June 16, 2021

Keys to Puppy Socialization

by Lisa Johnson Gates


An enthusiastic labradoodle puppy bounds over to greet my pack of canines, with energy of a kid on ten cups of cappuccino. Beaming from excitement he has escaped captivity, his owner grabs the adolescent, apologizing, “Sorry, first time out. Just finished vaccinations.”  


A Great Dane puppy, the size of a small pony, runs behind his owner, tail between legs, trembling and fearful of a Basset Hound waddling up wearing bows and bells.  Perhaps some behaviors are DNA related. However, after twenty-five years of professional dog walking, I’ve noticed a clear indication that early puppy socialization is beneficial.  


Why is puppy socialization important? Scientists claim between ages six weeks and sixteen weeks, puppy’s brains are like tiny sponges – soaking up everything and filing it away for the future.  It’s an important time in social development for puppies but you must be diligent and careful, ensuring positive exposure. Just like humans, a negative childhood experience could damage a puppy for life.  My Great Grandma Dot enjoyed playfully kicking me across the room. Now I fear old ladies with big feet. 


New dog owners exclaim,“Coco can’t go out until fourteen weeks.  She’ll catch parvo and die!”  Waiting fourteen weeks ends up in tears of frustration, because Coco destroyed the house, peed on your husband’s new silk suite and ate your kid’s science project.  Without stimulation, puppies turn into the Tasmanian Devil, leading to an immense amount of wine consumption by owners.  Socializing your puppy can be done safely without fear of parvo.  


What’s puppy socialization?  It’s unmasking pups to everyday life with dogs, cats, horses, kids, trees, grass, garbage trucks, cars, parks, beaches, people, and your loud smelly pot-smoking, Dead Head neighbor Bob, who thinks Gerry Garcia is still alive.    


8 WEEKS TO 12/14 WEEKSFirst, educate yourself on the harmful diseases in the environment that can hurt your pup.  Canine parvovirus infection (“parvo”), Canine distemper and Leptospirosis, are three to keep in mind.  Puppies catch Parvo through sniffing, licking or eating contaminated Feces.  Distemper is an airborne disease and contractible through another infected animal. Leptospirosis is spread through stagnant water and infected soil.  Don’t let your puppy eat dirt or feces, drink stagnant water or interact with an unvaccinated dog or wild boars. 


PUPPY SLING/PACK WALKING: Kick-off your morning with puppy tucked into a puppy-pack or sling for a one-hour trek, exposing them to trees, barking neighborhood dogs, birds, squirrels and other visuals. You can purchase one on line or at a local pet store.  During the walk, let them down for a quick pee and poop. They will be captivated by sites and sounds, returning with less energy to dismantle your new red Rothy shoes.   


DOG WALKING GROUPS:  When an owner contacts me about their adolescent pooch, I suggest a puppy pack walk. It allows observation of dog interactions.  After little guy has completed his shots, introduction to the group happens with no issues, problems or fears.  Half pint trots along with other dogs displaying confidence as if he has been doing it for months, which he has but from a bird’s eye view.  Not all dog walkers offer this service but some might be willing to take on the job.  It’s a highly effective way of socializing safely.  


DOG PARKS:  Another fantastic way for observing dog behavior is to throw pup in the puppy-pack and visit dog parks. They offer entertainment for both you and your pup. Things can get interesting in a place, hosting a cast of characters from park gossiper (always on the lookout for a “new” and unsuspecting ear) to guy who’s in denial about his humping dog, “Waldo’s just playing.” A therapist’s gold mine of the psycho dynamics of individuals all coming together for the common good of dogs (or for a writer in need of material). 


CAR-RIDES:  Car rides acclimate him to the motion and noise of the car, as well as offering site-seeing opportunities.     


PARK PICNICS, YOUTH SPORTS GAMES:  Attend your kid’s soccer game or enjoy a picnic at a local park.  Bring a blanket for your pup to sit, protecting him from the dirt.


PUPPY DAYCARE:  Some cities have indoor puppy playgroups.  Visit the facility with your puppy.  You want a good fit and assurance the person in charge understands puppy socialization. 


PUPPY KINDERGARTEN:  Puppy obedience classes are a great way to meet other puppies and people.  Most classes have puppy play-time breaks. Instructors point out proper puppy behavior when engaging with other dogs, giving you useful tips.


OUTSIDE DINNING/DOG FRIENDLY BUSINESSES:  Visit dog-friendly businesses or an outdoor café with your pup safely inside the puppy pack. 


A routine of a couple puppy pack/sling hikes a day, car rides around town, store visits, exposure to youth sports practices and games, and dog park visits, results in a well-adjusted puppy.  


12 WEEKS to 16 WEEKS (vaccinations complete)Freedom for you and your canine couldn’t come quicker.  Purchase a lead line of fifteen to thirty feet long, allowing your puppy to roam freely but within a safe distance.  If little tike runs too far, you can real them right back to you.  Also, a useful training tool when teaching recall.   


DOG WALKING GROUPS:  A carefully chosen group of mature but gentle dogs can assist with successful socialization. Grown-up canines teach puppies pack behavior, building confidence and self esteem.  A puppies-only group isn’t a good idea.  Conceptionaly, it sounds great but from personal experience it’s a shit show of puppies gone wild.  


DOG PARKS: Avoid dog parks during high volume times.  Ensure dogs are puppy friendly.  Watch for your puppy acting nervous or overwhelmed.  It is your job to make the experience a positive and successful.  


HIKING TRAILS: A more controlled environment is walking on local trails, allowing your puppy to meet dogs one at time.  


If done correctly, the benefits of early socialization are immense to a dog’s psyche.  Dogs starting in a puppy pack at eight weeks, are the most confident, well socialized and happy dogs I walk in my groups. 




SMARTER DOG: Studies show early socialization can make your dog smarter. In Stanley Coren’s book, “The intelligence of Dogs,” psychologists at the University of California at Berkeley, showed that animals raised in enriched environments that included toys, complex architecture, other animals to interact with, problems to solve, changing sources of stimulation, actually had larger and heavier brains than animals raised in isolated laboratory conditions.  No one wants to have the dumb dog at the park.  


CONFIDENCE: In Matthew Gilbert’s book, “Off-Leash,” he writes about his puppy Toby gaining confidence every time he went to the dog park. “He grew more comfortable within a social pack. He was getting validation and self assurance from other dogs that he wouldn’t get from humans.”  


CALMER AND HAPPIER:  A routine of puppy pack walks and interaction with others, will assure a happy, calm puppy.  Seeing a peaceful, content puppy is undeniable pleasure.  Plus, it saves money on less wine consumption. 


EASIER TO TRAIN AND BETTER LISTENERS:  As a mother of thirteen-year old twin boys, when tired from socializing with friends, they are better listeners and easier to train.  A tired puppy isn’t looking for the next thing to chew or destroy but makes eye contact with you, listening to directions.  Unless they are Goldendoodle, then talk quickly.  


Whether through a dog walking group or carrying your puppy around your neighborhood, the best way to raise a confident, happy puppy and smarter one, is to expose them to other dogs and the world at a very young age. 


The more you put into your pup, the more you will get out of him.


Lisa is a free-lance writer and a professional dog walker in San Francisco, serving high end clients of Pacific Heights.  She spends a lot of time bagging puppy poop and screaming “Come baaack” to some mutt who’s disappeared into the underbrush.  Lisa grew up in Darien, Connecticut with a circus-worthy menagerie; a Golden Retriever, two fat, lazy Basset Hounds, cats, rabbits and ducks who produced too quickly to count, a horse who was often found inside the house, and a goat who preferred to sleep in the car; thus she developed a passion for animals along with a wicked sense of humor. 


You can follow her on twitter @LisaJGates and Instagram @barksidetales


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