Last Friday, Talos and I attended the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce's first Social Media Conference. I was excited for two reasons: first, this was going to be an educational event for me; and second, this was a great opportunity to socialize Talos, our service pup in training. He's just 11 weeks old, the perfect age for introducing him to new experiences.
I prepared for this event for two weeks. In my bag, I had food, water, bowls, interactive toys, his bed, and plenty of patience. There were over 100 people attending the conference. I paired scary applause with praise, treats, and playing. I made sure he was happy, not scared. I helped him through potentially scary situations (the lunch line, for example – he'd never been in such close quarters with so many people, had never been on a marble floor, and had never been in a room that noisy with that many people). I was also prepared to leave at any time if Talos became over-aroused, fearful, or uncomfortable. Yes, I paid a lot of money to attend, but for us this was really about Talos, not about social media. As you can see from the picture above, snapped by a fellow attendee, Talos settled right in and was so relaxed he fell asleep (and even snored!).
Dogs have several developmental stages, and the socialization window begins to close around 12 weeks and is effectively over by 16 weeks. In Maryland, it's illegal to remove a puppy from his mother before 8 weeks of age. New puppy owners have to act fast in order to get their pup exposed to as many things as possible in just four weeks.
Puppy socialization should be well thought out, planned, and systematic. You can't just put a puppy in any situation and consider him socialized. No, proper socialization takes time and effort. But proper socialization pays! You're less likely to have a fearful, aggressive, or "quirky" dog if you socialize him properly.
Here are some things to keep in mind as you develop your socialization plan for your pup:
- This is all for the puppy. You have to be ready to leave if the pup is overwhelmed. If you can't leave, don't go.
- Be ready to intervene if pup isn't having a good time. If he's overwhelmed by people, step between your pup and the people. Direct the people how to pet your pup, don't allow too many at once to interact with your pup.
- Carry yummy treats to give to people who want to say hi to your puppy. Have them offer the treats and allow the pup to come to them.
- Show people how to pet your puppy — under the chin, not over the head. Teach them to kneel down, turn sideways, and talk in a happy, but calm voice.
- Give your puppy as much time as he needs to investigate new things.
- Don't drag your puppy toward or away from anything! (Except if the situation is dangerous. Then pick your puppy up and walk away calmly.)
- Never (ever) punish your puppy when he's experiencing something new. (We rarely punish anytime!)
- Keep your pup on the fringe of things until he's calm. Then venture forward at his pace.
- Be very careful letting your pup interact with other dogs. If the other dog is out of control — even if they are super friendly — keep walking. Even a friendly, but exuberant dog, can injure or scare your dog. It's not worth taking the chance.
- Variety is key. You want your puppy to see as many different variations on: people (age, size, sex, dress, skin color, etc.), places (indoor, outdoor, crowded, quiet, noisy, etc.), and surfaces(pavement, gravel, carpet, astro-turf, concrete, decking, shiny floors, slippery floors, etc.).
Socialization can't be done in just one day or even one week. Pups need to see new things every day. Which means you'll be busy thinking of new places to take your pup. And spending a considerable amount of time getting your pup out to see those new places, people, and experiences. It's not enough to let your pup see the same group of people or dogs over and over during that socialization period – you need new dogs, new people, and new experiences.
Socialization is very important and can be fun, too. Start making a list of all the places and things your pup needs to see and then get out there and just do it! Just be sure your pup is having fun!