By Barbara Fawver
Welcome, puppy. No matter whether you will be a show dog, a field trial competitor, a hunting companion or a loving companion, your future should start with balls, squeaky toys, climbing obstacles and games of hide-and-seek. Children and seniors, backyards and basements, carpet and concrete, you have so much to experience and learn.
Puppy socialization focuses on that sliver of time to shape puppies toward becoming confident, well-mannered and cooperative adult dogs. “Puppies develop at a fast pace, so there is a small window of opportunity when they are from 5 to 16 weeks old to effect positive development,” says Pat Hastings, co-editor of “Another Piece of the Puzzle: Puppy Development.”
Hastings considers “bounce-back,” the ability to recover from first being afraid, as one of the most valuable behavioral traits a puppy learns. Socialization reduces the number of things in the world that frighten a puppy by continually providing the experience of first being afraid and then recovering. The more things a puppy experiences during critical socialization periods, the less bothered the puppy will be throughout life when confronted by new things.
“The ‘bounce-back’ is critical, which is why you must never feed into a puppy’s insecurities,” says Hastings, a prominent puppy evaluator and seminar presenter. “You have to ignore puppies’ first fear reaction and let them figure it out for themselves without interference from you. If you ignore it, they usually will too. The next time, they likely will not give it a second thought. This is the bounce-back.”
According to research by behaviorists Scott and Fuller,1 a dog’s behavioral makeup is 35 percent genetic and 65 percent due to socialization, nutrition, health care, training and management. In other words, socialization cannot change temperament, but it certainly plays a role in behavior modification.
Recent research at the Wolf Science Center in Ernstbrunn, Austria,2 has shown that dogs likely inherited the ability to be socially tolerant and attentive, characteristics that are crucial for cooperation, from wolves, their closest wild living relative. The researchers socialized dogs and wolves to humans and their respective species and found that wolves are highly socially attentive and tolerant and thus highly cooperative. They proposed a canine cooperation hypothesis suggesting that wolves provided a good basis for the evolution of dog-human cooperation and dogs’ ability to accept humans as social partners.
Although puppies are born with the ability to be cooperative social partners with humans, socialization is the key to success in helping them develop confidence and the ability to handle new situations. Opportunities that are missed during the critical socialization period puts puppies at risk of becoming shy, fearful, defensive adult dogs.
Animal behaviorist Fox3 showed that puppies exposed to increasingly complex stimuli, or enrichment, sought out complex environments and were dominant over “stimulus-poor” puppies. Those that lacked enrichment were inhibited, fearful and looked for less complex environments, and often compensated with self-destructive behaviors such as chewing and licking.
Puppy socialization sets the stage for a dog’s entire life. The socialization periods that Hastings identifies in “Another Piece of the Puzzle: Puppy Development” are:
- Curiosity Period (5 to 7 weeks): Now weaned, puppies are virtually fearless and thus ready to explore the world. They want to climb, crawl, investigate and taste everything. Their acceptance of people peaks at this time as they are becoming increasingly mobile. New challenges, such as first baths, grooming and trips outside the house, are ideal because puppies bounce back quickly if frightened by something new.
- Behavioral Refinement (7 to 9 weeks): Puppies are capable of learning anything despite their short attention spans. Learning is permanent at this age. Training should be structured on an individual basis, and puppies should form good habits, learn boundaries, and the rules of their new life. A stable, individualized learning environment is important.
- Fear Imprint (8 to 11 weeks): Between 8 and 9 weeks of age, puppies begin to be more cautious, even fearful of loud noises, sudden movements, strangers and discipline from other dogs or humans. If frightened during this period, it may take weeks to return to normal. In nonsocialized puppies, anything associated with fear at this age will be a fearful stimulus throughout life without extensive desensitization.
- Environmental Awareness (9 to 12 weeks): Puppies are starting to learn the right behaviors for the first time, significantly improving their motor skills and paying more attention to humans, and are busy learning about their new world. Behavior can be shaped very differently depending on what the owner expects from the puppy. If almost totally separated from other dogs, the human bond becomes strong. Puppies left with littermates often have trouble with separation anxiety and/or hyperexcitability.
- Seniority Classification (13 to 16 weeks): The age of independence, this is when a puppy begins to test dominance and leadership. Critical learning occurs now. Puppies that are allowed to bite, dominate children or resist activities such as leash training, nail cutting and removal of food possessions are less likely to develop into a well-behaved dog. Puppy classes are essential, and being handled and trained by a variety of people helps build self-confidence.
In a nutshell, the more puppies experience, the more accepting they become. In reality, socialization lasts the entire life of a dog. It should be consistent, firm but gentle, patient and loving. It starts during that sliver of time from 5 to 16 weeks of age.
“Socialization requires creativity and must occur during this critical period of development,” Hastings says. “There is no substitution for intensive and ongoing socialization for all puppies.”
1Scott JP, Fuller JL. Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. University of Chicago Press. 1998. (Originally published 1965)
2Range F, Viranyi Z. Tracking the Evolutionary Origins of Dog-Human Cooperation: The ‘Canine Cooperation Hypothesis.’ Frontiers in Psychology. Jan 15, 2015. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01582.
3Fox MW. Integrative Development of Brain and Behavior in the Dog. University of Chicago Press. 1971.