You just adopted your brand new puppy and you are in love already. Your parenting instincts are in high gear, you want to do everything you can to protect her and keep her healthy and happy for the rest of her life. A physical exam, vaccinations, parasite protection, lots of toys and finding the right food come to the top of your list. This is a great start, but to achieve all your dreams for this precious pet, we haven’t included the most important insurance of all: Socialization.
Do you know the number one reason puppies lose their homes and subsequently lose their lives? It is behavior problems, not infectious diseases, accidents or parasites. Unacceptable behaviors are the leading reason dogs under three years of age are relinquished to shelters where a high percentage will be destroyed. Experts in veterinary behavior around the world have studied the causes for behavior problems in young dogs, and they agree that the majority of the problem behaviors can be traced back to lack of appropriate socialization during the puppy’s sensitive period.
The Sensitive Period. The sensitive period for your puppy is the first 3 months of life. During this time your puppy is the most open to accepting and embracing other animals, new people, new experiences, objects, sounds and handling. Repeated, positive exposures will provide your puppy with the skills she needs to understand and interact successfully with her world. This is a brief, yet precious, period of time for your puppy. Socialization classes are an ideal opportunity to make the most of these few weeks.
On the other hand, improper or incomplete socialization can increase her risk of behavioral issues in the future including fear, avoidance, and aggression. Frightening or painful experiences can produce life-long phobias at this age. After 16 weeks of age the puppy’s mind closes to novel experiences. Their brains are programmed to be very wary of unfamiliar individuals and experiences and the sensitive period closes.
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) has issued a formal Position Statement on Puppy Socialization. Pointing out the critical role early social learning plays in a puppy’s success, the statement reads in part, “ For this reason, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior believes that it should be the standard of care for puppies to receive such socialization before they are fully vaccinated.”
Of course vaccinations are critically important to your puppy’s health, but the notion that our puppies shouldn’t be exposed to each other or the world outside their home until the vaccination series is complete is outdated and indeed dangerous to your puppy’s psychological development. Most puppies can start participating in socialization classes at 7-8 weeks of age after receiving a minimum of one set of vaccinations.
Socialization and Habituation. Socialization can be described as the process whereby an animal learns how to recognize and interact with the species with which it cohabits. In the wild this is likely to be limited to the animal’s own species, but for the domestic dog it includes other species such as man and cats. By learning how to interact with these the socialized dog develops communication skills which enable it to recognize, amongst other things, whether or not it is being threatened and how to recognize and respond to the intentions of others.
The socialization process starts at birth. Gentle handling and cuddling a newborn helps them learn to accept the manipulation of their bodies and to associate human touch with a pleasant experience. During the next 12 weeks they should be exposed to people of all ages, sizes and shapes. They need to see people in hats, with facial hair, wearing different clothing, and using a cane. These experiences will help them identify and be comfortable with all the different visual manifestations of humans.
Well socialized puppies have ample opportunities to play with other dogs. Their world needs to include interactive toys, novel objects, car rides, and visits to other homes. Encourage them to explore each environment and build self confidence. All of these experiences are healthy and necessary for the next phase of learning: Habituation.
Habituation. Habituation can be described as the process whereby an animal becomes accustomed to non-threatening environmental stimuli and learns to ignore them. As she explores her world your puppy is being bombarded with information. She needs to learn who is a friend, does it hurt, can I eat it, is it fun, is it no big deal and can be ignored. We have all met dogs that seemed to over react to very common, non-threatening situations. They may have reacted fearfully, become over-protective, aggressive or hyperactive. All of these behaviors result when a dog is improperly or incompletely socialized. These animals never had the chance to habituate fully to their world.
Socialization classes provide an ideal format for raising confident, well adjusted dogs. Classes must be conducted by persons who are qualified trainers and held in a clean and safe environment. Puppies should be encouraged to explore and engage at their own pace. Teachers and puppy owners must use only positive reinforcement with praise and an abundance of treats. Most of all, you and your puppy should be having FUN!
The Animal Wellness Center is very proud to offer high quality, safe, fun and affordable socialization classes. Puppies between 7 and 16 weeks of age, having received at least one set of vaccinations and a de-worming treatment are eligible. Ideally, enroll your puppy when she is 7-8 weeks of age and then continue to attend weekly until she is ready to move into Puppy Kindergarten. This approach will maximize her learning experience during her all-important sensitive period.