By Dianna Young
Dogs need to be socialized properly to people, to other animals and to a wide range of experiences in order to take their place confidently and appropriately in your life. The period of optimum opportunity presents only a narrow window in which to do it — from 7 weeks to 16 weeks of age — and it’s important not to let that slip by. Afterwards, while it still is possible to socialize canines, the experience will not be as easy for the animal or as effective.
Why do we need to socialize canines, and what is the best way to do it? Dogs that aren’t properly socialized to people, for example, often grow up to be biters. They may be accepting of members of their human family but at the same time react to people outside their own pack with aggression that’s based on fear. To avert this, take him where people gather. Visit parks and street fairs. See that he’s exposed to different kinds of people; women and men, children of various ages, various ethnic groups. Children are a particularly important category, especially running, shouting children. If you have none of your own, borrow some. Utilize nieces and nephews, or introduce your pup to neighborhood kids or to the Little League team that plays on Saturdays in the local park.
Your pup doesn’t have to actually meet the people you expose him to. He just needs to know that they are out there; that there are lots of people besides the handful who exist inside the security of his own four walls, and that they don’t pose a threat to him.
If you enjoy riding in your car with your dog, start your pup early. Some dogs get to ride in a car only once a year, to go to the vet’s office for booster shots. That can be quite an ordeal for all involved.
Introduce your pup to loud noises. Take him down to the station to watch the Amtrak come through. And if you’re rearing a future gun dog, you’ll want to expose him to the sound of gunshots, of course.
How should you conduct your dog’s exposure to new things? First, put a collar on your pup and attach it to a six-foot leather leash. This puts your pup into a controlled environment, and puts you in control of the environment. Then, think about your own behavior. This is absolutely critical, because you will tell your animal how to feel about what he’s experiencing, whether it’s fireworks, gunfire or a screaming ambulance. He will look to you for leadership, and will take his cue from your demeanor.
When you take him down to see the Amtrak train come by, for example, it’s important that your pup see that its noise doesn’t alarm you or repel you. Don’t pick him up at a critical moment; your dog has to experience life on his own four feet, whether he’s four pounds or 150 pounds. Your goal, however, is to redirect his mind while he’s experiencing something new.
Since a dog can focus on only one task at a time, give his mind something to work on while he’s undergoing the new experience. If your dog has had obedience training, this could be as simple as holding him in a “sit” position. If he’s busy holding a “sit,” he doesn’t have the ability to focus on a train that may make him feel insecure. If he’s not that far advanced, you can distract him by attempting to show him how to sit, or by directing his attention to a treat in your pocket or to a toy.
The hours that you invest in proper socialization when your pup is in the open-window period will pay off in many years of rewarding companionship with a stable, dependable, enjoyable canine companion.
Dianna Young is a certified, professional dog trainer and canine behaviorist from Camano Island, where she operates Camano Island Kennels Dog Boarding and Training Facility. She can be reached at (360) 387-DOGS or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her web site address is http://www.camanoislandkennels.com. Or visit us at facebook.