What kinds of experiences do you need to provide your puppy?
Introduce to your pup the sounds, sights, smells, touch, people, other animals, situations and surfaces he or she is likely to encounter in life. Consider your lifestyle and make a list of common activities your dog will encounter. Many lists will include “vacuum cleaner,” “a visitor to our home,” “grooming appointments” or “running children.” One list may include “riding elevators,” while someone else’s list may include “horses and chickens.” Perhaps a trip to a shopping center, playground, puppy play group, public library, or cafe would fit the bill (here are more ideas.) There is no way to introduce everything the puppy will need to feel at ease about, but the idea is to at least come up with the most common things and provide happy exposure to those.
Many people say they “mess with” the puppy while she is eating or “mess with” or touch her paws and tail to accustom her to that. This may work out, or what they may be doing is teaching the puppy to find that kind of touch rather annoying (and then, paradoxically, they punish the puppy for reacting in annoyance). If your goal is not mere tolerance of human touch, but rather you’d like to have a dog who actually wags her tail when you take a food item away or trim her nails, why not build in the right kind of association from the start? Teach the pup to happily accept human hands coming at her by pairing it with some of her meal. It can mean the difference between a big battle over these issues and helping the dog feel at ease (if you were the pup, which would you prefer?).
We used to think we had to “alpha roll” puppies to teach them who was “dominant.” But like every field of knowledge, dog training and behavior has evolved. There are some approaches we continue with and some areas where we find a better, more up-to-date solution. Now we know that there is just no good reason to intimidate a dog in order to help him fit into your family or your life, or to show leadership. You certainly can do it, and many people do, but why go that route when there are alternatives? I think it is much more respectful of the dog, allows kids to be part of the training, and allows you to avoid unintended fallout of using physical intimidation in the name of teaching. It is easy to get started; just get one of the books listed to the right or use this list, and find a puppy class that uses modern, reward-based methods. You can still show leadership, create boundaries and meet expectations for good behavior. What have you got to lose by training in a way that works for both of you?
How to help your puppy if the exposure turns less than happy
Stress is part of life, so it’s okay for your pup to learn what happens when things get dicey. If your puppy balks or resists at any point, take it as information that you need to back up a step and pair an easier step with some of his meal, praise and/or a favorite toy. It is best to create trust with your dog rather than fear. Be patient and upbeat and go at your puppy’s pace. (Think of it this way: if the sight of a spider panicked you, I would not tell you to get over it and then put one down the back of your shirt. Not very effective, nor very kind.) Of course if your pup has a very strong reaction, contact your class instructor so you can pick the best plan of action for your particular puppy.
Don’t allow anyone to overwhelm your puppy (or pick him up without explicit instructions), especially if they are unfamiliar. For many reasons, well-meaning people you know and random strangers alike will mimic what they see on TV, what their neighbor told them, or what they remember about having a dog from 30 years ago. You will get all manner of unsolicited advice. The main thing to do is always allow your puppy to approach the person at his or her own pace, tell the person to pet under the chin or on the chest (they can feed treats, too, as can you), and if necessary be prepared to cheerfully say “let’s go” and encourage your pup to move away from the person. Most encounters go fine, but it always helps to have a plan in case you run into that extra enthusiastic person. (If you see a cute puppy or any dog, please ask the owner for permission before touching or interacting with their pooch.)
How often should you provide a happy exposure for your puppy?
I recommend your puppy have a field trip, new visitor, or new item from your list at least five times per week. That factors in a couple of days when you may be extra busy and gives the puppy a chance to have some calmer days. An outing doesn’t have to be any longer than 5-10 minutes, and it’s a lot less work than trying fix problems that otherwise might crop up later. An added bonus is that your puppy will likely behave like a dream the rest of the day, as the excitement of something new tends to wear them out a bit.
Puppy class certainly counts as a happy exposure, just be aware that, by itself, attending puppy class does not mean you have socialized your puppy. Class is a great way for you to learn about appropriate greetings and play between puppies, house training and bite inhibition, and basic training, and I highly recommend it. Going to the same class each week, with the same people and dogs, however, clearly only begins to help with your list. So do attend class and then practice what you learned the rest of the week in novel surroundings.
Remember, each person will have their own list depending on what they think life will have in store for their growing dog. Plan a happy new event at least five days a week. Make it fun by being encouraging, going at your puppy’s pace, and pairing encounters with meals or a favorite toy. Enjoy your curious little fuzzball, because adolescence is not far behind!