As with babies, puppies are not born understanding about the world and how to behave. The best time to teach them is during the primary socialization period, which is roughly from 3 to 12 weeks of age. This is when puppies are most open to new experiences and are thirsty to learn. After this time they become more cautious of new people and situations and their behavior is less malleable. Well-socialized puppies are more likely to grow up to be friendly adult dogs who are easy to handle and not overly frightened or stressed. Lessons not learned by 12 weeks of age can be partially but never fully recovered.
When socializing your pup(s), it is important to remember that exposure is not the same as socialization. Having a screaming 4-year-old yanking on your pup’s ears and tail could well cause the dog to be afraid of children for life. But meeting several young children who are calm and handle the puppy appropriately can lead to a dog who adores kids.
If you have a litter of puppies at home, begin handling them as soon as possible. There is no truth to the idea that a mother dog will reject her babies if they are touched by people. However, mom needs to be okay with you petting the pups in order to avoid accidentally teaching the puppies to be stressed by petting (if mom does seem to be too anxious for the first few days try petting them while she is out of the room or sleeping). Gentle petting and holding for just a few seconds several times each day is ideal for newborns. The pups should be picked up and held in different positions for brief periods each day by about 2 weeks of age. As they get older, it is okay to handle them more frequently and for longer periods of time. Once they are about 5 weeks old, more people should be interacting with them. Behaviorists recommend they meet at least 100 people during the primary socialization period. Ideally, the puppy should be exposed to a variety of people for optimal socialization: young, old; male, female; wearing glasses; wearing a hat; light-skinned, dark-skinned; animated, laid-back; etc.
Socialization should intensify at around 4 weeks of age by:
- Introducing new textures by playing with the puppies on carpeting, tile, wood, blankets, rugs, concrete, etc.
- Exposing the pups to household noises such as blenders, doorbells, banging pots, washing machines, alarm clocks, stereos…
If there are no children living in or visiting the home, buy a cd with the sounds of children and play it frequently. Very loud or harsh noises, such as a blender, can be muffled initially by covering the appliance with a towel or making the noise while the pups are in an adjacent room.
- Placing items, such as winter boots, skateboards, bags of groceries, and books on the floor for the puppies to investigate.
- Offering a variety of objects for the pups to play with, including empty plastic bottles, paper towel cores, and cardboard boxes in different sizes, as well as commercial dog toys.
- Continuing to handle the puppies daily, including touching every part of their bodies.
- Putting the pups in a crate and going to a friend’s house for a brief play-and-cuddle session. If no one is available to host, simply go outside and come back in or go for a drive around the block. Play with the pups as soon as you return home.
What if you adopt a 3-month-old puppy that hasn’t been socialized? All is not lost. The pup can still benefit from the above but she won’t learn as quickly and may not be as comfortable with as many things as a well-socialized puppy. Start by working on the two or three things that you believe are most important for her adult life and then add the others later.