Not. Just because your puppy is older doesn’t mean that you don’t have to keep up his socialization work. As important as “Come” and “Stay” are to a well-behaved dog, so is meeting new people and seeing new places. Keep exposing yours to as many new experiences as possible.
10- My puppy was well socialized, and used to be so great with people and other dogs. Suddenly, she’s a freak! All puppies and dogs go through fear periods, and trust me, you’ll know it when it happens. A good example is your next-door neighbor. Ever since your puppy has arrived, he’s seen your neighbor at least once a day. Three months later, your neighbor walks up your driveway wearing a baseball cap and holding the Sunday paper, and your puppy puts on the brakes and starts screaming hysterically. Be patient, and without validating her fear, try to work through it (high value food treats work well here). Whatever you do, DON’T force your dog up to what he’s afraid of. Remember, even though something isn’t scary to you doesn’t mean your dog’s fear isn’t justified. High drama types may have more of these fear incidents than calmer dogs, but I haven’t known any dog to not have at least one incident in their puppy/adolescent-hood.
11- Puppy Socials are just the beginning!. Every puppy lives in a unique home setting and lifestyle. For my dogs, in addition to living with my husband and our 17 and 11 year old kids, a “normal” day is being around large groups of dogs in training (my dog school), attending marching band and drum corps practices, going to agility, obedience and field trials, and volunteering at a school for children with autism. You better believe that from day one my puppies get exposed to this life – a little bit at a time – so that they can become as used to it as we are. Take a look at your life – a kind of “what’s in your wallet?” moment – and socialize your puppy to the life it will be living and beyond.
Socializing your dog may feel like a having a second job – and in a lot of ways, it is! – but the benefits by far outweigh the inconveniences. Considering that the average dog’s life expectancy is 12.8 years, a few months of dedicated socialization will pay dividends far into the future.