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The Importance of Socialization

Every species of animal has a critical developmental period during which "socialization" takes place. The purpose of socialization is to ensure that the young of every species learns very early about things to avoid in order to survive. For many species this early learning, taught by the mother, teaches them to flee or fight things that could cause them injury or death. Whether you are a rabbit learning about aerial shadows that might predict a hawk looking for lunch or a mouse listening to a creaking floorboard under the pressure of a cat’s foot, it is wise to learn these critical lessons very early. Each species has its own specific age by which socialization must take place for optimum learning.

 
 
 
  • Caber
    Breed: 3-month old Border Collie
    Owner: Sharon Adams

    This young pup is being exposed to water at an early age so that he not only tolerates being in water, but will actually enjoy it. He is going to compete in agility, and cooling a dog between runs is important. Playing in water can also be a powerful reward when dogs have positive experiences with water when they are very young. Many dogs can be encouraged to put their noses in water if you float a treat on the top of a couple inches of water in a puppy pool. Then try using treats that don't float. Pups will learn to hold their breath while they retrieve the treat from the bottom of the pool.
  • Charm
    Breed: 12-week old Silky Terrier
    Owner: Nikki Myers

    All dogs should be exposed to grooming routines from a young age. This is especially important for dogs that will require extensive grooming throughout their lives (terriers, poodles, cocker spaniels, etc.). Starting earlier˜and making it a positive experience by using a lot of treats during bathing and grooming˜will pay off handsomely.
  • Charm and Emily
    Breed: Silky Terrier
    Owner: Nikki Myers

    Puppies need to have good experiences from a very young age. Children who are appropriate˜gentle and quiet˜are an important part of early socialization. Emily is holding Charm, the Silky Terrier pup, firmly and supporting his full body, without squeezing.
  • Hebert-Trip and Peanut

    If your dog does not have good experiences about the variety of sights, sounds, people, and animals in its life by 3-4 months of age, the result can be a lifetime of fears, suspicions, and even aggression. The vast majority of the aggression cases seen by DogPACT are the direct result of poor or improper socialization.
  • The "socialization period" for dogs is between 7 and 12 weeks of age. You might think that there is not much to learn about how to survive if you are a domestic dog. That is true: dogs’ human caretakers provide most of their needs. However, that does not mean that dogs are still no hard-wired to learn the most about their world by the time they are not much older than three months of age.
  • Pretzel, Rat Terrier and Charm, Silky Terrier

    Regular play dates with carefully selected friends play an important role in learning to exhibit and interpret diverse canine social signals. These two pups play vigorously with each other (only pausing briefly for this photo opportunity), but have also learned to interrupt play when one or the other starts to get too rough. With these two particular dogs, the presence of a highly valued item such as the chewie to the right of Charm does not cause fights, while with many dogs it would be wise to remove those items prior to play time.
  • This includes dogs who never learned appropriate play skills who aggress toward other dogs when they misinterpret canine communication signals, as well as dogs who have been mistreated by children during puppyhood.
  • It can be helpful, but to overcome social deficits caused by poor early socialization usually requires active behavior modification to gradually "desensitize" and "countercondition" the dog to the things he is afraid of. Worse than trying passive habituation is "flooding," a misguided and dangerous attempt at making a dog deal with his fears by forcing him into situations where he is fearful until he "gets over it." Many, many dogs’ fears are increased ("sensitized") as a result of flooding.
  • Winston

    One of the most common misunderstandings about dogs and socialization is that if a puppy misses being socialized and develops fears and/or aggressive behavior that those behavior problems can be overcome by "socialization" later in life. True "socialization" is restricted to that first three to four months of life. Simply exposing a dog to things later in life is more accurately termed "habituation."

Socialize early. Socialize often. Make it fun. Make it positive.

Click here for an in-depth article by a respected veterinarian about how you can socialize your pup early without unnecessary risk to his health before all his vaccinations are "complete."

Click here for a letter from Dr. R.K. Anderson, DVM Diplomate, ACVB and ACVPM, an epidemiologist reaching out to other veterinarians about the need for early socialization.

Click here for a Socialization Chart you can use to ensure you are adequately socializing your pup to the multitude of stimuli he’ll encounter in his life.

Click here to learn more about the myths and realities of successful socialization programs.

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