Early Puppy Socialization: The Critical Period

January 11th 2016

Congratulations! You have a new puppy! Few life events are more exciting and tantalising than bringing home a new puppy.

If you are like me, those little furballs are simply impossible to resist. I want to pick them up, hold them close and have a good snuggle. And I just love watching a puppy explore his or her new surroundings and see how they respond to anything novel it encounters. Seeing a puppy play always puts me in a happier, better mood.

But having said that, getting and caring for a puppy is not always fun and games. In many ways it is not that different from bringing home a new human baby, other than the fact that puppies develop a lot faster.

The responsibility to properly care for a puppy likely will change your daily routine and require a lot of your attention. Most of my clients consider their 'pets' part of the family and treat them as such.

In a previous blog “It Takes a Village to Raise a Puppy” I talked about various elements that need to be in place to successfully transform puppy into a well-adjusted canine companion who is able to handle our complex human society.

This time, my focus is on the critical importance of early socialization in puppies.

Three steps to socializing a puppy

Early socialisation involves three very important aspects in your puppy’s development and growth:
1. Learning bite inhibition

2. Socialization with people

3. Socialization with other dogs and animals

I have ranked these aspects in order of importance. However, a well-balanced dog should do well in all three areas.

Learning Bite Inhibition

Every dog has the ability to bite. If I accidentally hurt my dog when stepping on his or her toes the pain experienced could cause the dog to react with a bite. Of course many other situations can lead to a bite.

Regardless, if a bite is provoked or not a dog with good bite inhibition will use his or her mouth and either make no contact with the skin of the 'victim' or will make brief contact, without leaving any tooth marks behind. On the other hand, dogs with poor bite inhibition will cause damage requiring medical or veterinary attention.

Puppies are notoriously known to be mouthy. By their very nature they are always exploring their surroundings by sniffing and picking up things in their mouths. That includes objects that move such as our arms and our legs, not to forget those fast moving children and other creatures around the house.

So we must teach puppies it is not appropriate to use excessive force with their teeth on our delicate skin. We should do so in a manner that is force-free and will not cause pain or instill fear and distrust in the puppy.

All members of the family also have to agree to use the same consistent method to be effective.

Rough play where a puppy is allowed to bite hard is not permitted. Instead, when you notice that there is even the slightest pressure of a puppy’s teeth on your skin during play or handling, the interaction stops quickly and temporarily until the puppy backs off with his or her teeth, at which time the puppy is rewarded with your re-engagement.

This goes back and forth quite often at the beginning but, when done properly, puppy will soon realize that he or she gets your attention (touch, play and other engagement), only if there is no teeth on skin involvement. Stopping the interaction can be achieved by either holding still or completely ignoring your puppy until it behaves appropriately, or by calling out a clear “ouch” and by pulling away your hands for instance so the puppy can no longer reach you. In this case play and interaction also stops until puppy offers the desired behavior.

Other acceptable methods are to offer puppy something else appropriate to chew on, such as a stuffed Kong toy (stuffed with peanut butter or some other healthy tasty treat for example) or to place puppy in his or her crate or puppy pen for a time out until it is calm again. This is not punishment, but rather offers you the opportunity to get a bit of a break and not loose your patience and for the puppy to settle down.

Some methods work better for some people and some puppies and there is not one method that works for everyone. A good puppy school or class will incorporate these methods as exercises in its curriculum and allow for the entire family to be involved teaching good bite inhibition to their puppy.

Socializing your puppy with people 

Even though dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years and have developed an amazing ability to adjust to our human society, every newborn puppy still needs to be socialized with an array of different people early in life.

What this means is that the puppy needs to be continuously exposed in a positive manner with a variety of people from the very first day it comes into your home. When I say a variety of people, think adults (male and female), boys and girls of different ages, people of different ethnic origins, people wearing sunglasses or hats, people on skateboards, bikes, noisy people, shy people…basically all kinds of people. Dr Ian Dunbar, well known for introducing this concept to North America, states that every puppy should meet at least 100 different people during the first 30 days it is in your home.

“What?” you say, “How do we do that?” Well, it is actually easier than you might think.

For starters, host a “puppy party” in your home once a week for four weeks in a row. Invite a few of your friends and relatives to each party. Each party should have a theme. The first one could be just to take turns handling and holding the puppy while the puppy gets lavished with tasty treats.

Secondly, everyone could dress up Halloween style, wear a funny hat, sunglasses, a large boa.

The third time people should bring a noise maker and for the fourth party, invite a couple of kids as well.

By now, I am sure you get the idea. Be creative! Have fun with it and keep it positive. Take the puppy with you to pick up the kids from school. Hang out at the bus stop or linger around the entrance to the grocery store or supermarket. Always be armed with some special treats. Hand the treats out to anyone who approaches the puppy and ask them to feed it to the puppy.

Pretty soon your puppy will love the company of people.

Socializtion with other dogs and animals 

Just like young children need exposure to other children to develop socially acceptable behaviors, our puppies also need to learn how to behave around other dogs and animals. It is simply not enough for the puppy to get used to and get along with the other dog in the house.

Puppies need exposure to other puppies and adult dogs who historically have been good around puppies. Introductions need to be carefully planned as to not harm the puppy physically or emotionally.

Avoid dog parks and areas which are frequented by a lot of dogs. There are two reasons for this. First, we want to avoid unplanned, unexpected, unpleasant dog-dog interactions and secondly, we want to minimize the risk of transmitting infectious diseases such as parvo and distemper.

An excellent alternative is attending a good puppy class which addresses all the issues discussed so far. A well-organized puppy class and puppy play time offers you and your puppy the opportunity to learn together and do so in a positive and fun manner.

Sadly, there are still many veterinarians who tell their clients not to expose their puppies to the outside world and other dogs until they are fully vaccinated, which typically is at 16 weeks of age. At 16 weeks of age the window of opportunity to socialize your puppy has already closed and many puppy schools will no longer accept puppies in the class older than 16 weeks of age. The reality is that the number of young dogs euthanized needlessly for behavioral reasons due to lack of proper early life socialization greatly outnumbers the number of dogs losing their life to Parvo and Distemper.

To minimize the risk of contracting parvo and distemper when socializing them at an early age (10 weeks or older), I recommend the following:
  • Ensure your puppy had had at least one vaccination and has been in your possession for at least 7 days
  • ​Choose a puppy school requiring at least one vaccination and a possession rule for a minimum 7 days in order to attend
  • Have a second vaccination done 21 days after the first one rather than waiting the usual one month period and the third vaccination can be given in another 21 days
  • Keep your puppy at home if it is ill and have it examined by your veterinarian
  • Avoid dog parks and other busy dog venues
  • Avoid contact with stray or other unknown dogs
  • Avoid explosing your puppy to stool and vomit of other dogs and be diligent and fastidious about cleaning up after your dog

Remember, the effort you put into early socialization of your newly acquired puppy may seem like a lot of work at first but, when done correctly, will pay off for the rest of your dog’s life!

Enjoy your time together!

If you have any questions about your puppy's socialization or vaccination schedule, call our clinic at (403) 615-8016  to book an appoinmtment to speak with a veterinarian.

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