Socialize: to make social; especially : to fit or train for a social environment.
It’s a great big world out there, full of sights, sounds, and people and animals of all shapes and sizes. Even the most easy going dog may have difficulty when confronted with something new and unusual. Ideally, our puppies will grow into confident dogs, and not be overly fearful of new situations; therefore, early socialization is imperative.
What a dog experiences as a puppy will determine how he handles life as an adult. Dogs who didn’t grow up around small children tend to be very wary of those short, odd looking creatures, and may not be so thrilled when a tiny hand comes darting towards their face. A dog who has never seen a person wearing a baseball cap may take great offense to the peculiar object attached to that person’s head. If you live out in the quiet countryside, a trip into downtown Portland may overwhelm a dog not used to all the traffic noise. Your puppy doesn’t need to meet everyone, or experience everything to be well socialized. But, exposing your puppy to many different people, animals, and environments will be very beneficial to his ability to handle different circumstances throughout life.
Although it’s possible to desensitize an older dog to that which is novel (and scary), it is far easier to socialize as a puppy. There is a window of opportunity when it comes to puppy socialization, after the window closes it becomes more difficult for a dog to accept new stimuli. That window starts to close at about four months of age.
The tricky thing about this time in a puppy’s life is providing adequate socialization without exposing your young puppy to disease. Parvovirus, for instance, is a highly contagious disease common in young un/under-vaccinated dogs – before taking your puppy to dog parks, pet stores, etc., please make sure they have finished their puppy-series vaccinations. And parvovirus can live in the soil for up to a year, so make sure that any house you take your puppy to hasn’t had a dog infected with Parvo there for at least that long.
It’s important to make sure that every dog your puppy goes around be free from illness, and current on vaccinations. A great option is a “puppy kindergarten” class offered by obedience trainers, where young puppies can play and socialize together. Some places are more strict than others about requirements for vaccinations and deworming, so make sure you find a place whose policies you’re comfortable with. These meet-ups will give your puppy a great chance to interact with not only other dogs, but with other humans as well.
Any new situation can be stressful for your puppy, so pay careful attention to what his body language is telling you. Don’t force your puppy to be around someone or something that obviously frightens them. Some puppies are happy to meet any new person or animal, but some are not. Go slowly with introductions if your puppy is acting leery, and offer treats and praise. New people should offer your puppy some treats as well, so the puppy correlates their presence with something good. Offering treats is a great way to positively reinforce your pup’s acceptance of that which is new. Personally, I would be much more willing to meet new people if it meant being offered a cupcake every time!
Animal shelters and rescue organizations are full of dogs who were never socialized properly as puppies. Chances are, a lot of these dogs were subsequently punished for exhibiting normal dog behavior in what was to them a challenging situation.
Puppy socialization really is an investment in the long term happiness of your dog.