I listed socialization as my first ingredient in the perfect puppy recipe, probably because it is the single most important thing that you can do for your puppy and your time to do it is limited. Socialization prepares your puppy for everything he will encounter during his life with you. Unfortunately, there is a small window of opportunity to do this. Your puppy can be easily socialized between the ages of 3 to 12 weeks but, once that window closes, socialization becomes more difficult.
Puppies that haven’t been exposed to a wide variety of good experiences, may have problems coping in new situations or with new things. They may develop a fear of certain things or people and can even become aggressive. Just exposing puppies to new things isn’t enough; the experiences must be pleasant.
Think socialize not traumatize! If the puppy is frightened and overwhelmed you are going in the wrong direction. Watch your puppy for signs that he isn’t enjoying his socialization experience (i.e., any of the following: ears back, tail tucked, crouching, attempting to escape or hide, avoiding eye contact, yawning or showing the whites of the eye). If you see any of these things either remove the puppy from the situation or make it easier by reducing the number of things he is seeing (people, animals) or increasing the distance between the puppy and the object he is nervous about.
Never try to force a scared puppy to do anything! Encourage him and try to make whatever it is seem less scary instead. You can feel free to comfort the puppy too. That old adage about reinforcing fear is an impossibility. When dogs (or people for that matter) are scared or in any emotional state, learning (which takes place in the pre-frontal cortex) is impaired by neurochemicals that prepare the body for fight or flight.
Your puppy must be exposed to people, places, things, sights, smells, sounds, and other animals (especially other dogs). For each of these individual things, think variety! For instance, how many different types of people can your puppy meet, and in how many different places? Tall people, short people, men with beards, people with floppy hats and mirrored sunglasses, people wearing helmets, and uniforms, etc., must all be part of the program. Take your puppy to visit the local police station or fire department. Sit out in front of Starbucks with your puppy and coffee and see how many people you can meet! Bring treats with you so that people can offer the puppy something yummy to sweeten the deal.
Do things at different times of the day and night. Walking in the neighborhood during the daylight is different than walking in the dark. You may find that in the dark, that trashcan that went unnoticed earlier is suddenly your puppy’s boogeyman. Sounds are important too, like blow dryers or vacuum cleaners.
Of course your puppy must also be able to get along with dogs and other puppies. Puppy kindergarten is an ideal place to socialize. Young puppies should NOT go to dog parks. Remember that not all dogs are friendly and you should have plenty of information about the dog before you entrust them with your impressionable young friend. Its ok to say no if any dog your puppy is about to meet looks threatening or is overly excited (i.e., jumping, pulling, lunging) about seeing your puppy.
Get your puppy out and acquainted with the world! Time is wasting!