Larry, our Chinook puppy, just turned 14 weeks old. The five weeks that we've had him seem like a lifetime - that is, it feels as if he's been ours forever. As exhausting as it is to have an active, as yet untrained puppy, the past few weeks have been filled with adventures designed for Larry's future. These important weeks before he turns 4 months old are referred to as the "Socialization Period" - the critical time in a puppy's life.
Socialization involves exposing a puppy to a wide variety of experiences, including different environments, people of all ages, dogs of various ages and breeds, as well as other species a dog might need to co-exist with throughout his or her life, such as cats, horses or sheep. Socialization increases a dog's sociability, helps establish a stable temperament (provided the dog is genetically predisposed to stability), broadens a dog's tolerance for new experiences and increases the dog's ability to handle stressful situations.Over the years, we've met with countless pet owners whose dogs have had issues related to lack of socialization, including dogs in our Doggie Day Care that have not been well-socialized with other dogs. We have had mixed success helping these dogs overcome their lack of early socialization. Some are able to get over their shyness to a certain extent and some learn to play well with other dogs, while some never become comfortable, behaving fearfully or even aggressively in new situations and around dogs. The root cause of this problem - lack of socialization -is 100 percent preventable.
The importance of socialization is well-supported by scientific studies, especially for dogs between the ages of 8 weeks and 16 weeks - Larry's age. Among the things Larry has experienced are visits to friends and family, including different houses and different environments where he meets other dogs (always making sure the dog is "puppy friendly") and people of different ages and sizes.
I've taken Larry for walks in the woods, where he explored this new environment, cautiously approaching a stream. Seeing him investigate the running water for the first time was interesting. At first, he was puzzled by the different surface, unsure if it was safe to touch. He visibly worked up his courage to try stepping into the water with his front feet, immediately backing out. But once his feet were wet, and he didn't mind it, he happily cavorted in the shallow brook. Very cute and fun to watch!In addition to country environments, I've taken Larry downtown in Manchester, and two weeks ago we spent time in Boston, walking around the streets and in Boston Common. He was unfazed by the noise and city sounds and was approached by many people who wanted to pet him. Puppies are definitely "people magnets." He met a class of preschoolers, saw bicycles, skate boards and even a park ranger on a horse. Larry was cautious about approaching the horse, but did just fine around it - that is, until the horse whinnied. That was a bit much for him.I've tried to be careful not to put Larry in situations that would be too much for him. At first, he was cautious in new situations, but once he had acclimated, he was fine. So as not to overwhelm him, potentially increasing his fear, I let him take his time and get accustomed to each new thing. Over the weeks, his confidence has increased. Now when he meets something new, he pretty much takes it in stride - which is precisely the goal of socialization.
Early socialization helps a dog to be able to fully enjoy life. Even once this short period ends, I'll continue to take Larry to new places - enjoying sharing our life with him, knowing that because of his early socialization, new experiences won't faze him. Socialization will help him to grow up as an outgoing, confident dog who is a pleasure to have around.
Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. If you would like a topic addressed in this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write c/o All Dogs Gym & Inn, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. You'll find past columns on her website, www.alldogsgym.com.