Hello all! Many of you who have brought your pets in have likely met me, but I am Dr. Kelsey Stover, one of your doctors serving you here at Lazy 5 Veterinary Hospital. Recently, as with many people through this past year in the pandemic, I have adopted a puppy. She is a sweet 8-week-old Golden Retriever, and she is the first dog that I am raising from puppyhood to adult dog. She’s joining a household of two cats, one who is a 6-month-old kitten, and one who is a 7-year-old ‘queen of the house’, and one adult 3-year-old dog.
My older dog Dobby is very cute and has the perpetual ‘puppy face’ even though he is now 3, which means people want to approach him to pet and cuddle him. However, he did not have the benefit of growing up as a puppy with me, as I adopted him as a 6-month-old puppy. At that stage in his life, he did not get the socialization he should have had throughout the first 6 months of his life, and so he has fear of new people, loud noises, children, and sometimes other dogs. He often barks if someone new approaches us on walks. With him, I do need to sometimes give him an anti-anxiety medication to help reduce his fear and anxiety with new situations and people, as well as try to keep his environment as least stimulating as possible to allow him to relax and be comfortable without stress.
Dobby is not alone in his situation. With having a puppy at home right now, I thought this was the perfect time to write up a blog post about the importance of socializing puppies, especially since with the pandemic, we have seen more puppies (which we love!) than ever before at Lazy 5 Vets. I highly recommend Perfect Puppy in 7 Days: How to Start Your Puppy Off Right by Dr. Sophia Yin, if you are adopting a puppy or currently have a puppy at home. I am currently reading this book myself, and it has been useful in encouraging good behaviors at home with my puppy.
Socialization is the term we use to describe the process of preparing a puppy or kitten to enjoy interactions and be comfortable with other animals, people (especially children), new places, and activities. The sensitive period for socialization for puppies starts at three weeks of age until three months of age. This is the prime time to get puppies primed to bonding with other animals and individuals, for learning that objects, people, and environments are safe, and for learning what body cues and signals of others mean. Puppies who do not get adequate socialization during this period tend to grow up to have tendencies like my older dog Dobby; they tend to be fearful of unfamiliar people or dogs, sounds, and environments. Dobby once scared the living daylights out of me by suddenly and excessively barking when it was very quiet in the house; I discovered the source of his barking was due to my turning off the ceiling fan and the ceiling fan had stopped spinning. He had never seen it not spin before and this change was enough to cause fear/anxiety and trigger barking for him.
When we are out on walks and Dobby starts barking at someone too close to us on our walks, the people who this happens to say “Oh, poor baby, is he a rescue? Was he abused?” And the answer is thankfully no; however, he was incomplete socialization as a young puppy which contributes to these behaviors today. This is the case for many of our dogs that are fearful/anxious as adults.
What can you do at home to help socialize your puppy? Here are some great tips from Dr. Yin’s book that help start good practices for your puppy. This helps to establish a mentally healthy life growing up at home with you. For full training recommendations, I recommend you rent or buy this book, as she does go over an amazing potty-training protocol and her ‘learn to earn’ program of training puppies.
Tips and Tricks on Socialization:
- Learning how to interact with other animals: This is especially important for puppies to learn when they go into a household that already has pets present. As puppies with their mom, they had likely already begun learning the consequences of interactions from their mom – they may learn if their mom raises her lip, it may be followed by a snap and a reprimand, so the pups learn to be mindful of her body language and respect her space if they aggravate her too much. The same goes for animals in the home. I mentioned earlier that I have a 6-month-old kitten and an adult 7-year-old cat at home. My puppy Ginny has already learned that the kitten, Hedwig, will play-fight with her and they can tussle on the floor together until the kitten hisses/growls and warns Ginny she is playing too rough. However, when Ginny tried to do the same play with my older cat Raven, she earned growling/hissing and a big smack to the face, to which Ginny whined and backed away from her. She now gives Raven more space and does not try to play with her. This is an important lesson to learn, as it teaches Ginny to back down and respect personal space for other pets in the household.
- Provide positive experiences with unfamiliar people of different sizes (children to adult), genders (male, female), and ethnicity (cultures/race) – It is important to invite guests to come to interact with the puppies while providing treats and toys to ensure the puppy has a positive experience with your guests. Interacting with only household members is not enough to socialize your puppy. Children can look like little aliens to puppies – and as puppies mature, children can also start to look more like toys, or things they should chase since children run/scream and can flail, similar to how prey could look. If you don’t have many children to introduce to, playing the sounds of children/babies from a sound CD or YouTube can help. Also have visitors wear a variety of clothes when they come over – boots, hats, gloves, etc. My older dog Dobby will know a person without a hat on, but if they put on the hat, he becomes fearful and isn’t able to recognize the person. Starting young to get puppies used to a variety of clothing can help reduce fear of a person looking different in a hat or boots, etc.
- Introduce to other sounds/objects – Playing noises on a CD or from YouTube such as a jackhammer, fireworks, construction noise, etc. can help to desensitize a puppy young to these types of noises they could potentially be exposed to when they’re older. If they are puppies raised in a more rural environment, then playing noises of loud crowds, as well as getting them used to objects that may be more seen in a city than rural (garbage cans, sidewalks, skateboards, etc.) can help them be less fearful if they’re ever in a different environment when they’re older. For indoor noise like vacuum cleaners, turn on the vacuum from farther away in the room/house and reward with treats if the puppy remains calm as the vacuum gets closer. If they start being fearful of it, take the vacuum farther away and continue to work on it gradually coming closer as they take treats and get used to the noise.
- Getting used to different surfaces – It is good to train a puppy to walk on floors, carpet, wet grass vs. dry grass (this will help a puppy go outside when it’s raining to go potty), sidewalk, metal (for exam tables) – that way they’re not afraid of a new surface to walk on if they’ve never seen it before.
- Take proper precautions to protect your puppy to socialize – for instance, you can walk your puppy in neighborhoods you know for certain most dogs are vaccinated in, or take your puppy to homes vaccinated dogs are in, but would not recommend you take to your puppy to dog parks or other areas frequented by dogs of unknown vaccination status until they are finished with their puppy vaccine series (usually around 16 weeks of age).
- Frequent handling – this is the best time to get your puppy used to being handled for a variety of reasons; grooming, examinations, nail trims, etc. It is important to start now when the puppy is small and easy to physically position and hold. Gently massage/rub their ears, or gently stick your finger or a cotton ball down their ear to get them used to ear exams and ear cleanings, open their mouth/lift their lips to get them used to oral exams/toothbrushing for dental care later in life, play with their toes and nails to get them used to someone holding their feet for nail trims, and in general rub/handle your puppy all over, giving them treats when they don’t struggle or try to growl or nip; treating them when they’re tolerating handling will tell them it’s okay for someone to handle them. If you have a puppy you know will need grooms, get them used to clipper noise young, turn it on from far away, and bring the clippers closer, rewarding them with treats when the puppy is calm, but take the clippers away if they start to react with fear. Work on getting the clippers closer and closer until the puppy doesn’t mind the clippers resting on them and they take treats during this.
These are just a few of the good tips and tricks for starting socialization young in your puppies at home. Socialization starts when you bring them over the threshold into your home, and it is a vital part of the puppy’s learning process to have healthy engagement with other animals, people, objects, and their surroundings. This also transitions into good veterinary visits where they are not fearful to be handled or looked at.
If wanting more information for crate training, potty training, or in general training to learn commands/good behaviors, I recommend these resources:
Perfect Puppy in 7 Days: How to Start Your Puppy Off Right by Dr. Sophia Yin
The Perfect Puppy by Gwen Bailey
Puppy Prep School by the Indoor Pet Initiative at Ohio State University (https://indoorpet.osu.edu/dogs/puppy)
If you have young children, this website is great to teach safe kids = happy dogs – https://www.thefamilydog.com/stop-the-77//
If you have any questions or would like to schedule a puppy visit with one of our doctors, please contact our clinic at 704-636-1100. We are happy to help you grow a relationship with your puppy to encourage good behavior and healthy, happy life with you.
Kelsey Stover, DVM, CVA, CFP