A critical socialization period in puppies occurs between 8 and 16 weeks. During this time, you should give puppies a wide variety of experiences. Expose them to the right things and in the right way - do not expose them to everything you can think of. Think quality over quantity. Experiences make powerful impacts during this time period so it is key that these experiences are positive!
The best way to expose young puppies to new things is to teach them that weird is cool! If they learn that new or novel things should be greeted with excitement and good feelings then that is how they will react to all the new things they will inevitably encounter later. So how exactly should they be exposed? Most exposure can actually be done at home using household items paired with positive experiences.
Key things to expose puppies to in positive ways during these early days:
1. Loud Noises (there are great noise making apps that can be used for this) For example: before meal time, softly bang a fork on a metal bowl and then feed the puppy. If the puppy has no reaction or a very mild reaction with a quick recovery then at the next meal time bang the fork more loudly before giving the food. This method can be used for all types of noises. Another way to create curiosity about noises is to get an empty paper towel roll and at first just toss treats down the tube. If the dog doesn’t react, great! Then start making silly noises before you toss a treat down the tube. Some examples of noises that all puppies should be exposed to:
Banging of pots
2. Strange clothing/objects. A great game for this is to simply set your puppy up for a play/training session and have some objects that the puppy hasn’t seen behind you. Play a bit and then when the puppy isn’t looking put a funny hat on. When the puppy turns and sees you smile, continue playing or toss a treat. You want the puppy to notice but not react in a significant way. If they startle, can’t recover or run away, then you went too fast or did something a little too crazy. You need to take a step back and make sure the next thing you do is very minor and do it with positivity. Some examples of different items puppies should be exposed to:
Large Boots (if it is a summer puppy)
3. Different textures. For some dogs this is no big deal but for others it can be really scary. The only way you can test it out is to try it. I like to start at home with cardboard boxes laid on the ground. I take some tasty treats and sprinkle them on the cardboard. Most puppies will happily dig in to find them. If your puppy doesn’t, then start with less cardboard or a blanket on the ground instead and work up to cardboard. Once they graduate from cardboard, you can move to things like metal baking sheets. Some examples of different textures to expose your puppy to:
Smooth or shiny floors
Pictured below is Gunther as a puppy at a local pet friendly hardware store. At the store he was exposed to shiny slippery floors and I used the cart as as a safe place for him to observe. The added bonus is he got a positive experience with having the metal bars under his feet.
4. People. Puppies should be introduced to trusted people in a safe and calm way. Do not force your puppy to interact with people -instead allow them to approach friends and family that you invite to your home. I generally do not want my puppies to be greeted by strangers on the street. I want their focus to be on me when we are out walking. My goal is for other people to be neutral/positive for my dogs. Most dogs default to having positive reactions to nice people so I focus more on them being neutral because the positive association takes care of itself.
5. Dogs. Like people, this one is special. I only expose my dogs to other dogs that I know well, that are fully vaccinated, healthy and have excellent dog social skills. This is usually an adult but might be a well-matched puppy. I do not believe that dog parks are a good place for socialization. I want my puppies to focus on me and not expect to greet or play with every dog they see on the street. Don’t greet dogs on the street at this age. I want my puppies to be neutral around dogs they see when we are out walking. Allowing dogs to greet and interact with random dogs they see on the street can lead to frustration (which can lead to reactivity and aggression), fights and to pulling on the leash.
This list is by no means exhaustive but it covers the big highlights that I think are important. By exposing your young puppy to these things in this positive way, you will set them up for success in more complex environments.
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