New puppies are curious, inquisitive little sponges, soaking up experiences and information about the world. They also, it is widely held, have a so-called “critical period” of social development up until approximately age sixteen weeks. So when should you take your puppy into the world? The answer is, right away!
You may be wondering about advice you’ve heard regarding vaccinations. Most veterinarians now recommend early and frequent socialization opportunities, even if the puppy has not finished all vaccinations. Veterinarians who are board certified in behavior, in fact, say the risk of your puppy dying from exposure to a virus is far less likely than death from euthanasia due to behavior problems later on that might have been prevented through planned exposures to novel people, places, other animals, and things.
Here is the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior position statement on puppy socialization and vaccines. In a nutshell, they say that puppies can attend puppy classes starting at 7-8 weeks of age. They say pups should receive a first deworming and a set of vaccines a week before they attend class. They should meet as many new people, dogs, and environments as possible. For complete instructions on how to socialize your puppy correctly and exactly what do do if he is bold or bashful, see the new book recommended by veterinarians, trainers, shelter experts, breeders and behaviorists, Puppy Savvy: The Pocket Guide to Raising Your Dog Without Going Bonkers. In the meantime, here are some tips to get you started.
If you are uneasy about making the change to the new recommendations, I advise taking the pup with you and just not setting him on the ground. You can keep him or her on your lap, in your arms, or on a huge blanket so the pup can take in the sights, sounds and people you encounter.
Your job is to make sure the puppy is not merely exposed to new things, but rather that that her little puppy tail is wagging out of happiness most of the time you are out. To achieve this, don’t stand by and watch your puppy. Be involved. Pair her interactions with others with a cheerful, confident, upbeat attitude, along with plenty of treats and a favorite toy.
I don’t recommend letting strangers pick your puppy up, or even pet her until they agree to do so in a way that will most benefit the pup: only if the pup comes to them, and then only under the chin or on the chest. Not everyone will do it right, so if someone comes on too strong and your pup should need encouragement, be quick to say, “What a brave puppy!” in a happy tone and if necessary be on your way.
Here are some more reasons to take your pup out into the world with you as soon as you bring her home at 7 or 8 weeks of age. Doing so will provide a chance to:
- create happy associations with the types of experiences your pup will need to take in stride as an adult.
- tire your puppy out. Mental stimulation is just as important as physical exercise. You’ll be amazed how much calmer your pup is after a field trip or visiting with new people.
- get your puppy to the veterinarian’s office, just for fun.
- teach your puppy how normal, and even fun, car rides can be.
- have a mildly stressful experience or two and bounce back from it, just like will occur throughout your dog’s life.
Next up: ideas for where to take your puppy, how often you should go, and whether puppy class will meet your little fuzzball’s socialization needs.