What to Expect When You Are Expecting a Puppy – Part 3
Week 1 and Beyond
Your new puppy is settling into your home and learning new routines, but what comes next? Socialization and training! If you or someone you know has recently brought home a puppy, you have probably heard about socialization already. We often hear things like “bring your puppy everywhere” or “let your puppy meet everyone”, but going to a lot of places and meeting a lot of people and other dogs isn’t actually what socialization is about!
The goal of socialization for puppies is to provide them with positive experiences with a variety of people, other dogs, places, and things in order to help them learn that the world is a safe place. This influences their behavior and emotions as they get older, as initial experiences with different stimuli help to shape their view of whether that thing is safe or scary. The key words here are “positive” and “variety”, which doesn’t necessarily mean that they need to meet and interact with everyone. A smaller number of positive experiences with a variety of environments, things, and living creatures is actually be better for socialization than a large number of hit-or-miss experiences!
Here are some general categories of things to positively expose your puppy to (but remember that exposure does not necessarily mean direct interaction with these things!):
- Surfaces and textures (grass, pavement, gravel, sand, carpet, tile, hardwood, etc.)
- Novel objects (ex: umbrellas, boxes, traffic cones, vacuums and other household items, yard signs and decorations)
- People of a variety of ages, sizes, and physical appearances, people with hats and backpacks, people with assistive devices like wheelchairs or canes
- Places (ex: parks, places with sidewalks, pet-friendly shops, family or friends’ houses)
- Other animals (puppy-friendly and vaccinated adult dogs of different shapes and sizes, other puppies through a well-designed puppy class or via friends with puppies, other animals that live in your home)
The “socialization window” is the time when puppies are between about 3 and 16 weeks old when their malleable puppy brains are like little sponges, soaking up information about their experiences in the big wide world. This is the prime time to proactively provide your puppy with opportunities to see, hear, and sometimes interact with a variety of sights, sounds, people, and other animals in a way that is safe and positive for them.
We can also consider socialization experiences as training experiences! If we want our puppy to feel calm and confident when guests come over, or when watching people or dogs pass by the house, we can start shaping those feelings and the resulting behavior by pairing those experiences with good things. Today I’m sharing three of the key elements to keep in mind when planning socialization and training for your pup!
A note on vaccinations: A common misconception is that puppies must finish their complete set of puppy vaccinations before being socialized. Unfortunately, if we wait for the full vaccine series to be complete then our socialization window will have passed! There are still safety considerations to take for puppies who don’t yet have all of their vaccines, but we can maintain health and safety while also providing important socialization opportunities. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s position statement on puppy socialization includes guidelines for what vaccines puppy’s should receive prior to puppy classes and why socialization prior to complete vaccination is important.
1. Socialization Doesn’t Always Mean Interaction
One of the common things I hear as a trainer is that socialization means that our puppies need to meet, interact with, and play with lots of people and other dogs. But this isn’t necessarily true! While it is helpful for our puppies to interact with some other living creatures, it is also really important for them to have opportunities to just observe, or to exist comfortably near people and other dogs. If you think about what you want life with your dog to look like, do you want them to pull towards every person and dog they see and get frustrated when they can’t say hello, or would you rather that they learn to comfortably pass by without needing to say hello to everyone? We can teach our puppies that people and dogs are safe and fun while also teaching them that calmly existing in the same space as others is possible.
Here are some ways you can give your puppy access to important socialization opportunities without needing them to directly interact with people, other animals, or novel objects:
- Sit on your front porch or deck and offer your puppy treats every time someone walks by the house. If you don’t have a front porch, put up a baby gate at your front door, leave the door open for a few minutes, and sit inside with your puppy to offer treats while they watch the world go by.
- Drive to a local shopping plaza and sit in the car with your puppy. I like to either have them in the backseat where they can look out the car window, or sit with them in the open trunk or while they are inside of a car crate. Bring tasty treats and toys for your puppy to enjoy while they hear and see cars, people walking by and talking, and items like shopping carts moving.
- Head to a local park with a big blanket for your puppy to hang out on with their toys and treats. They can see people, dogs, birds, squirrels, cars, bicycles, strollers, and more while you have good opportunities to pair noticing those things with eating snacks, playing with toys, and relaxing on their blanket.
- At home, you can play novel sounds like thunderstorms, car horns, vacuum noises, dogs barking, and more! Play sounds on low volume while your puppy plays or eats, making sure to keep the sound low enough that they stay comfortable and aren’t showing signs of fear (more on that in tip number two below!).
- Make a puppy enrichment experience at home by placing a variety of puppy-safe items around the room and then scattering food all around the objects for them to sniff out. You can use items you already have at home too! For example, you could place a muffin tin, an empty cardboard box, toys of different shapes and sizes, and a bathmat or small rug in a room, scatter treats or puppy food around the items, and let your puppy have a fun sniffy activity that provides a positive experience with strange novel objects.
2. It’s Only a Positive Experience If Your Puppy Thinks It’s a Positive Experience
As dog guardians, the most valuable thing we can do for our puppies during socialization is let their responses guide how we introduce them to new things. As much as we may look at a situation and think it is fun and enjoyable for our puppy, if they feel differently then that’s what actually matters. Luckily, there are lots of body language and behavior clues that we can look for to tell us if our puppy is having a positive experience or if they need extra support!
When exposing your puppy to new things, sounds, or environments, take things at their pace and always pair the new experience with things your puppy likes, like treats, toys, and affection. Puppies will communicate comfort, fear, uncertainty, stress, and more through their body language and behavior, and we can help them become confident adult dogs by looking at those signals and helping them when needed. The Puppy Starter Kit I shared in the first post of this series (which you can find here) includes a section on socialization with body language and behavior cues that you can look for when introducing and exposing your puppy to new things. This post from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior also includes some great tips on how to gradually introduce your puppy to social experiences.
In general, if your puppy is showing signs of fear or uncertainty, give them help by letting them take a break and offering treats, reassurance, and other things that help them feel safe and comfortable.
Comforting your puppy when they are scared won’t “reinforce their fear”. In fact, it is both okay and recommended to reassure them when they are afraid! Comforting your dogs when they feel nervous is a great way of showing them that you have their back and that you are a safe person to come to when they need support.
3. Teach Them What TO Do
Positive reinforcement training is the best method for letting our puppies know what behaviors we would like them to repeat and helping them to be successful! We never need to scare or startle our puppies in order to get good behavior or prevent them from doing something we don’t want. Use reward-based, positive reinforcement training to humanely and effectively teach your puppy foundation skills like greeting people with four feet on the floor or going to their dog bed while you cook.
Think about normal activities that happen in your household (guests arriving, dogs and people walking by the front yard, taking out the vacuum, sitting down to eat dinner, calling your dog’s name, etc.). Imagine what you would ideally like your dog to do in these situations! Use positive reinforcement to proactively teach them these skills from the start, and reap the benefits for years to come. The more we can establish good foundations early, the less likely it is that you’ll find yourself having to re-teach behaviors later. This isn’t to say that your dog’s behavior will always be “perfect” – they’re living, breathing creatures after all, and “perfect” doesn’t really exist! – but we can help to set them up for success for life in a human world by teaching them good skills early on.
Here are some examples of how we can set up initial training sessions to help our puppies start learning skills for life:
- When cooking in the kitchen, put a comfy dog bed nearby and periodically drop a small treat or piece of kibble onto the bed for your puppy. This can start teaching them that humans in the kitchen is their cue to go settle on a bed instead of walking underfoot or counter surfing for snacks.
- When your puppy notices dogs or other people walking by the house, offer them treats while they watch the people and dogs pass by. This helps to pair seeing passersby with something positive (snacks!) while also rewarding the behavior of calmly watching instead of barking or running from window to window.
- Use The Name Game to teach your dog that hearing their name means that good things are about to come from you! With your puppy in front of you, say their name one time in a happy tone, then immediately place a treat on the floor in front of them. As they are finishing the treat and about to pick their head up, say their name again and then place another treat on the floor as soon as they move their head to look up towards you. Once they are quickly looking up towards you when they hear their name, add a little bit of distance by calling their name when they aren’t right in front of you. Practice for short (1 minute or less) training sessions throughout the day to help them learn that hearing their name is a cue to look towards you for something good. This can be the foundation for getting your dog’s attention, teaching them to come when called, and even is helpful for other skills like leash walking!
If you are thinking about bringing home a new puppy, or have recently welcomed a puppy into your home, Rover Rehab offers customized puppy training services to help make your first days, weeks, and months with your new pup as low-stress and fun as possible! It can be tough to know where to get started with training and socialization – what are the most important things to teach first? How should you handle challenges or problems that arise? What behaviors are “normal” for puppies and how can we teach them to be confident, well-mannered dogs as they grow? Rover Rehab’s training programs are designed to give you answers to all of these questions while curating a training program that matches your life and your specific goals. Let us help you and your new pup live in happy harmony together! Get started by booking your consultation here.