When you hear dog trainers, vets, and shelter workers or breeders tell you to socialize your puppy they don’t mean just take him to the dog park to frolic. Taking him place and letting him meet other people and dogs are important, but that is not the one and only important aspect to socializing. In fact, there is far more to it that you need to know to help your puppy become comfortable in a human world.
Puppies go through growing stages called fear periods. One occurs at 8 weeks and lasts until 12 weeks while the other may occur at 8 months old and last only a couple of weeks. In these fear periods, your dog’s reaction to frightening or perceived threatening objects, people, or other dogs will be ingrained into his personality forever. Basically, if your 9 week old puppy is terrified of other dogs and you do not help him through this before his fear period is up, he may be terrified of those other dogs for life. As an adult, a dog can sometimes be counter-conditioned to foresee their trigger in a new light, but this take work, patience, and a lot of time on the owner’s part. It is far easier to prevent this from happening to begin with.
When socializing your puppy, keep each session short. Only a couple minutes is needed for your puppy to decide what he thinks or feels about an object, for you to react the appropriate way, and move on. You do not need treats to train him for it, but if he shows fear a treat may be helpful. Your puppy will look to you for guidance on how to react, so that they can react accordingly. This means don’t laugh loudly at your puppy if he is frightened, because it can stress him out even more. Do not scold him, hit him, or force him near the object either. Doing so will break his trust in you, cause him to fear the item even more, and increase the chance of even more behavioral problems down the road.
So what can you do to help your furry friend become comfortable in a human world? To him, umbrellas, hats, flowing coats, or even wheelchairs and crutches can be a cause for alarm. A dog not socialized with these items may lunge and bark on leash when he sees them, cower behind you, or generate an unmanageable amount of anxiety when going for a walk. When he first encounters these items during his fear stages, he should be able to see that you are not afraid, excited or upset. He should see that you are relaxed. Give him calming signals such as a sigh or yawn, an encourage him to sniff out the item so he learns it’s nothing to fuss about.
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