Socializing puppies should begin in the breeders home. Even before a puppy can hear or see, “puppy enrichment” can begin by focusing on the fully developed senses the puppy does have (those of touch and smell). For any of you who are members of my “Puppy Peaks” community I have a new area called “Puppy Enrichment” where I will be posting some of the things I did with my puppies from the time they were 3 days old right up until they left for their new homes at 8 weeks of age.
Puppy socializing really turns a corner once the puppies are between 9-16 weeks old. This is a critical period where confidence can grow or be crushed. Careful, strategic socialization is key in helping protect and develop your puppy’s confidence. The main areas of socialization & habituation that most experts agree to focus upon are people, places & things.
1. People: men, women, children of as many ethnicities, heights, sizes, voice ranges, physical challenges, activity levels and or weird hats you can find. Behaviourist Ian Dunbar has a great suggestion to try and have your puppy meet 50 men, 50 women and 50 children a week during their critical socialization period.
2. Environments: Footing (as many surfaces as you can find…be sure to include polished surfaces where the puppy can see their reflection as they walk). I like to include elevators, escalators and of course stairs. The environment will also include various noises (from door bells to back fires) as well as sights from all directions including stimulation from above as in balloons or birds.
3. Things: This is a catch all…everything from bicycles to garbage bags sitting out on the street.
The Debate of Socialization vs Immunization
I don’t want this blog to turn into a heated debate about the controversial side of taking puppies this young out into the world prior to them being fully vaccinated. I will suggest you discuss that with your veterinarian. There are risks. When I contemplated socializing Swagger with a litter of Labrador puppies at only 3 1/2 weeks of age I discussed my plan with my veterinarian first. She agreed with me that that it was worth the risk.
The truth is, you can’t be certain your puppy is completely “safe” to socialize until the he has had 3 properly timed inoculations (usually 9,12 & 16 weeks). There are so many contributing factors that go into a puppy “current immunity protection level.” Things such as the vaccination status of the puppy’s mother, how much colostrum your puppy would have received during its first 24 hours of life. How much stress this puppy has already been exposed to. It could very well be that exposing a puppy to a new environment prior to having any vaccines at 8 weeks of age is better than vaccinating them prior to exposing them. However, that is an immunological discussion I am not going to get into. The point is, what I am about to describe is taking a health risk. However, waiting until 16 weeks before you begin your puppy’s socializing means you are missing a critical developmental window. You need to discuss the risks and benefits of such good socialization with your own veterinarian prior to taking any action.
For the rest of the blog, I am only going to address the benefits of proper socializing and habituating to behavioural development of your puppy. In particular, I am going to share with you an outing I had this week with four puppies from our most recent litter.
Because my puppies were born and raised on our property they were not exposed to a lot of “city noises” on a regular basis. Yes I did take them for car rides into the city and yes I did play loads of “sound effects” for them from the time they were 3 weeks old. The fact we are on a flight path to an airport which is only 15 minutes from us was also a great benefit to all of my puppies. However, the truth is we live on 28 acres at the end of the road. We have no other house within a half a mile from us. Our closest neighbour is a 200-acre golf course. We love where we live…but there isn’t a lot of noise for growing puppies!
The Business of the “Puppy Adventures Trips”
My experience with raising Swagger as a “singleton” puppy gave me a brand new perspective on socialization. Remember I mentioned that the key in all socializing is confidence? Well raising a singleton I was able to see how fragile that confidence can be. When Swagger was about 5 weeks old we were outside, at the foot of the stairs when a flock of Canadian Geese flew squawking overhead. Swagger panicked. He bolted up the stairs and frantically clawed at the front door, crying for his mother and trying to get back inside. There was no littermate there to show him how to act appropriately. There was no brave sibling who would try to chase those birds. There was only one frightened puppy whose confidence was shattered. It took me literally months to help Swagger recover from that experience. And THAT is what gave me the idea of “Puppy Adventure Trips”
Typically when puppies are sent home to their new owners, it is up to that new owner to find a way to socialize their puppy. Of course, there are “Puppy Classes” or “Puppy Parties” but playing with other puppies or learning to sit, although important, isn’t what I am talking about. Most of the time a new puppy is on their own learning to deal with new stimuli as a way of life. Sometimes it is a success and confidence grows, sometimes it is a disaster and confidence is crushed. Why leave this up to chance? Knowing that just the proximity of another puppy boosts a puppy’s confidence I now plan for confidence to grow in my puppy with our PATs. You can see a puppy who otherwise might be shy of a person in a wheelchair or a crying baby being pushed in a stroller or the rumbling of a big truck be transformed by the proximity of other puppies. Even if as a group the puppies start out as not 100% confidence, confidence grows within the group.
Our First Toronto “P.A.T”!
Earlier this week I got together with 3 other puppy owners for our first of many “P.A.Ts.” This one was in downtown Toronto…I mean the heart of the city. It was strategically planned and not even by me, but by one of my students who has one of my puppies. Canty lives in Toronto and was keen to participate!
Doing a P.A.T I would suggest you ebb and flow the exposure/stimulation for the puppies. This is how our day went.
Round One: Moderate Distraction, Brief Exposure and High Arousal
Our first “taste” of the city was carrying the puppies out of the underground parking, walking to street level and playing high arousal games of tug.
The tug helped the puppies to habituate to the traffic noise without ever having to really look at it or notice it.
Tug games start further away from the street (as close to the buildings as we can get) and move closer with confidence. Once all of the puppies have had the chance to play, observe and have a pee we “reduce the stress” and move inside the condo. Total time for round one was about 5 minutes.
Round Two: Chillin’
Fortunately for us, our friend Canty has a condo right in downtown Toronto. So we could take the puppies upstairs to for them to “return to normal” before we move on with our day. First adventure for the puppies on an elevator! We carried them for the first round and let them walk on while on leash for every trip afterwards.
Here all four littermates got re-acquainted playing in Wiggins’ condo within the condo. The pups have been separated from each other for about four days. “Chilling’ time was about 10 minutes.
Round Three: Moderate Distraction
Our next step was one I didn’t even think of! Rather than taking the puppies directly back into the hubbub of the big city, we let them have a group play on Canty’s rooftop socializing area.
The sounds, smells and even sites of the city could be taken in by the puppies but all while a l-o-n-g distance away.
Fun times were had by all.
We would break up the “puppy play” with some structure “training” just to bring the focus of the puppies back to the people.
Total time upon the “very secure” roof was about 20 minutes.
Round Four: Chillin’
Next, we went downstairs, puppies went back into the condo to rest while we had tea. Total time was about 30 minutes.
Round Five: High Distraction
Next, we jumped back into the elevator and walked to the first busy corner. Here we saw bicycles, streetcars, watch a fire truck go by with its siren screaming…
…we stayed here, tugging, (see the big truck in the pic below)…it was complete with the loud “beep beep.”
As you can imagine having 4 similar looking puppies in downtown Toronto caused a bit of a stir so the puppies met A LOT of people.
Time spent here on the corner was about 10 minutes. All puppies happy to move forward to our next “Chill Station” which was a quiet enclosure of grass.
Round Five: Chillin’
Our goal was to walk about 3 blocks to a restaurant to have lunch with a stop at a park along the way. We spied a smaller patch of grass and spent a few moments allowing the puppies to relieve themselves before heading off two more blocks to the park.
Some of the time the puppies where carried, sometimes we did tug games and sometimes they just walked on leash taking it all in.
We had three “Chillin’ Stations” at various parks during the day.
These “Chillin’ Stations” are an obvious complete “stress” reliever for the puppies…although all of the four puppies we had out took all of their new lessons all in stride.
Alternating “Chillin’ & Distractions”:
The rest of the day was spent alternating between “Chillin'” and “Distractions”…here the four of us were invited into a store filled with “dog-crazy” people!
Actually, a lot of Toronto was dog-crazy…hungry anyone?
Of course, a trip to Toronto would not be complete without a stop at a pet store! We got to two of them (all on our short walk). The first one had “pet wear.” Moose…who will eventually be moving to the UK to live with her new family, is seeing how she looks dressed in a union jack 🙂
Our second pet store proved to be a great “chillin'” opportunity for the puppies.
Our meet & greets included a Canadian celebrity…here we bumped into “puppy crazy” George Strombolopolous. George is known as “Canada’s boyfriend” he is a national TV personality. It looks like here as if the female puppies in this picture (Momentum, Moose and Charm) are sitting in line waiting for a kiss from George while the only male puppy “Wiggins” is somewhat unimpressed.
We had planned the trip around one of my favourite vegan restaurants in Toronto “Fresh”. Here the tuckered puppies decide to catch a nap…well all except one :). Eventually, Momentum DID lay down but it did take a while.
We ordered and ate our lunch, but not wanting to disturb the sleeping puppies we hung around for about an hour before heading home. As you can image, four gorgeous sleeping puppies did draw a crowd…along with a few offers from those hoping we were selling ;).
Socializing puppies can take on many forms. I will still take Momentum up on her own but I have more “Puppy Adventure Trips” planned before that time just to hedge my bets that all of her “first-time experiences” will be as amazing as this one has been.
If you are going to plan your own P.A.T.’s outings be sure you alternate the experiences between “stepped” distractions (varying from low to high-level distractions) and intermingled with “Chillin'” time for puppies to recover.
Today I am grateful for how well all four puppies handled their first “off property” Puppy Adventure Trip!
I’m always interested in learning about unique approaches to dog training. In the comments section below I would love for you to share what has been your Go-To Puppy Socializing Exercise.