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The importance of socialization for dogs and puppies cannot be stressed enough. Puppies and juvenile dogs that are not provided enough socialization in early years can develop high levels of aggression towards other dogs, other pets and even people. Other dogs that are not properly socialized may become very timid and easily frightened, which also can lead to aggression if these dogs feel cornered or trapped.
Birth to three months
Puppies actually learn their first socialization lessons from the first day that they are born. They learn to communicate to their mother and littermates through vocalization and physical contact and come to find comfort in being with and a part of the litter. This is very important especially before the tiny puppies open their eyes and are able to move about a bit better.
After approximately three weeks the puppies are more active and playful and interested in exploring. They don't go far without the rest of their pack and they learn that they can be secure in their environment. The puppy becomes more confident and is more likely to venture out on his or her own, but never very far from the mother and littermates.
As the puppy matures up to about 12-14 weeks of age they are really learning about socialization principles. Through playing with the other puppies they are learning bite inhibition, how to communicate and how to understand what the pack hierarchy is. They learn how to interact with the other puppies as well as the other dogs they are exposed too.
These puppies learn that they are safe and secure and start to gain their own confidence and understanding of the world. When puppies are removed from their litter and mother too soon they become either aggressive or timid in their attempts to figure out their place in the family. Puppies that are taken away from the litter before eight weeks are typically very difficult to train and may have separation anxiety problems as they mature.
It is very important for socialization opportunities that are safe and controlled to continually occur for the puppy and for young dogs. It is absolutely critical that puppies not be overly stressed or fearful during the socialization stage as this can impact their future development. Owners can help to effectively socialize puppies and dogs by:
Taking them into different environments under safe conditions. For example walking in the front yard instead of the backyard once the puppy or dog is comfortable on a leash.
Introducing the new people to friends and family members when they come to visit rather than putting the puppy in a separate room or area of the house.
Allowing the puppy to meet other, friendly, well-trained dogs and puppies. Only do this after the puppy has completed the full set of puppy vaccinations.
Take the puppy to the park, walk them at different times of the day so they see different people, and experience traffic once they are leash trained.
Allow the puppy to stop and sniff and investigate new things. Encourage them to learn about their environment and understand that new things, objects, pets and people are not a threat.
Take socialization slowly, start small and quiet and work towards large and noisy. A quiet street is a great start but walking along a major traffic area is likely to be far too intimidating for a puppy until they are more comfortable with passing traffic.
Consider a puppy or dog obedience class as a way to combine socialization with learning in a controlled and safe environment.
If you can't take your puppy or dog to a class there are some ways to encourage socialization right in your own area. Try taking the dog with you at least one walk a week to somewhere you have never gone before. If the dog or puppy is very nervous or timid or even aggressive, start with quiet areas such as walking paths or even a hike in the country. As the puppy or dog becomes more confident, start moving to a more busy area such as a city street or even a public park that allows dogs. At this time it is important to keep the dog or puppy on a leash to prevent them from becoming nervous or frightened and running off. If the puppy starts to try to turn and run, go to it and provide comfort. As soon as the puppy is calm repeat the exercise or encourage the puppy to look around. Do not take the puppy immediately out of the area or away from the situation. This will simply reinforce that being timid or aggressive gets him or her out of the socialization training, which is opposite of what you are trying to do.
Remember that socialization is a gradual process and all puppies will be somewhat scared of new things. Take your new puppy with you whenever possible and let him or her get to experience all kinds of new smells, sights and sounds. Introduce your puppy to cats, birds, and other pets. Cats that are familiar with dogs are usually pretty accepting of puppies, however it is important to very closely supervise this interaction. If you don't have a dog friendly cat in your home, ask around and see if a neighbor, friend or co-worker may have a cat you could allow you puppy to socialize with. If you live in the country don't forget to let them learn about sheep, cattle, horses or other livestock in the area. Puppies that are well socialized are less likely to become problems with chasing livestock, a big consideration if you live in the country.
Finally, don't forget about kids. If you don't have children in your house be sure to find a friend or family member that has dog-friendly kids and let your puppy spend some time socializing with children that are experienced with dogs and puppies. Kids that are afraid of dogs are not a good combination with puppies as they are likely to act in ways that are counterproductive and rather frightening for the puppy. Always ask parents to supervise the kids and you supervise the puppy, that way there is little chance of any problems.
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