Daniel H. Antolec
“What is socialization?”
Socialization is the development of social behavior in dogs and it occurs during the first few months in the life of a puppy. There are several periods of socialization, or windows of opportunity. These are based on development of the puppy brain and the development of neural pathways in particular. During this period young dogs are best able to respond to stimuli in the environment and learn social skills that it can depend upon the rest of its life. If the socialization window closes and the puppy has not learned to cope with unexpected stimuli, the default response in future will be fearful.
Dr. Terri A. Derr practices veterinary medicine in the Minneapolis (MN) area, with a heavy emphasis on behavior modification. She recently gave presentations at the 9th annual Applied Animal Behavior Conference in Madison (WI) including a lecture on the development of social behavior in dogs. Dr. Derr outlined social development periods as follows:
Birth to 3 weeks:
Daily weighing and gentle handling are important.
3 to 5 Weeks:
Puppies learn about other dogs by interacting with their mother and litter mates.
They actively approach unfamiliar people.
They rapidly recover from startling events.
5 to 7 Weeks:
Increasing interactions with people of all kinds is vitally important.
Housetraining can begin at this age.
Maternal interactions begin to decline.
(7 to 9 weeks is an ideal time to bring a puppy into the home.)
8 to 12 Weeks:
Continue interactions with all kinds of dogs, people and things in the environment.
Puppies are learning to cope with change.
12 to 14 Weeks:
This is sometimes called a fear period.
Puppies tend to avoid unfamiliar people and things.
Socialization efforts should continue, but with care not to traumatize the puppy.
According to other canine experts such as Dr. Ian Dunbar, dog owners should actively strive to meet minimum socialization goals during the sensitive early weeks of a puppy’s life, and then continue reinforcing social skills throughout the life of the dog. Dr. Dunbar states a puppy should safely interact with at least 100 new people in the first 8 weeks of life, and 100 more (new) people from weeks 8 to 12. Socialization changes neuron anatomy, stimulating and building the brain. A puppy needs to learn that the world is safe and friendly and that all things are “normal”.
“What if the puppy is not adequately socialized?”
Dog owners will likely see subtle behavior clues which they may describe as shyness or timidity. Very often they may excuse the behavior by saying “Our puppy is a bit shy with people, until he gets used to them” and thus dismiss the matter as normal behavior. From the puppy’s perspective, if they find the world a scary and uncertain place they may feel most comfortable with their immediate caretakers, and be too small to do much about all the other scary things in the world. They may even withdraw and shut down, prompting some to comment “Oh, what a nice quiet puppy!”
What dog owners often miss are the many behavioral signs of stress, fear and avoidance. Those are harbingers of things to come and should be promptly dealt with by a competent dog professional who understands humane methods of behavior modification. Unfortunately many fearful puppies receive no help.
As they grow into adolescence they have become bigger and are more apt to learn and carry out survival strategies. Most will run and hide to avoid novel and unexpected events, and some will learn that aggressive displays will make the scary things go away. This can be reinforced by those facing the aggressive display and so the fearful dog learns how to stay safe. By that point most dog owners can see the obvious signs and find themselves living with a dog that is hard to live with.
At that stage some folks will seek out a trainer or behaviorist in an effort to remedy the behavior, while others accept the status quo and just live with it. Others give up their dogs or have them euthanized. As many as 2-3 million dogs are euthanized each year. According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the leading cause of death among dogs three years of age and younger are behavioral problems, not medical issues. It is generally agreed by canine experts that 90% of dog bites involve fearful dogs, and likely 90% of problem behaviors stem from lack of socialization. Some puppies are resilient enough to avoid a fearful outlook on life despite lack of socialization, but most will spend their days in a heightened state of anxiety and frequently be pushed over their emotional threshold into fear-based aggression.
“What about punishment?”
It is natural for people to witness their young dog barking, lunging and snapping at strangers and think that punishment is the solution. From the human perspective the dog is behaving badly; from the canine perspective the dog is terrified and is using the only coping mechanism it ever learned. Punishing a fearful dog does not deal with the underlying fear, but it does lead to increased fear and aggression. This is a well-established fact based on scientific evidence.
“What can be done to help the dog?”
During his recent seminar in Madison (WI) Dr. Dunbar explained to the audience how much time a trainer or behaviorist should expect to spend, trying to remedy fear in a poorly socialized dog. This is the timeline he expressed:
8 Weeks of age – 1 hour of behavior modification
5 Months of age – 3 months of behavior modification
8 Months of age – several years of behavior modification
Of course there are differences among individuals, but the overall message was clear. If a puppy was not socialized, all that is left to do is engage in behavior modification protocols. One cannot turn back time and socialize an un-socialized adult dog. Remember, the process of socialization is related to puppy brain development and neural connections that are formed before the brain development stops. Also, by two years of age the dog’s personality if firmly established. It is far better to invest some time and effort while the puppy is young, than to wait for fearful behaviors to become firmly established.
“How can I socialize my puppy?”
There are endless ways to socialize a puppy, and all of them are fun! Here are just a few ideas offered in no particular order.
- Join a puppy socialization class offered by a trainer.
- Host a puppy party! Invite relatives, friends, co-workers and neighbors (just a few at a time) to meet your puppy. Watch a movie, play a game, have an ice cream social or any other fun activity. Guests can handle and interact with the puppy and offer treats.
- Take your puppy into the community and ask people you encounter to help you socialize your little furball. Most people will oblige and you can be sure they are the sort of people who like dogs. Go to a park, or hang out in front of a grocery store or other retail outlets and greet people who pass by.
- Invite friends who own friendly dogs to pay a visit, one at a time.
- Contact local community service groups, churches and youth groups and ask if you can visit with your puppy.
- Take your puppy to community sporting events such as softball or soccer games and mingle among the fans.
- Hang out near busy streets and practice playing training games with your puppy as the world passes by. Your puppy will learn to cope with all sorts of sights and sounds while having a great time.