Building strong social skills will offer your dog the tools he needs to navigate an immersive environment during puppyhood. Puppies that are socialized well will have a far greater chance of developing into happier, more relaxed, and less anxious adults!
Dogs that never feel threatened and can play with other animals without the worry of injury will always be happier than dogs that are always worried or defensive, and especially those in a perpetual state of fear.
Working with your puppy to build social skills will be some of the very best dog training you ever do, setting a strong foundation for happiness in every facet for years to come!
When to Start Socializing Your Dog
A young puppy soaks up new experiences or encounters like a sponge! His brain has a lot of developing to go and is still creating new neural pathways, providing a fantastic template to work with.
Your pup can begin early socialization as soon as you bring him home, at about 8 weeks. This first month is your ‘golden month’ because the puppy hasn’t developed any sort of caution towards anything; introducing other animals is far easier. Make sure every encounter is a fun, joyful one!
Your pup is beginning to develop some caution around other creatures, humans, or animals, it hasn’t encountered before. That sense of ‘nothing can harm me and everything I will ever see is wonderful’ is beginning to diminish. Socialization work is still very possible, but the process may take a little bit longer.
18 Weeks- 2 Years
At 18 weeks, the ‘golden period’ has ended. Introducing new animals or encounters is still very possible, but it will require the educated hands of an experienced handler to run smoothly.
Two years is the generally agreed upon period when your dog becomes ‘set in his ways’, and it can sometimes be very tedious to counter-condition a dog reactive to animals it either fears or considers possible threats. Dog socialization work is still very possible, but will often take the care of a trained behaviorist.
Never separate a pup from his litter mates prior to 7 weeks of age!
These first few weeks a puppy spends with mother and littermates is easily the most important of his life! Nutritionally, nothing can quite replace a mother’s milk. When it comes to dog socialization, a puppy will become comfortable playing with his puppy siblings.
He’ll learn what kinds of play are acceptable, and become comfortable around these other dogs. Even more important from a potential handler’s perspective, he’ll begin learning how to control his bite pressure.
Puppies may have needle-sharp teeth, but they don’t exert much force. You can imagine how potentially dangerous a fully grown adult that has never learned these skills could be!
Never force an encounter, and always provide careful supervision!
You’ll always want to ensure every new experience is a joyful one for your pup. He’s likely to grow into a happier adult, play more often, endure far less stress or anxiety, and live longer!
Imagine a sheltered dog, maybe 8 years old or so, who has never been allowed to venture past the fencing of his secluded yard. This dog very rarely ever encounters distant human relatives of the owner, has never seen another dog since separated from his littermates all of those years ago. He’s grown to know only one true companion: his handler.
Dogs are social animals by nature, and it is their instinct to work alongside other ‘family’ members! On the other hand, they are very intelligent creatures and have evolved a sense of security from the Grey wolves before them. If a dog discovers another creature he has never seen before or learned isn’t a threat to his family or resources, he might just feel the need to adopt the role of guardian.
One day, this owner decides to ask his relatives over for a visit. The relatives have two small children, who were raised to love dogs. You see, they have no reason at all to think this one would be anything but friendly, and can’t wait to run over and pet him! In fact, this is the very first thing they do.
On the other hand, the dog has never seen small humans before and has no clue why they are shouting while running towards him.
A week later, one of the two has just been released from the hospital, recovering from her bite wounds. The dog that felt threatened, lashing out in defense, has been taken from the only home he’s ever known and placed in a cage where he will ultimately spend the rest of his days.
Are Poorly Socialized Dog Attacks Rare?
The situation mentioned above isn’t some far-fetched horror story or fable. Unfortunately, the vast majority of dog/human confrontations usually occur either because the dog was trained to react this way (i.e. police dog), humans were aggravating a dog who decided ‘fight’ was the preferable option to ‘flight’, or the dog lacked strong social skills.
Like the ancestral wolves before them, dogs are intelligent creatures and ‘usually’ won’t want to risk a confrontation with a larger, more powerful animal that could result in their own injury or death.
These dogs are either reacting the way they’ve been taught or the only way they, naturally, know how to. We can never truly blame an animal that has never known any better, but we can always blame ourselves for not showing him a better way.
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