Ask the Trainer | Socialize puppy while brain is being hard-wired
January 20, 2014
TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — Dear Carla,
We lost our 13-year-old Lab, Tucker, last year. He was a great dog, but was afraid of everything. It was hard to take him anywhere because we never knew if something would spook him. We are getting a puppy in two weeks and want to avoid the problems we had with Tucker. We've read about the importance of socializing puppies, but want to be sure we do it right and would appreciate your thoughts.
Tanya and Joe
Dear Tanya and Joe,
Not so long ago, no one used the word "socialization" in dog training circles. Now I meet very few new puppy owners who don't know they need to socialize their pup. The problem is they don't fully understand what it means. We've known for some time that the first 16 weeks of a dog's life are critical, but we now know the process of socialization changes brain anatomy and architecture. Your puppy's brain is being hard-wired during the first four months of life!
Socialization must go far beyond play dates with other pups and meeting your close friends. It needs to include absolutely everything he might encounter in the world. Here are just a few categories to consider:
Different types of surfaces: Dogs must be comfortable walking over any surface they encounter, including slick floors, carpet, gravel, dirt, grass, wood chips, and concrete. Most dogs don't like to walk across an open metal grate or across a swinging bridge, but what if you encounter one that can't be avoided?
Different kinds of people: Even if you don't have kids, your pup needs to be comfortable with them. Expose him to people of all ages; young and old. Older people often move differently or use canes, wheelchairs or other assistance devices. Actively seek out people with different skin colors or who have facial hair. A very tall person may lean over a puppy to pet him which can be intimidating.
Different types of challenges: Go to a playground and have your puppy walk on the play structure. Build an obstacle course by hanging metal cans, plastic cups and other objects from PVC pipe and encourage him to walk through the objects. Go up and down stairs with different surfaces. Play hide and seek which will help your pup learn how to problem solve.
This list could go on and on.
Any place, sound, smell or experience you can think of should be on the list! If you do find something that scares your puppy it's critical that you don't force him towards it. Puppies gain confidence by overcoming their fears, but it must be done correctly. A well-run puppy class will get you and your puppy off on the right foot. Beyond that, if you need help consult a qualified positive reinforcement trainer for advice.
Carla Brown, CPDT is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog Training and Education Center in Truckee. If you have a pet topic/issue you would like to see covered in the Ask the Trainer column, please email her at email@example.com.