“The following column, written by Janice Sparhawk Gardner, was originally published in Foster’s Sunday Citizen. It is covered by the author’s Copyright, and cannot be copied, in whole or in part, without her express written consent, in advance. Violations of this copyright will be prosecuted. The author can be contacted through this website.”
by Janice Sparhawk Gardner – 2009
Many people add a new dog to their family this time of year. It would be terrific if each of these new pets came from the homes of responsible and knowledgeable breeders, but that is not always the case.
Good breeders devote many hours each day to socializing their pups before they are released to their new families. Socialization is one of the most important things a human can do for a dog.
Ideally, intensive socialization begins when the pups are about three weeks old and continues until they are about 16 weeks old. If you were wise enough to find your pup with one of these super breeders, don’t be surprised if you are not able to take the pup home until it is about 4 months old — and socialization has largely been completed. Your breeder will teach you how to continue the pup’s training, going on from the base the breeder already has established.
If your pup has not already been socialized when it comes to live with you, you will have to handle this critical training phase yourself. It has been said that socialization is the most important, and most often neglected, aspect of puppy rearing.
Correctly socialized dogs are more confident, less apt to develop behavior problems, easier to train and housebreak, and much less bothered by stress than dogs that have not been socialized correctly.
Dogs that are not socialized are more apt to be timid, more likely to bite from fear, harder to housebreak and may have myriad behavioral issues. The foundation of proper socialization allows you to develop a dog that is a joy to live with, and one that derives joy daily from being with you.
Socialization is not difficult, and it only takes a bit of time every day. Young pups should be held, handled very gently and talked to by their breeder from the time they are a few days old. If you have a litter, interact with each puppy individually, and in various rooms of your home. As the pups grow and develop physically, enlarge their socialization experiences by taking them outside of your home. They need to be exposed to a wide range of people as soon as they are immunized: young, old, big, small, quiet, noisy, in wheelchairs, with canes, in baby carriages, wearing big hats, with beards and without.
Introduce the pup to the meter reader, the mail delivery person, and the trash collector, children on skate boards and bikes. Visit other dogs — safely please: be sure the other dog is under control and will not harm or frighten your pup. Best to delay this “outside of your home” part of socialization until your pup’s doctor tells you that it’s immunization is complete.
For his safety, the dog should always be on leash during these training experiences, or inside a carrier when in your car.
Your goal is to teach your pup that none of these things will harm him, and thus to build his confidence. It will be your very important job to be sure to control each situation so that the pup is never frightened or feels threatened.
You are teaching the dog that he need not fear new situations, noises or people. Go slowly, and watch new things with him from a distance. Each session should be limited to only a few minutes, a few times each day.
If he appears apprehensive or frightened, slow down the process and put more distance between you and the next new sights or sounds. Always reinforce the experience with quiet praise, hugs and an occasional treat.
Reward the pup whenever he reacts calmly and confidently to a new situation. It is your job to be sure that every one of these experiences is pleasant and non-threatening.
The socialization process seeks to imprint the dog with an enduring positive experience. If you push too hard or too quickly, you could also imprint the dog with a negative experience. If you think that this may be happening, retrace a few steps and start over. Your demeanor should always be confident and quietly happy — the pup will take his cue in each situation from you.
Puppy kindergarten classes are helpful in this socialization process, once the pup is sufficiently developed. Before you select a particular class, visit as an observer to ensure that the pups are happy and safe, and that the instructor is in control so that no pup suffers harm. Pups can be enrolled as soon as they have been immunized; it pays to reserve a place even before you pick up your new pup.
I mentioned earlier that pups should be immunized before going out of your home. This is vital. Consult your dog’s doctor for advice as to when you can take the pup out where he may encounter other dogs, or be exposed to viruses or parasites.
Remember that some viruses and parasites can be picked up simply by walking on grass or another surface. Until your vet gives the go-ahead, carry the pup when outdoors and do not put him down on the ground.
Everyone is drawn to puppies: though you may feel weird doing so, insist that people outside your immediate family disinfect their hands before you allow them to touch the baby dog and, of course, never allow anyone to frighten, tease or injure your dog.
The times I have spend socializing my pups are among the very best of my puppy memories. While I was having a grand time, the pups were learning all the vital lessons they need in order to spend their lives, happily and successfully, with a species so very different from their own. While you and your puppy are enjoying yourselves, you will be giving the pup one of the best gifts, aside from a healthy pedigree, that a responsible breeder can give.