Breeders Round Table: Puppy Socialization

What is puppy socialization and why is it important?


A question for our dog breeder’s round table. . . .

Breeders participating in the round table have different levels of experience with different breeds, but have several things in common: they study their breeds, produce dogs that participate in dog sports and activities, protect breed health by using genetic screening for disease and structural abnormalities, and care more about the quality of the home for a puppy than for the money or prestige it brings.

What is puppy socialization and why is it important?

“Socialization,” a term long familiar to breeders, has become an undefined or poorly defined buzzword used to separate breeders into categories. Good breeders socialize their puppies; poor breeders don’t even know that puppies need socialization.

So, what is socialization? Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines “socialize” as “to make social; adjust to or make fit for cooperative group living.” Socialization is the process of “making social.”

Here’s how members of our breeder’s forum apply ‘socialization” to the rearing of puppies.

Richard and Melody Greba, German Shepherd Dog breeder, Verona, Kentucky

A German Shepherd is a highly intelligent breed capable of a multitude of tasks. If you fill his mind with information and develop his confidence, you will develop the most cherished relationship that you will ever enjoy with a dog! The beginning of this great relationship is with the breeder, but it doesn’t stop there.

Puppy socialization and the exposure to different environments are multi-faceted. From the time the puppies reach four-to-five weeks old they should have the opportunity for exploration. At this early age, puppies learn at an incredibly quick pace. As a pack, puppies will gain confidence, and as they mature, each puppy will learn independence.

Puppies normally go into their new homes at age seven or eight weeks; by this age, well-socialized puppies have already seen an assortment of things, heard different noises, and taken in different smells, making them very advanced and more adaptable.

It is the new owner’s responsibility to continue the development of his puppy. Puppies grow in stages, and these stages make smoother transitions with a confident puppy.

Owners should continue the exposure through the next eight-to-16 weeks by allowing the puppy to investigate his own environment (home) and other environments (away from home). Walks in the woods and exposure to livestock and cats is beneficial at this age. Socialization around other dogs is a different issue.

When taking an eight-week-old German Shepherd puppy from his littermates, it is important to establish a good human-dog relationship, particularly if the dog is purchased for competing in an activity or as a potential working dog. The connection that a GSD makes with his owner will carry him through activities with the least amount of conflict and with the strongest desire to please his owner. An owner who is active and fulfills his dog’s activity needs will have the greatest companion. An eight-week-old GSD puppy that goes from littermates to a home with other dogs will bond with whoever gives him the most individual attention and fun activity, which is often times the other dog.

Socialization with strange dogs is important once the puppy is current with vaccinations. It is vital that the GSD puppy’s owner knows the other dog so that his puppy does not receive a bad experience. Do not assume that all dogs will like your puppy, as many dogs do not like any other dogs. Allowing brief interaction with docile adults or another puppy of a similar age, will satisfy your dog’s needs to meet others like himself and lower his guard of the ‘unknown’ dog. It is common for a three-and-a-half or four-month-old (and older) GSD puppy to bark aggressively at other dogs. Docile and non-dog aggressive dogs will help neutralize this behavior through light-hearted interaction.

Socialization with strangers is critically important for GSDs. Regardless of whether the dog will be a working dog, competition dog or family pet, socialization through positive reinforcement is essential. A GSD should not act aggressively without provocation. Owners can socialize these GSD puppies by allowing them (not pushing or pulling) to approach other people and encouraging these people to give the puppy a quick treat to reinforce the approach. This is important for a GSD during the first year and sometimes two years of his life. Without these opportunities, a GSD can become a fear-biter that will not protect you reliably and may become a serious liability.

Most owners of working dogs, whether involved in search and rescue, therapy, police canines, or other pursuits, understand the importance of exposure to other environments, dogs, and people. Working dogs are generally neutral and reliable in public; it is pets that often lack the necessary social skills and ultimately cause problems for the veterinarians, boarding kennels, neighbors etc. A German Shepherd is a breed whose reputation is both embraced and feared. With proper guidance through his development, a German Shepherd will be a positive example of the breed; without this guidance, the reputation of the German Shepherd suffers.

Dr. Tracy Leonard, Basenji breeder and veterinarian, Dayton, Ohio

As a puppy matures, it is important that he is familiarized with humans and the world outside his immediate home. This is puppy socialization; it includes interacting with people in the puppy’s immediate family and also with people outside the family unit. He should be comfortable with men and women and also adults and children.

The same division of socialization can be true with regard to animals, i.e., dogs (and other pets such as cats) that are in the family unit and those animals that are outside the immediate household. If a puppy fails to be properly socialized with any of these groups, it can be disastrous for the rest of the dog’s life.

A puppy that is not properly socialized can grow up to be a fearful dog. Unfortunately, a frightened dog that is pushed too far can end up attacking out of that fear. He can attack the dog that he fears; worse yet, he could attack a human.

Puppy kindergarten at a local obedience school can fulfill this vital part of a dog’s training. Puppy socialization is important because it teaches a young dog to cope with and be comfortable in his surroundings and in human society.

Gale Snoddy, Borzoi breeder, Milford, Ohio

Socialization is a process where the puppy is exposed to people, other animals, different places and various circumstances. Through these exposures, the puppy learns about the world around it and how it is expected to behave in that world. It can gain self-assurance and the skills necessary to thrive in its co-habitation with humans. A well-socialized dog is a better companion, show dog, or working dog like the search and rescue dogs.

If one doubts the need for proper puppy socialization, you need only to visit a local animal shelter. Many of the dogs there have been unable to fit into their homes due to lack of proper socialization; a failure of humans, not the dogs.

Socialization begins at birth, and continues for most of the dog’s life. When the puppy is born, we breeders are rubbing the puppy, checking it over, kissing it on the nose. This is a several times daily routine, usually as important for us as it is the dog. When the puppy is 21 days old it will begin to learn, and then the contact with humans becomes critical for that puppy — the feel, the smell, the sound, the sight of people.

By the time the puppy leaves the breeder at eight weeks of age or older, it will have been exposed to a number of people, different places (as simple as different rooms of the house and different parts of the yard) and new situations. It will have learned some basic manners, limitations (fingers are not edible!) and perhaps some basic obedience commands (sit, down, come). It will have learned about nail trims and teeth exams. And critically, by interaction with its mother and littermates, it will have learned much about acceptable behavior within a family unit.

This is only the start of the socialization process. The puppy will need to learn many new things and how to behave in new circumstances. Puppy kindergarten is an excellent venue for such lessons for the young puppy. As the puppy grows, continued exposure to a wider range of people, places, and animals is critical. It may be lots of work, but it’s worth it!

Susan Wagner, Newfoundland breeder, Hillsboro, Ohio

The socialization of puppies comes from two sources, human and canine. The first acts of socialization come from the interaction between mother and puppies and between littermates. Watch a good mother teach her puppies what is acceptable behavior; they quickly grasp the concept! How puppies react within their litter is important to how they develop later in life.

Once the mother’s work is well underway, it is our turn as breeders to assist the process. Exposure to as many different noises, sights, smells and experiences is vital to producing a stable, well-tempered puppy. Car rides, collars, walking on leash, cats, other breeds of dogs, children, high pitched voices and crates all are seemingly simple, everyday stimuli that we expect our dogs to respond favorably to. We often take for granted that these are all new and therefore potentially threatening experiences for a puppy. When some one they have learned to trust exposes them to the new experience, it reduces the stress and can be quickly viewed in a favorable light.

Puppy socialization does not stop with the breeder. It is important that a new owner continue to reinforce positive new experiences. Puppy kindergarten is a wonderful chance for puppies to meet other young dogs of different breeds in a new and different environment. Trips to the various pet supply stores that allow dogs inside is another opportunity to experience new sights, smells and sounds.

A well socialized puppy is one that is happy, confident and reacts favorably to any situation he encounters on his journey through life.

Paula Drake, Akita breeder, Cincinnati, Ohio

The period between three and 16 weeks is very critical in a dog’s development. This time is referred to by dog experts as the canine socialization period. During this time, a puppy learns about the world in which he lives. Everything is a first impression. Everything is a new experience. From these first experiences a puppy’s memory is developed.

A puppy is part genetics and part environmental experiences. A reputable breeder has done his part in producing puppies with strong, stable genetic predispositions. At three weeks, a puppy is ready to be molded by each new day and all it brings. It is very important that the breeder expose the young puppy to a safe, happy world full of stimulation, gentle challenges, and positive rewards.

Learning during this socialization period is permanent. The puppy carries those first impressions throughout life. It is so important these socialization experiences be positive.

Specifics learned during this period include learning how to play. The mother dog teaches the basics, then the puppy tries its new skills with its littermates. Then the breeder introduces toys, reinforcing the fun and reward in playing by the rules. Other important socialization skills to be learned include housebreaking (being a neat dog), spending time in a dog crate (having some quiet time), walking on a leash and coming when called (knowing who is boss), and fitting in with the pack (learning respect for family members).

By seven or eight weeks a puppy may be ready to expand its world from the breeder’s home to its own home. A breeder knows when each individual puppy is ready to leave the comfort of its litter. The breeder then matches each puppy with a home suited for each puppy’s temperament. It is imperative the new family continue with daily socialization and positive new experiences.

The most stable dog is the one who has had a multitude of good first experiences. This dog knows what is normal and what is not. This dog knows humans are good, can be trusted, and will provide food, warmth, and love.

Shaping a puppy during the socialization period is all up to us. With our love and understanding a puppy will develop to its full potential. Nothing less should be acceptable. It is the best chance for a dog to have a long healthy life in one home and not end up losing its home because of behavioral problems – problems that could have easily been avoided with proper socialization as a puppy followed by additional socialization and training in the new home. When such problems develop, who is at fault? The dog?

(Breeder's roundtable)

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