The fact that puppies need good veterinary care is no surprise to the vast majority of dog owners. Many owners, however, are not aware that failing to properly address their new puppy’s emotional and social needs can significantly impact his or her longevity and quality of life. Sadly, thousands of dogs are euthanized every year because of aggressive or destructive behaviours. The adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is highly applicable to puppy socialization. Puppies that are well socialized typically develop in to safer, more relaxed and enjoyable pets. An initial investment in training and proper socialization will yield high returns in terms of your puppy’s (and your family’s) quality of life and safety.
Puppies are most accepting of new experiences between 3 and 12 weeks of age. It is important that puppies are exposed to a wide variety of new stimuli during this critical phase of development. Owners should ensure that their puppy is exposed to the situations, objects and people that are likely to be a part of their puppy’s day to day life.
Puppies are most accepting of new experiences between 3 and 12 weeks of age. It is important that puppies are exposed to a wide variety of new stimuli during this critical phase of development.
After about 12 to 18 weeks the opportunity to easily socialize the puppy ends as puppies become increasingly cautious of things that they haven’t yet encountered. After 18 weeks, it becomes increasingly difficult, and sometimes impossible, to teach a dog to like something new, or help him become comfortable with something he finds frightening.
Puppies are not fully protected against the diseases we vaccinate them for until they receive the final booster of the puppy series, typically given at 16 weeks of age. However, if owners wait until this time to take their puppy out in to the world, the ideal window of time for socialization is missed and in some cases, the puppy can never be properly acclimatized. Fortunately by taking some common sense precautions while socializing your puppy (see below), the risk of infection is very small.
After 18 weeks, it becomes increasingly difficult, in some cases impossible, to teach a dog to like something new, or help him become comfortable with something he finds frightening.
FEAR IMPACT PERIODS
Puppies have 2 separate and distinct Fear Impact Periods. At these times puppies are particularly sensitive to bad experiences and memories of bad experiences are more likely to become magnified and essentially “hardwired” in to the dog’s psyche.
FIRST FEAR IMPACT PERIOD: 8 to 10 WEEKS
The first fear impact period occurs fairly predictably when a puppy is about 8 to 10 weeks old. During this period puppies may become fearful of specific and generalized stimuli if not previously habituated to them. At this stage puppies are particularly sensitive to things that are unfamiliar to them and are more likely to interpret unfamiliar things and situations as threatening. There is a greater risk that a puppy will become permanently fearful and can shape a life long inability to cope or act appropriately.
SECOND FEAR IMPACT PERIOD: Between 6 and 18 MONTHS
The second FIP is a 2-3 week period that, unlike the first FIP, does not happen at a consistent age and can occur any time between 6 and 18 months. During this period dogs may suddenly become more suspicious and reactive to things in their environment. It is especially important that owners do not inadvertently reinforce the puppy’s behaviour by either punishing or “sympathizing” at this time. When owners react strongly to their puppies reaction (either positively or negatively) it can cause the event to imprint more strongly in the brain.
Tips for Properly Socializing Your New Puppy
1. Expose your puppy to as many situations, people, objects and environments as possible between 3 to 12 weeks. Prioritize his/her exposure to the types of people, dogs and other animals, sights, sounds, physical handling and grooming that will be a part of his/her daily life.
2. Keep a close eye on your puppy, watching for any signs that he is becoming frightened or overwhelmed. Your puppy should become more comfortable with exposure (not more worried).
3. If you notice any signs that your puppy is becoming frightened or overwhelmed this is an indication that you will need to introduce him much more gradually. Be sure to couple the exposure with things he really likes (before, during and/or after). Smells and touch send messages directly to the part of the brain that governs emotional states. The smell of desirable food and firm, gentle touch associated with a new experience can help your puppy’s brain classify a new experience as positive.
4. Puppies learn a great deal from other dogs. Exposure to friendly, well-trained adult dogs can help your puppy learn acceptable dog behaviour.
5. Puppy Socialization Classes can be very beneficial providing exposure to varied stimuli coupled with the fun experience of playing with other puppies.
6. Avoid dog parks until your puppy’s vaccine series is complete. You may want to consider avoiding dog parks entirely until your puppy is over 18 months (unless you are certain that it is populated exclusively with healthy, vaccinated, friendly and well trained dogs).
7. Give considerable thought to the lifestyle your puppy will have (including the things you hope to be a part of your puppy’s life).
~ Danya Terp is a veterinary technician and clinic administrator at the Renforth Veterinary Clinic.